Alexis Burke, Francesca Trombley, and Averie Schrier went through the Barbizon modeling and acting program in hopes of getting discovered. Burke's parents ended up spending $30,000 on her and her twin sister. Elite Model Management's Neal Hamil advises hopefuls to save their money. "Only a small percent will ever be working models," he says.
By Chris Hansen Correspondent
NBC News
updated 4/12/2009 6:24:20 PM ET 2009-04-12T22:24:20
TRANSCRIPT

For a lot of girls, it's the ultimate fantasy: to be discovered and make it big as a model or actress.

There are people who offer everything — from classes, to meetings with casting agents — to help make that dream come true.

Some parents are willing to pay thousands of dollars to help their daughters... but do they always get their money's worth?

For some, the dream takes hold with an advertisement.

George Burke, parent:  It all started when my daughter saw an ad in a paper we knew nothing about. 

George and Deborah Burke are the parents of twins Alexis and Alezea. Alexis started the ball rolling when she filled out an ad for a modeling and acting school. She found the ad in the back of a teen magazine.

It was for Barbizon, a 70-year-old company that started as a charm school. It now sells modeling and acting school franchises that are individually owned and operated.

George Burke: So everyday she was asking where the mail was. So one day she came back so she got accepted to go to this Barbizon thing. My wife said, "Well, you know, she took the incentive as a 9-year-old to go ahead and do this.  I mean, how can I tell my 9-year-old kid no?"

Joan Schrier and Anna Trombley also have children with big dreams and they too wanted to support their kids.

Anna Trombley, parent: I believed in her.  I believed she could do it. 

Joan Schrier, parent: I think both my kids do have the "it" factor. 

Joan Schrier's son is 9 years old, and her daughter is 14. 

Joan Schrier:  I think my daughter has a great personality. She has the height.  I think she could be good if she pursues this. 

And so, they let their girls try out for the Barbizon school and then they waited.

Alezea Burke, model hopeful: We had to tell them our age and turn around and walk. They said they'd call you back.

The next day, the phone rang...

Francesca Trombley, model hopeful: They called [me] and said [I was] accepted into Barbizon school.

All of them were accepted.

The girls showed us some of the moves they'd learned.

Anna Trombley: They told us she had "the look."

Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent: "The look"?

Anna Trombley: Yeah.  A look for television.  And with a little more training that she could go on to further herself with this business.

The training consists of twelve classes over four to six months.

Alezea Burke, model hopeful: It was okay. There was a lot of girls in there so we were crowded.

Alexis Burke, model hopeful: We had to take these classes, like how to do your make-up, how to eat, like where to put your fork and your knife and your plate... and how to model, how to walk, and pose... that kind of stuff.

But as you may have imagined, there was a catch: one with a lot of zeros behind it. A woman from Barbizon explained it to them.

George Burke: She told me it was $3,600.

Hansen: $3,600?

George Burke: That was just to go to Barbizon.

Joan Schrier: Between $1,200 and $1,500 for the Barbizon classes.

Anna Trombley: Basically the schooling for Barbizon cost us of over $3,000.

That's for a lifetime membership and once they'd completed the Barbizon classes, they were given a chance to take it to the next level and try out for a shot to be seen at the International Modeling and Talent Association convention, IMTA, in New York. Students from Barbizon and other modeling and acting schools must earn a spot to attend.

George Burke: One of my twins didn't make it.

George says he told Barbizon he wouldn't send just one of the girls.

George Burke: So they said, "Well, we can work with her." So they accepted my other child.

Hansen: So how did you feel when the folks at Barbizon said, "Hey, your daughter's been chosen to go to IMTA"?

Anna Trombley: I thought, "Terrific.  Wow.  My kid is gonna actually get something from this."

But guess what?  After passing this second audition, allowing the girls to go to the convention, there was yet another price tag... an even bigger one.

George Burke: It was $4,700 per child to come to New York for a week.  That's with a discount. I have to have this paid cash before the competition starts and then for my wife to go with my children it was an additional $2,800. 

Along with a chance to be seen by talent agents, George says the convention fee covers training sessions, a hotel room for a week in New York, a photo in the program and an awards dinner. So he handed over $12,200 cash for both girls and their mom to attend the convention.

For Anna, it was money she didn't have.

Anna Trombley: Well, I had to take a second job to help her go to the IMTA.

Is that the way it works in the glamour world? Pay as you go? Not according to the head of one of the most successful modeling agencies in the country.

Neal Hamil, Elite Model Management: All they really have to do is just on the Internet and send us your pictures. 

Neal Hamil is North American director of Elite Model Management, considered one of the top modeling agencies in the world. He says it doesn't cost a dime to get discovered.

Hamil: Go outside with a digital camera in the sunlight, pull their hair back, take their makeup off, take some photographs, download them and hit send.  And someone very qualified here will look at those.  And if they have potential, they'll hear from us.

So if models don't have to pay to be discovered, what exactly is going on at Barbizon?  And at that big convention. Just how easy is it to get discovered? What are they getting for they're thousands of dollars?

What better way to find out if this is really the way to be discovered than to audition ourselves?


George Burke says he spent $30,000 on his daughters' modeling careers. More than $16,000 went towards fees for the school and competitions for the twins. The rest was for travel, dresses, makeup and shoes.  And what do they have to show for it?

Did they ever get a job modeling?

George Burke, parent: No.

Chris Hansen, Dateline correspondent: Did they ever get a job acting?

George Burke: No.

Deborah Burke, parent: No.

Hansen: So, one audition?  Any jobs?

Joan Schrier, parent: We haven't worked yet.

And some of them are frustrated because they claim success was virtually guaranteed.

Anne Trombley, parent: When they tell you you're going to be trained they actually make you believe you're gonna get a job out of this.

Just what are the promises, if any?  We saw an ad for a Barbizon audition at a hotel in New York City. It said "Children for modeling, interviews held one day only." We went inside the hotel and recorded the pitch on a cellphone -- they made it clear you had to have something special to be accepted.

Dateline conducted an unscientific survey of 10 girls as they left the interview, asking them to let us know if they had been accepted... one hasn't heard back and the other nine all told us they had been selected.

To see what happens for ourselves, we sent a Dateline associate producer to a Barbizon office in New Jersey. She auditioned for IMTA, the talent convention. Soon after walking through the door, she hears the big sell.

Video: We had 100 percent of our New York contestants with call-backs and every single one of them have signed except two.

Our associate producer is asked to do an acting audition and deliberately struggles through her lines for a hypothetical TV commercial.

She wasn't exactly next year's Oscar winner. Still, the very next day she gets a call. And she's told she got all 10s in acting and that's the highest they score. The woman goes on to encourage our Dateline staffer to go to the convention because she thinks she can win a lot and get signed by an agent.

But just as those kids had to pay, she'd need to fork over almost $5,000 to go to the convention.

So does everyone who comes to Barbizon pass those auditions? The only ones who know for sure are the those who oversee the auditions themselves.

So we decided to go on a job interview for the position of an admissions director at Barbizon.

Barbizon job interviewer (on hidden camera): Every person that you contact has contacted us first in one way or another.

He says Barbizon advertises on the Internet, at county fairs, in malls, through radio and print ads.

Interviewer: We advertise on the back of 17 different magazines.

It wasn't long before our interviewer explained who they accept at the Barbizon school.

Interviewer: Do we want every child that comes through the door to enroll in Barbizon? Absolutely. For one, we're a business. And every business, I don't care who you are… you need revenues.

He went on to explain the process of signing up new clients. He says the girls are given a pitch, interviewed, asked if they can afford it and sent home.

Interviewer: That's on a Sunday. You come back here on a Monday and you call them – “Hi Mrs. Smith, I have great news for you. We'd love to have Susie be part of the Barbizon family.”

The Burkes say that's exactly what happened when the girls tried out for both Barbizon and the IMTA convention.

George recorded the call they got the day after they auditioned to go to the IMTA convention for the second time.

But Neal Hamil, the director of top modeling agency, Elite, says save your money because in the real world, only a small percent will ever be working models.

Video: What it takes to be a supermodel

Neal Hamil, Elite Model Management: The only people that are gonna make it here are the best of the best of the best of the best. Because it just comes down to like a very pin point, tiny little group of magnificent girls. And they are God made.

We showed Hamil the photos of Alexis and Alezea.

Hamil: They're daddy's little girls and they're adorable.

George, their dad, is the one who told us he's already spent $30,000. Part of that went towards these photos taken by Barbizon. Their information is stapled to the back, complete with misspellings.

Hamil: Oh, gosh.

Hansen: "Special kills," instead of "special skills.”

Hamil: $30,000.

Hansen: They're cute kids.

Hamil: That's why I'm sitting here.  $30,000.

Hansen: And he's thinking about sinking another $10,000 to go to another convention.

Hamil: He absolutely should not.

Hansen: So you say to the father, what?

Hamil: “You're a great dad and you should be commended for supporting what your children want to do.  But, you've gone way, way over the deep end."

Hamil told us he judged one of these large talent convention a few years ago.

Hamil: I was so heartbroken to see these lovely people with no potential parading across a stage. It made me sad.

But not all the judges appear to be "A" list.  The twins were excited to get a call back from an agent at the convention, but the excitement didn't last long. After hearing nothing from the agent, they called Barbizon.

Deborah Burke: We found out that the agent that we got a call back from went out of business.

When contestants enter the convention, they're told super stars have gotten their start here, stars like Ashton Kutcher and Katie Holmes.

In fact, we heard the same two names again and again. Early in their careers, both Kutcher and Holmes competed at the convention.

Zino Macaluso of the Screen Actors Guild says he's not surprised.

Zino Macaluso, Screen Actors Guild: When you're a clearing house for talent, odds are someone who's gonna drop in who has "it" at some point or another. It doesn't make the actual convention any more legitimate.

But he understands how young hopefuls are enticed by the spectacle.

Macaluso: They get caught up in the dream.  The parents get caught up in the dream.  And really it's all one large deception to separate entire families from their money.

Hansen: So, the odds of making it big after attending one of these conventions or going to one of these acting schools are…?

Macaluso: I would say slim to none.

Both Barbizon and IMTA point to many success stories on their Web sites. And Barbizon told us about this girl--she was cast as one of the decoys used in a "To Catch A Predator" investigation.

The former decoy tells us Barbizon and IMTA gave her what she needed to make it in Hollywood, and adds she just landed a role in a major motion picture.

IMTA says it doesn't set the cost for the conventions, that comes from the independent schools who send students to compete. And IMTA says it requires participants to sign a release acknowledging "No one has promised anything to them in return for their participation at an IMTA convention." IMTA does say however, that contestants "are seen by more industry professionals in one week than they could ever see by knocking on agency doors." And 80 percent of participants get callbacks from industry professionals "to further explore" their potential.

As for Barbizon, it pointed out that "these conventions are independent of Barbizon international and not part of our curriculum" and "only 8% of the young people that complete Barbizon's basic program avail themselves of this opportunity." They also add that "Barbizon international has not received a single complaint for at least the last five years."

One of our parents says she got what she paid for -- both her kids have been signed by a local agent in Buffalo.

Hansen: Did they fulfill their promises to you?

Joan Schrier: I think they did.

The others feel they've been left empty-handed.

Hansen: Looking back were you getting conned on this deal?

Anna Trombley: I think so. You know, I'm pretty sure of it. You know, that's that little voice inside your head telling you, "Wow.  Why are we doing this?" You know?

Hansen: Maybe this isn't a good idea?

Anna Trombley: Yeah.  But you're doing it not for you but for your child because you believe in them.

Hansen: Do you think these people know the right strings to pull?

Trombley: Absolutely.

Video: Modeling traps: Watch out for And Hamil says the desire to enter this glamorous world can be so strong it can cloud people's judgment making them easy marks.

Hamil: "Excuse me, have you ever thought of being a model?"  Well, the minute those parents hear that, they just abandon everything that they know to be sensible.  And just go for it hook, line and sinker. 

As for the Burkes, they've decided not to spend any more money-- but George and his wife will always stand by their children.

Hansen: Did you think one of your girls could be the next Katie Holmes?

Deborah Burke: Yes.

Hansen: In your heart?

Deborah Burke: Yes.

Hansen: What about now?

Deborah Burke: I still do.

George Burke: Yeah.  Who's gonna have hope for your children but yourself?

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