Sharks who take your money are vile enough, worse still are those who take your money and crush your dreams.
I’m thinking of parasites such as Oliver James, who preys on people hoping to become models.
His operation typically uses two companies, the first snaring victims with misleading claims about supposedly being a platform with a great track record of helping people break into the modelling world.
This will refer you to a second company, a photography studio, that will charge hundreds of pounds for what they claim is a vital photo portfolio.
Which is where the problem lies, because although these charlatans claim that the portfolios are essential for getting work, in reality they’re next to worthless.
When I last wrote about his operation, Mr James was trading as Route 66 Models, which enticed victims with drivel about being “the UK’s most successful modelling platform”.
Photoshoots were carried out by Mac Studios, a trading name of Digital Fashion Photography Limited – Mr James ran both outfits.
One victim was Louise Honeywill, whose 14-year-old daughter was desperate to become a model.
She was persuaded to pay Mac Studios £1,950 for a portfolio after being told that the pictures would be deleted if she did not buy them that day.
Mac Studios sued her when she later tried to cancel but, as I wrote in February 2018, a judge threw out the case when no one from the company turned up at court.
“I felt under a lot of pressure to sign the paperwork, I was only given 10 minutes to make a decision,” Louise said.
Route 66 Models was a trading name of Eco Serv Direct Limited – sole director Oliver James – which was put into compulsory liquidation in August 2018.
Since then not much has changed apart from the names being used, judging by the experience of Mariette Schwerin.
She saw an online advert for the grandly-named British Model Alliance that said it was looking for new models of all ages, and sent off some pictures.
This lot rang back to say they loved the photos and Mariette would be “wonderful for the industry”, and invited her to a photoshoot at Glass Studios in Soho, in London’s West End.
“After the shoot I was told to have coffee and come back after 40 minutes because Sophie the assessor needed to make a decision on whether I was good enough,” Mariette said.
“She called me into her office and she talked about the potential earnings and the different sectors they work in, high end fashion, commercial and TV.
“The portfolio she said I must take was £1,850 as this was the one that would make me more marketable.
“I asked her if I could think about it for a day or so.
“She then told me I had to make a decision there and then otherwise the photos would be deleted and I would have lost the opportunity.
“I said to her again, I don’t have that kind of money, she asked how much I had, I told her £850, she said pay that and put the rest on direct debit for four months, but that I should remember that work on the portfolio won’t start until I’ve paid for it all.”
Besides the high-pressure sales tactics, Sophie dangled the prospect of lucrative work as a final ploy to get Mariette to buy the portfolio.
“She said they will give me four jobs a month, high street fashion shoots paying £1,300 to £3,000 and commercial paying £600 to £1,200,” said Mariette.
She caved in, despite feeling uneasy about the speed this has all happening, paying £850 and signing a deal to pay the balance.
The contract had a Glass Studios letterhead but contained no company details, not even an address, which does not strike me as very professional. According to Mariette’s bank details, one payment went to Digital Fashion Photography, run by 39-year-old Mr James and his co-director Hannah Porter, 34.
A second payment went to Fashion Originals Limited, which has one director, Hannah Porter.
After getting home Mariette was emailed by a model manager at British Model Alliance claiming that he had a 98% success rate getting work for clients.
Smelling a rat, she searched online for the phone number on the message and found it had also been used by Route 66 Models, then saw my earlier article about that sham.
Mariette tried to cancel the contract and get a refund, emailing Glass Studios: “I felt that I was pressured to make a decision on the spot with the threat that photos would be deleted if I didn’t sign and pay on the day.
“I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to research the company and to make an informed decision on the day, after research I feel that I’ve been misled and no longer wish to continue.”
She received an email from [email protected] by way of reply: “You have ample time prior to your shoot to research both companies as you have received documents from both and had names, we are not responsible for your choosing not to read information sent to you or do your own research.”
Mariette at least has now recovered the £850 through her bank.
“One day I will bump into Sophie again and ask her how she can live with herself,” she says.
“This was such a stressful experience, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to listen to me, you were the only one.
“What makes me even more angry is the fact that they just continue, new business names but the con is still the same.
“I honestly wish the government would do more to stop these people. Until someone take a stance and a harder line, they will continue to create havoc in people’s life.”
My colleague Freya Graham went undercover to test the British Model Alliance experience.
After submitting her details she was phoned and told: “The professionals have looked through your photos and absolutely loved them” – you have to wonder if this is what they say to everyone.
She was told that, at 23, competition for her age group was high and if she wanted to become a model she’d have to sign up for a test photoshoot. Her £50 deposit was paid to
photo-company.co.uk, whose website has the Glass Studios logo but no company information.
The photoshoot consisted of five looks in different outfits over one hour, including pictures in the street.
“This didn’t feel so glamorous as I posed in an old prom dress while a delivery van reversed in the background,” Freya said.
Next followed the hard sell, which included the same misleading claims about the British Model Alliance’s supposed success rate that had been made to Mariette Schwerin.
“Once the photos were taken, I was whisked into an office for a meeting with Tessa Campbell, the assessor at Glass Studios. She told me she was going to give the British Model Alliance feedback about my modelling performance and potential.
“With their huge database of agencies, they could help me get paid work quickly, but she made clear that British Model Alliance wasn’t an agency itself, she called it a ‘platform’.
“According to Tessa, British Model Alliance had a 97% success rate.
“Once I’d received my portfolio, she told me I could get TV and film work right away and earn up to £600 a day and said that a group of models had recently worked on the new Batman film as extras.
“Then came the offer: after looking at my photos, Tessa had decided that I was good enough to become a model but I needed a portfolio and the photos from today would be perfect.
“I was handed a price list. I could pay £1,275 for 50 digital images, which would be emailed to me the following day.
“The other option was a ‘web folio’ for £1,500.
“When I asked if I could sleep on it, I was told that my photos would be deleted by the end of the day, for ‘copyright reasons’.
“I left without buying them.”
I met Glass Studios assessor Tessa Campbell outside its Soho offices and asked if she could substantiate her claim that 97% of clients who buy photo portfolios get model or film work.
“I just say what I’m told to say by the managers,” she replied.
And does she believe what they’ve told her to say?
“Why would they lie?” was the reply.
I suggested that the answer to that was obvious – to trick customers into buying the portfolios.
At that point she insisted I talk to her manager.
This turned out to be Sophie, the assessor who had used the same lines on Mariette Schwerin.
She refused to give me her surname and said I had to deal with the director, Oliver James.
I’ve had no response from him, nor from Christalla Kirkillari, the director of Island International Limited, which trades as British Model Alliance.
One of the country’s top model agencies warns that anyone paying a studio for these photo portfolios is wasting their money.
“We categorically advise against any potential model purchasing a portfolio of photographs by these third party platforms,” says Miranda Cantacuzene-Speransky, UK Agency Director of Elite Model Management London.
“Sadly these platforms have been around for some time, the volume of calls we receive from parents of potential models telling us that their children have been approached by them is astounding. As experts in the modelling agency and as part of the biggest global model management network we believe these portfolios are completely redundant.
“When we scout for potential models all we require are simple and natural snapshots taken by a camera phone.
“If anyone is ever in any doubt or has any concerns at all, we would advise them to just give us a ring at Elite London and we are more than happy to help and guide anyone and allay their fears and doubts.”
One trick used by the scammers is to call themselves “platforms”, avoiding saying they are model or employment agencies.
This means that they fall outside the remit of the Government’s Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate.
It also means that they can tell clients who never get offered work that this was never their responsibility.
But they still give the misleading impression of being able to source jobs for clients.
A video on the British Model Alliance website gushes: “We are perfectly placed to make sure you succeed” and “We are here to help get you signed to as many agencies as possible”.
I asked it for evidence of their customers getting signed to multiple agencies, or even just one, but got no answer.