MESA, Ariz. -- Home video taken during a model search competition at Superstition Springs Mall shows a bubbly 9-year-old Brooklyn Larsen striking poses at the end of the runway.
In the background, the sound of a host on a microphone encouraging her every step of the way.
"Walk on down," the host says. "Here she comes, looking beautiful in blue."
Brooklyn is followed by her 4-year-old brother, Logan, who gladly repeated his moves for our camera.
Their good looks and cute personalities is what drew their father, Michael Larsen, to the mall contest held by American Mall Model Search where Michael videotaped that host, a company representative.
"I'm sure you've seen some of the work we've been involved in," he said to the crowd. "Do we have any 'Pirates of the Caribbean' fans out there? Raise your hands. How about 'Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn'"?
"I was very excited," Brooklyn said.
Michael says the excitement of his kids being in a movie convinced him to pay $600 for professional photos, a requirement by American Mall Model Search.
However, it's something Michael claims wasn't mentioned until after his kids were chosen as two of the winners of the mall competition.
"I felt manipulated," he said.
Michael paid $200 for the photos up-front and agreed to pay the remaining $400 balance later.
He says he wasn't told there were no refunds until after he got his receipt and the more he thought about it, the more he wanted his money back.
"I was then denied and told no refunds," he said.
Disappointed, he contacted 3 On Your Side.
According to the Better Business Bureau, American Mall Model Search has more than 100 complaints and a "D" rating.
Arizona Screen Actors Guild Director Don Livesay said there's nothing legally wrong with the way the search is set up, but that it's not the way companies registered with the SAG operate.
"Bottom line is legitimate talent representatives have a vested interest in the success of the talent that they represent because they don't make money unless there is a job," he said.
3 On Your Side contacted American Mall Model Search and its affiliate company Model Productions U.S.A.
Business President Bill Waldbueser said these competitions are ultimately for fun, and says talent they've discovered have gone on to succeed in show business.
We were directed to their website's testimonials page as proof.
Despite a registration form and a receipt which reads "no refunds" at the bottom, American Mall Model Search says it does, in fact, issue refunds, but the request has to be in writing.
That's what Michael Larsen did and days later he received a refund check for $198.
"We learned our lesson," he said. "We know what to do now if we ever feel like going the right route and we just really appreciate 3 On Your Side helping us out."
In an e-mail to 3 On Your Side, the company president writes:
The basic cost of the American Mall Model Search is $150.
The contestants audition on our stage for free. They deliver a script, walk the runway, and receive a written evaluation at no cost. If they pass this performance test, they are given the opportunity the be [sic] in the final event. Most people do pass. Prior to anyone getting on stage, we explain that "This audition is like a drivers license test. You are not competing against anyone else here today. This is a 'pass' or 'try again' audition. You are showing us that you possess the confidence to perform on stage and have the potential to work in the film and fashion industry. If you don't pass this time, we will give you a written evaluation with suggestions of ways you can improve. You can go home and practice and then come back at a later date to audition again. We want everyone here to have the opportunity to experience this outstanding event." Then we have one of the staff demonstrate how the audition will be conducted.
If they are one of the winners, they make a choice. If they want to be in the fashion show and talent contest at the end of the month and compete in the Photography Category, Talent Category, and the Fashion Show Runway Category, they have to pay $150. This payment covers the "winner's T-shirt", the photo shoot, the CD of all 20 pictures, the copyright release to use the pictures as they want, and the right to participate in the Final Event, which includes the Runway competition and the Talent competition.
The payments are broken down into three $50 payments. The first $50 is due at registration after the audition (or later whenever they decide to participate). This holds their appointment with the photographer at the stage. The second $50 payment is due at the contestant's "one look" photo shoot. If the contestant wants more pictures, they can upgrade to a "2 look" photo shoot (40+ photos) for 3 - $70 payments or a "3 look" photo shoot (60+ photos) for 3 payments of $90. A one look is all that is required for contest participation. The last payment is paid after the photo shoot and before the final event. The contestants must be paid in full before getting on the stage.
Waldbueser also sent us this list of questions he says were recently asked by a concerned parent:
Q1.) What is the screening process for these this event? A1. Model Productions is a totally legitimate company. We have been in business over 20 years and have been conducting our events in malls for over 10 years. MP partners with every major property group such as GGP, Simon, Westfield, Macerich, CBL, JLL, PREIT, Forest City to name the largest. Does anyone research these folks before allowing them into the mall? Yes, every one of the above property groups has worked with MP for at least the last 4 years and most for over 7 years. We have a huge satisfaction rate among people that actually participate in the event. There is no better value in the model search, pageant, photography industry. $10 per picture with a satisfaction guarantee and a copyright release is an unheard of opportunity.
Q2.) Is Model Productions and the AMMS who they represent themselves to be? A2. Yes, Model Productions is a very successful model and talent agency headquarters out of the Miami area. Yes, MP is licensed, bonded, and insured. Yes, we do place girls (and some guys) with agencies all around the world. Yes, we do have talent working in the business that we discovered and have given their start in the industry. Does MP actually have contracts with JCP, Macy's, Local Ad Agencies, and catalogs as they claim? As our "success stories" show on our website, www.modelproductions.com, our models have worked for all of the above clients and 100s of more clients. However, this claim is not a claim that is ever made by MP or any agency because no agency has a monopoly on which models clients use for their advertisement. Models from many agencies go to every audition. Different models are used by the clients (JCP, Macy's, etc.) for every job.
Q3.) The contact number given was a 214 area code but the person running the program locally has a 305 area code? A3.The most important question is "Can the director be reached to answer questions and provide information?" YES, they can. Every contestant is given a business card with the director's stage cell phone number AND the AMMS Customer Service numbers 305.395.3152 and 770.751.0500. Our event directors/talent scouts are from all over the USA. Some may not have the local area codes on their cell phones. For that matter, I don't have a Miami area code on my cell phone since I've had my number for almost 10 years and don't want to lose contact with worldwide agencies and long time clients/contacts.
Q4.) Some one stated that they researched this company online to find that over 90% of the reviews indicate this event to be a scam; a process where they get people's hopes up and at the same time selling them $300 photo packages. A4. Please direct all concerned parents or contestants to www.AMMSTestimonials.com so they can read testimonials from people who actually participated NOT just blogs from people that did not participate but just read the blogs and passed along in their own reports.That is really not true. But research should include a variety of websites. Our goal is to encourage everyone and give everyone a fun and exciting experience. Our photos cost less than $10 each. You can't beat that at Glamor Shots, Sears or Wal-Mart. To participate, they need to pay for a one look photo shoot - $150 (20 pictures). They get to keep the pictures and receive a copyright release. They also get their winners/contestant T-shirt and a written evaluation of their performance in the final fashion show and talent contest.
Q5.) What is the American Mall Model Search really all about? A5. This event gives everyone the opportunity to show off their skills and see if they have what it takes to succeed in the film and fashion industry. I designed this event as an affordable, fun, and exciting "experience" where you get great pictures to remember the experience by - like sitting on Santa's lap. BUT something great can (and has) come out of this event for many contestants - dreams have come true for some. How many little league baseball players ever make the big leagues? Do we therefore not participate or "bad mouth" the coach?