By Daniel Miller Los Angeles Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Charging parents to give their children access to modeling and entertainment jobs is a growing worry among industry experts and law enforcement officials.
Los Angeles Times
Amelia Su-Lin Crawford stood near the corner of the ballroom and handed out coupons to Little T's Boutique, a children's clothing store.
It was the day before the Oscars, and the model, 8 years old, was working for one of several companies gathered at an Academy Awards gifting suite, where TV personalities and other performers collected swag from businesses while posing for photographers.
To attend the event in Hollywood, Amelia's mother, Amanda Crawford, said she paid $1,000 to fashion designer Tiffany Cooper, the owner of Little T's.
Crawford, of Corona, Calif., brought her daughter to the February event to meet VIPs who might advance her modeling and acting career. The fee gave Amelia access to the suite and a sleeveless pink-and-gray dress that she wore there, Crawford said. She later received two more dresses.
Crawford said the half day of work was a "waste of time, completely," because it didn't generate any modeling or acting gigs _ as she said Cooper claimed it would. "Nothing came from it; nothing will come from it," Crawford said.
Cooper disputed her allegations.
At a time of pervasive reality TV and social media, when anyone thinks they can become stars, there has been an influx of businesses in the modeling industry that cater to people who dream of becoming the next Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid.
Little T's, based in Trenton, Ill., is one of a few businesses operated by fashion designers that make money by charging families for items such as clothing or photographs in exchange for the chance to work at a runway show, gifting suite or photo shoot. Another designer, Fremont, Calif.-based Nancy Vuu, sent an email soliciting parents to pay thousands of dollars for their model children to appear in a short film.
Charging parents to give their children access to modeling and entertainment jobs is a growing worry among industry experts and law enforcement officials.
"This practice, especially since it involves children, is particularly disconcerting and potentially unlawful," Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said. "I encourage anyone with information to contact our office so we can take appropriate action."
The fees charged by these designers range from a few hundred dollars to $15,000, according to the designers' solicitations and parents. Some of the designers have connected their businesses to entertainment events such as the Oscars and the Cannes Film Festival, which parents said made the ventures seem more credible.
"I'm disappointed that the margins of the fashion world are stooping to those kinds of lows," said Susan Scafidi, the academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School.
Established agents who represent child models said their clients are forbidden from paying for dresses or other items that give them access to fashion events. "It is pay-to-work, they are working," said agent Lindsay Stewart, president of Zuri Model and Talent Agency, which represents about 1,200 child models in Los Angeles and New York. "These types of things, you are blowing your money. It isn't going to get you anywhere."
Responding to questions submitted via email, Cooper defended her practices. She said most of her clients are new to the fashion industry and that some have been successful, landing agents and appearing in major magazines. Her company's Facebook page features testimonials from satisfied customers.
"If parents want to pay for their child to have clothing, make new friends, build their confidence, travel the world, and have a good time, who are we to say that is wrong?" Cooper said.
As for Crawford's claims, Cooper said in an email: "Buyer's remorse is not covered by my NO refund policy," adding that the only promise she makes to clients who attend gifting-suite events is that they'll get the chance to be seen by producers, actors, magazine editors and others.
Stewart said she does not scout for new clients at gifting suites and knows of no other agents or casting directors who do.
"I've never even been," she said, adding that buying dresses like the ones sold by Little T's will not help child models' careers.
Even one fashion professional who has benefited from some of Cooper's clients has questioned her practices. Makeup artist Gabriela Banda, who was hired by parents to prepare their children for the gifting suite, said the arrangement immediately raised red flags. "To me, it was odd," she said. "There was a large sum of money being paid. I didn't like it, I thought parents were being taken advantage of."
Loyola Law School adjunct professor David Fischer said the fashion designers' businesses could be exploiting some parents' ignorance of how the industry works, and their desire to help their kids.
"You have parents who decide, 'My kid is going to be next Heidi Klum,'" Fischer said. "It would shock the conscience if a company knowingly took money from such parents and would not be producing successful models."
Little T's Boutique is far from the fashion districts of New York, Paris or Milan. Trenton is a small town in Illinois with a population of about 3,000.
But Cooper has convinced families from across the country that she can give them access to the upper echelons of the fashion industry. Six mothers who paid for Cooper's services said she made promises that she couldn't keep, pressed them into spending money or sold them clothing that was not custom-made by the designer.
Crawford said that as she watched her daughter work at the Oscars gifting suite, which was not sanctioned by the organization that puts on the Academy Awards, it became apparent that Amelia wouldn't be discovered there.
"I realized, hey wait ... what was I thinking?" Crawford said.
Soon after, Crawford decided against paying for her daughter to work at fashion events. Now Amelia has a manager and a commercial agent, and has recently worked as an extra on TV shows such as FX's "Baskets." In October, Amelia walked in a runway show put on by Avant Garde Magazine in downtown L.A. She wasn't paid, but she got to keep the outfit she wore on the runway.
Amy Marcello said she spent $500 to buy custom clothing made by Cooper for her children Bella, 12, and Marco, 9. Last year, Marco was scheduled to wear Cooper's designs during a charity fashion show in Chicago. Marco is autistic, Marcello said, and walking the runway is a positive experience for him. "He loves the spotlight," she said.
Marcello said that for Marco to participate, she was required to buy the clothes from Cooper. But Marcello said the suit was of poor quality and did not fit Marco well when he tried it on, reducing him to tears. "I [was] fuming mad," she said. "Because I am a single mom. I really didn't have the money to spend ... . I sold furniture at my house to make this trip happen."
She said she turned down Cooper's offer to fix the suit on the spot. "I pulled Marco from the show," Marcello said. "Because I could definitely tell that his outfit was not custom-made by Tiffany."
Marcello said she noticed that one tag had been removed from the suit. She said she later determined the garment was one sold by Burlington Coat Factory.
She complained to PayPal and later received a refund from her bank, her financial records show.
Fischer said a situation like the one described by Marcello is legally questionable "if families can show that they were told they were getting dresses of a certain quality, couture, and it emerges that they were merely being given dresses that one could buy off a Kmart rack."