Options Talent Group

This story was first telecast on 5/13/02 and 5/14/02 and has not been updated.

Options Talent Group:
An I-Team  Investigation

Options Talent Group calls itself the largest model scouting company in the world. They have offices in almost every major market in the country, including Atlanta.

The publicly-traded company is based in Orlando, Florida, also the home of several major vacation theme parks. That makes sense, because an undercover I-Team investigation discovered Options operating its own version of Fantasyland.

The Pitch

Options' sales pitch is simple: they help make dreams come true. The company offers people interested in modeling or acting a chance for exposure. They will put your picture on their website,  where they say thousands of modeling agencies and advertisers are able to search for your special look. 

The cost? We were told $595 up front, plus $19.95 a month. We found 33-thousand pictures on Options site, including about 1300 from Atlanta.

In fact, before new owners took over the company, Options was known as eModels. In just six months, according to its SEC filing, the company reported revenue of nearly $5 million.

Scouting

To get those new faces, Options sends out commission scouts in each market. Former scouts say they're told to approach someone they think would make a good model or actor and hand them an Options business card, urging them to come to an Options open call.

Former scouts tell the I-Team that's where the seduction starts.

The Open Call

We wanted to find out just how selective Options really is. Carrying hidden cameras, the I-Team sent a family into an Options open call, telling them a 10-year-old girl had been scouted. It didn't take long for the Options employee to notice a second girl in our group. She was scouted right on the spot. Both agreed to be evaluated. We joined about 20 others already in the room.

When it came time for the evaluation, the Options office manager had each of our two 10-year-olds walk down the aisle while the song "I'm Too Sexy" played in the background. 

Someone took a couple of digital photos of each girl. We told them earlier not to show any interest in being a model. The company e-mailed the photos to the Orlando corporate office and told us someone would be calling to conduct a phone interview. That's where we discovered the true motive of the evaluation.

The Phone Interview

When the Options talent executive called from Orlando, she didn't know she was really talking to I-Team reporter Randy Travis. She told Randy both girls were gorgeous. "I think she definitely has the look that she's going to do well in either acting or modeling... 'cause with children, it's going to be a variance of both. She could do commercials, she could do sitcoms, she could do printwork for toys like Barbie who we work with, Disney who we work with, Pokeman who we work with."

Do well in either acting or modeling? How can a company say that without even having a conversation with the model?

When we pressed Options later, they couldn't tell us who they work with at Pokeman. A Disney spokesman told us they have nothing to do with Options. We did find one model who said she once dressed like a Barbie to hand out promotional material at the mall.

The Options talent executive also stressed that an adult got to travel for free when the child got any out-of-town assignments. "We have agencies all over the world, so there are going to be opportunities that are going to require you to travel. But it's very flexible to you."

The company never guaranteed work, but listen to what the corporate talent executive told Randy when he asked how quickly the girls would make back the $595 that he'd have to pay for each child.

Randy: "So you think they'll get the money back fast?"

Options: "Yeah, I do."

Randy: "Honestly?"

Options: "Yeah."

Randy: "You're honest."

Options: "Yes, I'm being extremely honest."

She also said we had to make a decision during that phone conversation, otherwise it would be "close to a year" before they would approach us again. Sound like high pressure sales? Well, as it turns out, Options doesn't exclude anyone.

The Company Responds

Brian Anderson, a marketing consultant for Options, told us the company actually accepts anyone who agrees to pay the 595 dollars. The company's position is that they are not a modeling agency. All they do is provide possible models for those agencies. The way Options sees it, there are modeling or acting jobs for people no matter what they look like. According to an Options vice president, "who are we to say who can potentially make it and who can't?"

Options' corporate people said they should be the ones to answer our questions, not the Atlanta office director. So we traveled to Orlando, only to discover the company actually had something else in mind.

The Ambush

When the I-Team walked into Options' Orlando office for the interview, we were met by a woman who called herself "Shelley," and her own 4-person video crew. She immediately began asking us questions, about our interest in Options, why we were doing the story, exactly who we were trying to help.  She claimed to be working for an independent production company, putting together a "documentary on investigative reporting."

Instead, she and her crew constantly interrupted our questioning of Options vice president Ryan Saniuk. 

One crew member poked at our photographer with his equipment. Was Options behind this? Were they trying to provoke us? If so, it didn't work. We stayed until we realized Options had no real desire to provide us information we had been requesting for weeks, such as names of Options models from Atlanta who actually got contracts from Atlanta modeling agencies. Out of 1300 Atlanta models on their website, the company could not give us a single success story.

The Truth

As it turns out, "Shelley" was no impartial reporter. We discovered her name is actually Michele Fields. 

And what's her real job? Not television. She owns two Options franchises, one in San Francisco, the other in San Jose. Options still insists she's working on a documentary independently of them.

The Scouts

Options showed us a videotape shot on an Options-sponsored cruise. It shows several models and Options scouts saying they love the company. Options would not tell us whether any Atlanta people were on the tape. But we talked to many former scouts in Atlanta who say they answered the company's ad for a "dream job"... only to discover that dream... was built on deception.

The ad promised up to 75-thousand dollars a year to work as an Options scout. Instead, former scouts say the company paid them 20 dollars for each time they handed out a business card to a potential model and only if that model signed up with the company. 

Turnover is so high, the Atlanta office has held weekly mass job interviews. During a four-month period in 2002, Atlanta's office director Steven Layne estimated he hired more than 300 scouts, because so many did not take advantage of their "dream job."

The Advisory Board

Options also lists some impressive industry names on its advisory board, including two famous actors, Don Johnson and Martin Landau. Options faxed us a letter from Landau agreeing to be on the advisory board in exchange for stock options. But Don Johnson's publicist told us Johnson never agreed to be part of Options. The company told us it was a handshake deal, an explanation his publicist said was wrong. Johnson's lawyer even sent the company a letter, demanding they remove his name and photograph from their site. Options did, but they claim Johnson actually resigned from the board. Their explanation: the I-Team harassed him into quitting.

The Modeling Contract

We talked to several Atlanta modeling agencies. They said the key to making money in the business is to be represented by an agency. Virtually everyone on the Options site is listed as "unrepresented." Three local agents looked at Options' site and told us spending $595 would be "a waste of money" because they didn't think agents and advertisers would really use the site.

So Who Uses Options?

During our undercover visit, Atlanta office manager Steven Layne told freshly-scouted models that lots of agencies use Options models. "Elite, Wilhelmina, IMG, Ford Model Management...." he said.

All of those are legitimate modeling agencies. But not all of them use Options. An IMG spokesperson told us they've never booked an Options model. Neither has Elite-Atlanta. A Wilhelmina official told us they've signed two Options models. That's two out of 33,000 on their site. Ford Model Management hasn't signed any Options talent to contracts, but owner Candy Ford says they've used "hundreds" for promotional work, like handing out items at trade shows. She couldn't tell us how many Atlanta models she's hired.

Options later said it was another Elite office outside of Georgia that used Options talent, but they wouldn't tell us where.

What Should You Do?

If you truly are interested in modeling, check out local modeling agencies with the Better Business Bureau. The reputable ones will give you an honest evaluation. They should not charge you any money. They make their money by taking a percentage of the work they find for you. For more information, or to file a complaint, visit the Federal Trade Commission website.

If you feel a modeling company has taken advantage of you, you can also contact your local Better Business Bureau. If you live in Georgia, also contact the Governor's Office of Consumer Affairs at 404-656-3790.

This story was reported by Randy Travis, photographed and researched by Tony D'Astoli and edited by Chris Dixon.

You can reach Randy at
rtrav428@foxtv.com 

I-TEAM TIP LINE: 404-898-0242

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