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Models Get Tough

Their lawsuit alleges that certain agencies illegally fixed fees and charged excessive commissions

July 05, 2002|VALLI HERMAN-COHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thirteen years ago, Carolyn Fears left her rural Illinois home at 19 to join Ford Models in New York. The 6-foot redhead landed jobs in Manhattan and Europe, appeared on billboards, magazine covers and in numerous ads, eventually earning as much as $100,000 annually. As glamorous as modeling seemed, Fears learned early on how tough the business could be.

"When I was first starting, I went to the agency to get my paycheck, and they were taking $1,500 out of it. I said, 'What is this?' One of the owners was standing behind me and said, 'That's to put you in the agency's book. I don't see you on the cover of Vogue. If you don't like it, get out.' I went into the bathroom and cried," Fears recalled. "It's intimidating and you just want to please everybody. You're not thinking about the commissions and fees."

Last week, Fears, 32, joined five other California models in filing a class-action lawsuit in New York federal court against eight top modeling agencies, alleging that the firms violate the law by fixing fees and charging far more in commissions than is legal. Fears hopes the lawsuit will give models with New York agencies more protection and a larger share of their earnings. The case, filed by a partner of antitrust heavy hitter David Boies of Boies, Schiller & Flexner, alleges that New York modeling agencies have been fixing prices on fees for nearly 30 years.

According to the lawsuit, models are given form contracts, which the agencies claim are standard and not subject to negotiation. Few complain because like Fears and co-plaintiffs Amanda Masters, Lorelei Shellist, Barbara Cheeseborough, Carla Gross (also known as Sebastian Cardon) and Justin Klentner, they are concerned that they may be blacklisted--a key reason it has taken so long for the allegedly illegal practices to come to light, according to Brian Rishwain, a partner in the Los Angeles firm Johnson and Rishwain, which has joined the case.

"You start modeling so young that you are just so happy to be doing it," said Fears, who lives in Sunset Beach and opened a surf shop with her earnings. "You naturally get wiser as you get older, and by that point, you might be getting out of the industry and not care." The case involves California residents partly because Rishwain, a former model, was familiar with the industry and knew local models. Andrew Hayes, the Boies partner who filed the case, added that recently discovered documents and reports from individuals helped bring what the suit is alleging to be a decades-old conspiracy to light.

The models, who are in their 30s and 40s, accuse the agencies of violating federal antitrust laws and New York state laws regulating employment agencies. According to the lawsuit, the Wilhelmina Model Agency, Ford Models, Elite Model Management and five other New York agencies conspired in the 1970s to set the fees they charge to models, and to fix terms of their contracts. In addition, the lawsuit challenges the long-standing practice whereby agencies collect a 20% commission on the model's earnings and charge an additional 20% commission to the model's employers. The eight agencies represent more than half of the New York market, measured by total volume of bookings, according to the complaint.

"I look at it as a 40% commission," said Fears, who said that her first Ford agency written contract didn't mention that the client would be paying Ford an additional 20% to hire her. New York state law allows any employment agency to collect only a 10% commission. However, the models' lawyers said that modeling agencies have for years presented themselves as managers, not employment agencies, in an attempt to avoid the limit on commissions.

"The bottom line is, if you are a manager of a model, it would be a conflict of interest to be taking money from the person who is employing that model, without the model's consent or awareness of it," said Rishwain.

Joey Grill, vice president of Click Model Management in New York, one of the defendants, called the suit "ridiculous." The other New York agencies named in the case, Next Management Co., Boss Models, Zoli Model Management (which was recently purchased by Click) and Company Management, would not comment or return repeated telephone calls. Modeling agencies not named in the suit aren't voicing concern, according to Heinz Holba, president and founder of L.A. Models, which is not a target of the suit. "I don't think this thing has any merit, and neither does anyone else," said Holba, who noted that California agencies are governed by different laws. However, according to Rishwain, the commission rates are the same in California and New York.

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