WITH supermodels Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss hogging the headlines as the superstars of the day, modelling has never looked so attractive. But the media frenzy which is putting millions into the pockets of a few is also emptying the bank accounts of many.
In Hong Kong, naive young men and women are being flattered out of their savings by unscrupulous modelling agencies who tell them they could be the next Christy Turlington or Nick Moss.
Make-up, photography, even the promise of training are being offered as inducements to sign on the dotted line, and hand over as much as $13,000.
The Consumer Council said it had received complaints from victims who had paid $500 to $700 for a series of promotional photographs, $3,000 to $5,000 for a contract, and $6,000 to $13,000 for a training course. Chief complaints and advice officer Chan Wing-kai told of one man who was nudged into a $680 audition by a talent scout.
He passed the test and was talked into paying $12,400 to enrol for a training course which he was told would equip him for modelling jobs.
The man paid half the amount and asked the company to guarantee freelance jobs for him. The company refused and declined to give a refund. In another case, a woman victim was scouted by a modelling agency employee in Causeway Bay and flattered into paying$680 for an audition and $6,000 for a training course. She was told that she could earn $9,800 in three days modelling for a TV commercial. But the job never materialised and the company disappeared with her money.
Investigating further, the Sunday Morning Post Magazine sent trainee reporter Venus Tsang to a typical modelling agency in Tsim Sha Tsui. Venus was asked to put herself up for a test which would cost $800. 'If you fail and are considered not suitable to be a model, we will refund the examination fee,' the training manager told her.
Venus was asked to sing, act a short dialogue, talk about herself in the same way as beauty pageant contestants, and do a turn on the catwalk, even though she is at least three inches too short to be a runway model.
Tests over, Venus was told she had passed with a mark of more than 80 per cent which was 'excellent'. She was invited to join the agency, and asked to sign a management contract at a cost of $4,800.
'We will provide you with a series of training courses including catwalk, make-up, posture and posing. Also, we will make a portfolio for you,' Suen said.
Venus paid a deposit of $2,400 and fixed an appointment for the following day to have photographs taken. The next day she returned to the agency for make-up before going to a photographic studio. Unlike most professionals, the make-up artist did not ask her about the colours of the clothes she had brought to be photographed in.
Venus went to a studio called Photog Communication Photography in a small flat nearby. The female photographer claimed to have worked for a number of agencies, but refused to give details. Venus was at the studio for 30 minutes, during which time a roll of film was shot in four poses for her portfolio.
For one pose, Venus was asked to don a wedding dress for which she paid a $100 hire fee. Another pose involved her holding up a blackboard, convict-style, on which her personal details, including her identity card number, were written.
After a week, she returned to the modelling agency. They had a set of prints which they said they needed to keep 'for further image design', but she was given the negatives, asked to choose the best five and told to have 10 of each printed and return them.
Unimpressed by the results of the photographic shoot, Venus took the pictures to Nichole Wong, a booker at an established agency, Andy Models and Productions Company, which handles hundreds of composite cards - a medley of shots on a greetings-sized card which is sent to potential clients - for full-time models.
'People can't see your whole face or appearance at all,' she said. 'A soft-focus lens is seldom used for a composite card because it effects the sharpness of the model's look. It is useless if clients can't see your face clearly.' To find out how the photographic shoot should have been handled, the Sunday Morning Post Magazine took Venus to Le Salon Orient where owner Kim Robinson, hairdresser to Hong Kong's elite, and make-up expert Maria Bostrom created an image more approriate for a model.
Mr Robinson is often asked to style models for composites and will sometimes do it as a 'favour' if he wishes to work with the model in future - in 'kind', so to speak.
'If she paid that sort of money,' said Mr Robinson, 'they could at least have done a good job. Venus has beautiful skin but her hairstyle was far too lumpy and the look in those photos was . . . what shall I say? Too mumsy.
'The hair is the frame for the face. We are looking for a rectangular shape in the face but Venus's haircut gives it a square shape, as wide as it is deep. Mind if I cut quite a bit off?' He snipped away at the fringe and the sides as Venus looked apprehensively in the mirror. Ms Bostrom went to work plucking eyebrows, adding shade around the eyes and applying small false eyelashes.
'The idea is to use shadow to make the eyes seem larger, more sensual,' Ms Bostrom said.
'There is no need for heavy make-up, that's really only necessary if you're going to a ball and you need a colour to complement the gown,' she said. Mr Robinson agreed.
'Asian women tend to have puffy eyes. A little natural shadow helps to push them back into the face. The trouble is most Hong Kong make-up girls load the stuff on.
'Less than two hours later, Venus and Ms Bostrom were in the photographic studios of The Light Brigade, where London fashion photographer Carla Spruce was going to shoot the basis of a model's composite card.
'Normally we'd take at least a day on three shots,' Ms Spruce said.
'How long have we got? An hour and a half? Wow!' Venus, who by now had come to terms with her new look, was squeezing into figure-hugging black flares.
'What an experience,' she said, tapping her platform shoes to Michael Jackson.
'This is great. Nothing like the other lot.' The results are very different - one a total transformation, and the other, costing $4,800, showing very little change. However, when asked what our model got for her money, the modelling agency declined to comment.
Rodney Cheng King-kwok, managing director of Da Silva's Mannequin and chairman of the Association of Model Agencies, advised aspiring models to find out more about a company before handing over money.
'These companies convince people to join the business, but it turns out they can't fulfil their promises and people feel cheated.' He said his company rarely charged models a registration fee.
'If a model is talented and has potential, we will make composite cards without charge. ' Da Silva's organises training courses for models but will not guarantee job offers.
'We won't guarantee them anything, but we will tell them if they have the potential to be a model.
'As for Venus, Mr Cheng said she might be OK for television, adding she had 'quite a sweet smile'.