Thanks to having been blessed with a photogenic daughter, my wife and I have had the unique opportunity this year to learn about the local modeling industry. How this particular sector in the Philippines compares to other countries I cannot say for certain, but having some experience in marketing I have the anecdotal impression that the industry is proportionally larger; competition for jobs in print and broadcast advertising, or for roles in the dozens of telenovelas generated every year is fierce, with the better opportunities routinely drawing hundreds of hopefuls. Given Filipinos’ consumptive orientation, the level of activity is not particularly surprising, and unfortunately, neither is the extent of exploitation of children for commercial gain.
In all fairness, there are a great many people and agencies in the industry that do business fairly, and have the proper attitude toward the ethical and legal constraints that must be imposed on working with children. Those who have worked with my daughter—with one exception, who has been made painfully aware of the low regard in which we hold him—have been very good. There are, however, too many who are not, and “kids’ talent management” has apparently turned into a gold mine for unscrupulous operators.
The simpler of the two main reasons why the modeling industry has earned a reputation for being a shady business is that it is poorly regulated. There are laws and regulations governing the employment of children and the licensing and operation of modeling-related businesses, but for every independent talent manager or agency who is fastidious about keeping their records in order, securing the required permits for child workers, and following best practices in managing contracts and financial arrangements, there are at least a handful who have perceived—quite correctly—that the responsible agencies like the Department of Trade and Industry and Department of Labor and Employment are not particularly attentive, and that the rules are easily skirted. Cutting corners, or worse, is also encouraged by the nature of the work and the available talent pool. Many modeling “projects” involve something relatively simple like one or two photographs for a print ad, or pictures to dress up a commercial Facebook page, and since so many novice models who are happy simply to get the exposure are available, talent fees are low enough not to attract too much official attention, encouraging an “informal” approach to business.
The second and more discouraging reason for the far too many stories of exploitative behavior one hears is precisely because there is so much talent available. People like my wife and I—who are involved only because our daughter expressed her own interest in it, and will instantly stop the moment she says she’d rather do something else—are part of a small minority. There are far more who are desperately hoping their children will “hit it big,” partly out of conditioning by a popular culture polluted by far too many “get rich quick” reality and game shows, and in many cases—too many, sadly—because of a lack of other economic opportunities. For many of these families, it is a potentially tragic gamble; even under the best of circumstances, shepherding a youngster to auditions, contests and modeling and acting workshops is a significant investment with a very slim chance of seeing a return. Couple the desperation with the understandable unfamiliarity with what is a highly competitive and cutthroat business, and many parents and their children easily become vulnerable to exploitation and fraud.
An all-too-typical example is the independent “talent handler.” A legitimate handler serves as the child model’s agent, presenting the child to casting agencies and providing assistance with auditions, training and other incidental needs. The way the handler earns his or her pay is by the model’s obtaining actual assignments; from the amount retained (usually 30 percent) by the casting agency from the talent fees paid to the model, the handler is paid a percentage, typically 5 percent by the agency. A talent handler can be an invaluable assistant to a novice model, but once the model becomes well-known to the various agencies, they prefer to deal with the talents directly, either with an exclusive contract or on a per-project basis. This leaves a narrow window of opportunity for a talent handler, which is why there are so few legitimate ones; in all cases, people who have worked for one or more agencies, and have a deep network of connections. The far greater numbers of opportunists, however, take advantage of parents’ naïveté, often charging the parents directly for their services or taking a percentage on top of what they are paid by the agencies.
As bad that can be, unscrupulous handlers can usually only cheat a few inexperienced talents and their families at one time. Sometimes, though, the truly brazen manage to scam dozens at once, and do it under the very noses of experienced agencies. Last week, a manager connected to the Red Apple Workshop, an established and well-known talent training and development agency in Quezon City, posted a warning on Facebook about a large-scale fraud perpetrated on a number of Red Apple students. A certain Rea Leslie Asuncion and Apet Cruz approached Red Apple with the almost too-good-to-be-true offer that ABS-CBN was casting for a telenovela called Magdalena, and for a fee of P1,500 per child, they could arrange for auditions. By the time anyone figured out that was not actually happening (for one thing, Magdalena was a GMA show that aired its finale this past January), Asuncion and Cruz had disappeared, along with many thousands of pesos from disappointed and embarrassed parents.
As long as there continues to be a huge amount of money to be made in advertising to spendthrift Pinoy consumers, there will be a hyperactive modeling industry, but one that could never be nearly active enough to provide opportunities for all those seeking fame and fortune. That’s a risky setup, and when you add kids—and their parents who are, forgivably, not the most objective judges of their children’s attributes or commercial prospects—it can become downright dangerous. And the most frustrating thing is that it doesn’t have to be that way; the Philippines has some sensibly tough laws governing the welfare of working children and business practices in creative industries, if only the government would demonstrate any sort of ambition in enforcing them.