PORTLAND, Ore. – It’s an eye-catching promise to help you find out whether your child is model material.
My 11-year-old stepdaughter came home from the mall one day, excited about the signs in the food court for a model and talent search. The idea of becoming the next Disney star is exciting for many girls her age. But what strings are attached?
You can’t miss the Audition America stage at the Clackamas Town Center. There’s a runway, a photo backdrop and one after another, people from toddlers to grownups vying for a chance to be discovered.
It starts with a tryout, during which contestants watch a video touting the stars Audition America claims to have discovered, like actress AnnaLynne McCord. It also promises free contracts.
Walking the runway is free. So is being selected to go to the next round of competition.
James Slaughter’s kids enjoyed their moment in the spotlight. Then the Audition America staff told him he needed to pay a $50 deposit per child. The deposit went toward a $150 package that included a shirt, a photo portfolio and entries into a model search. Once they paid the balance, they could get their photos.
Tia Rollins’ daughter, Daja, tried out too, and made it to round two. But first, Rollins said, the Audition America staff told her she needed to pay the deposit. Rollins, who just lost her job, only had $25, which Audition America ultimately accepted.
“He said if you don’t put it in now, it won’t reserve her spot,” said Rollins. “I had all kinds of things in my head. Her nagging me, myself. He was standing there. It felt like peer pressure.
“Afterwards I was a little mad at myself, that I did do that,” Rollins said. “I know better. I was kind of mad at myself the whole way home. Driving on the freeway I was like ‘why did I do that? Why didn’t I just wait?’”
After hearing the stories from parents, we decided to look into Audition America’s background and business practices.
We found more than 2,800 positive testimonials on the company’s website. But when we checked the Better Business Bureau’s records, we traced Audition America to a modeling empire run by Bill Waldbueser that has a track record of customer complaints dating back to at least 2010.
Since Audition America started last year, it has already racked up 57 complaints with the BBB in Florida, where the company is registered. Thirty-four of those complaints are related to the product or service while 17 take issue with advertising or sales issues.
The BBB gave Audition America a “D” grade overall.
The BBB is also warning consumers about a pattern of high-pressure sales tactics. It asked Audition America to resolve outstanding complaints and improve customer relations. Audition America responded with stricter script requirements for stage directors and an automatic email system to improve communication with contestants.
In August, when the BBB reviewed the company’s complaint record again, it concluded the pattern of high-pressure sales tactics remained.
I spoke with Nate, who is one of the Audition America employees running the show at the Clackamas Town Center. I asked him if Audition America is selling dreams, or preying on them.
“We’re not selling or preying on dreams. We have a competition down here,” Nate said. “Anything they want to do is voluntary. No one’s forcing anyone to do anything down here. This is America. It’s a free country.”
Kit Garrett co-founded Option Model and Media in Portland, a boutique agency that’s very selective about the talent it represents. Garrett, and other industry veterans, confirmed to KATU News that you should never have to pay money for an agent to represent you.
“For us and most agencies across the world, you only make money when you procure work for that model,” Garrett said.
When asked about the likelihood that photos snapped in a mall food court would wind up in a model’s actual portfolio that could get him or her a job, Garrett said it was “probably zero.”
“It’s not something that we’d utilize to show a client,” Garrett said.
After my visit to the Clackamas Town Center, I had a long phone conversation with Audition America owner Bill Waldbueser. He said the number of BBB complaints they’ve received “isn’t that bad” when you consider the company has served more than 140,000 customers. He said he would be happy to refund anyone who wasn’t satisfied with what they received for their money.
He also claims that only two of those complaints came from the Portland event, but we were not able to verify that because the BBB does not track complaints by city.
Meanwhile, a source close to AnnaLynne McCord said the company’s claim that it discovered her are “utterly absurd,” and her attorneys plan to contact the company.
And in a tweet to me, AnnaLynne McCord said she’s not affiliated with Audition America and had no role in helping her career.
@AnnaCanzanoKATU I am absolutely not affiliated with this nor did this company play any part in assisting my career. Thk u 4 shedding light!— AnnaLynne McCord (@IAMannalynnemcc) October 29, 2013
If you have a story for the KATU On Your Side Investigators you can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.