The other fashion victims
CAROL Lee used to read stories about women becoming modelling stars overnight after being plucked from obscurity by eagle-eyed talent spotters.
So when the attractive 24-year-old clerk was approached in Times Square in Causeway Bay, she was flattered and imagined her own meteoric rise to fame.
'This lady came up to me, handed me her card and told me she was a casting agent and I had the perfect look for a commercial they were shooting,' Lee said.
'She asked me if I was interested in making some extra money. I'd always read about models being discovered in nightclubs or on the street and thought it had happened to me.
'I made an appointment and got all dressed and made-up for a screen test because they told me I was also up for a role as female-lead in a music video for Jacky Cheung.' When Carol Lee arrived at the modelling agency, she found herself in a cramped Tsim Sha Tsui office surrounded by 10 other aspiring hopefuls.
'The managing director told me they had a lot to offer someone like me, but the photographs I brought were not professional enough.' For $7,000, however, she was told she could buy a portfolio of personal photographs.
Another $3,000 would pay for make-up courses. There was a $900 a month management fee. And an extra 20 per cent commission from any jobs she received.
'I thought that it was a lot of money, but I couldn't put a price tag on my dream,' she said.
'I knew I could never be a catwalk model because I'm not tall enough, but MTV videos, commercials and photo shoots seemed so exciting.' After living frugally for a year, in which she saved $20,000 to buy a car, Lee spent almost all of her money in one go - and signed a contract.
One year later, Lee is still waiting for 'stardom'. Her 'fame' amounted to a few castings and a $1,000 bit part in a commercial.
From this she was left with nothing after the agency took its 20 per cent commission and $900 management fee.
She had fallen into a classic Hong Kong scam.
'It's been happening for years,' said a Consumer Council spokesman. 'We try to warn students every year at around this time when they are most in need of jobs.
'They think that they can pass the summer by modelling, but in reality they're being fooled.' Unscrupulous agencies regularly send scouts to busy shopping malls, MTR stations and ferry piers to lure would-be stars.
When a South China Morning Post reporter went to another agency in Tsim Sha Tsui posing as a prospective model, she was made fulsome promises of lucrative contracts with different celebrities and large organisations which the agency claimed were clients.
The walls were adorned with a collage of photographs of their models wearing slinky outfits and adopting sultry poses.
The casting manager offered a one-year contract and guaranteed a minimum income of $9,600 a month.
During the hard-sell he refused to show or read out the fine print on the contract. When asked for a copy and time to 'think it over' he also refused and said she should sign immediately.
When the reporter revealed her identity, the casting manager said: 'Who told you about this? How do you know it's true?' Rodney Cheng at Da Silva's, one of Hong Kong's leading genuine agencies, said demands for money up-front were a sign of a bogus operation.
'When an agency is serious about finding employment for someone, all they will do is take a certain percentage of that model's income,' he said.
'We used to send out scouts to see if they could find fresh faces around the city, but we don't do that anymore. These fraudulent agencies reflect poorly on the whole industry,' said the former chairman of the Association of Model Agencies.
Wylie Wong, casting agent and part-time model at Jackie's Angels - an agency owned by martial arts superstar Jackie Chan - said she rarely scouted for talent on the streets.
'A little boy's mother yelled at me in a crowded shopping centre when I tried to offer her son a job in a commercial that I was casting, so never again,' she said.
'In movies there is a demand for every type of person - tall, short, fat, thin - the list goes on.
'You don't need to be beautiful or extremely handsome to get jobs, but you do need have common sense.' Wong said there are two types of models: the catwalk person who appears in fashion shows and photo shoots; and the 'parts models' who are used for a part of their anatomy, be it hands, legs, eyes or breasts.
Those who want to approach an agency, do not need expensive professional photos in the early stages. A regular snapshot will do.
For those who make the grade in the legitimate world of modelling, it can be a lucrative career.
Robin Leong, an American-born Chinese, was on holiday in Hong Kong four years ago when a talent scout approached him on the street for a part in a film.
With his limited knowledge of Cantonese, the Seattle-raised teenager assumed he was being asked for directions. After the misunderstanding was cleared up he appeared in the movie and has since had work in numerous television commercials and print advertisements.
James Lin, who has been modelling on and off for five years, was discovered in the United States when he accompanied his girlfriend to a casting for a fashion catalogue.
In a busy month models can make up to $80,000, but when there is little work their pay packets drop to a mere $8,000. Top models can make up to $2,500 an hour and more.
If freelance, they are not tied to any specific modelling agency and can therefore establish their own rates and choose their own jobs.
And there is the lure of travel: modelling assignments can take them throughout Asia, Europe and North America.
'Being a model, you get to travel all over the place and meet different people,' said Leong, who recently returned from filming a commercial in Beijing.
The downside includes the stress, long hours and early wake-up calls. 'We have to constantly worry about our weight, our skin or blemishes, our hair and makeup,' said Wylie Wong.
For James Lin, the profession had added perks: 'The best part of modelling for me is meeting beautiful women.' But as economics graduate-turned-model Joseph Kong Yin-sun warned: 'Never put up any money before you receive your pay.'