Norfolk -- They're approached in malls, nightclubs and all points in between.
They're told they have "the look'' and are invited to "open calls'' at the new eModel franchise that set up shop Oct. 1 on Granby Street.
They're told that only those special enough will be allowed to pay $495 up front and another $19.95 per month for a spot on eModel Inc.'s Web site.
They're told that legendary agencies search the Web site for new talent, and that a dozen or so supermodels have already signed up "to get work.''
The golden names drop like manna from model heaven:
Tyra Banks. Niki Taylor. Naomi Campbell.
Elite. Look. Next. Wilhelmina.
New York. Paris. Milan.
Flattered and starry-eyed, at least 700 men, women and children have dressed up, gelled up and shown up for the open calls in Norfolk.
More than 100 have paid the money. Thousands more have paid millions with eModel outlets in other cities.
But is eModel really a gateway to the glamorous world of modeling?
Three of the major agencies touted by eModel say they don't use the company's Web site. The famous faces don't, either.
The man listed on company documents filed in Florida as eModel's corporate president has done prison time for fraud. Twice.
And although no complaints have been filed with the Better Business Bureau locally, at least 79 have been lodged with BBBs elsewhere.
Officials at some of those BBBs, along with several former eModel scouts, say the company isn't very picky about who it signs up.
But Brenda Fenn, owner of Norfolk's eModel franchise, insists her staff is "extremely selective.''
"We're not here to take people's money if they don't have potential,'' Fenn said. "They're trusting us with their hopes and dreams, and I truly believe in what we're doing.''
"Excuse me . . . I couldn't help but notice you. Have you ever done any professional modeling before?''
It's a common opener for eModel scouts -- and one that few egos can ignore.
Nichole Oaten, 22, of Newport News, was browsing the paint department at Lowe's when an eModel scout handed her a business card.
"It blew me away,'' Oaten said. "I just wasn't expecting anything like that.''
The mother of two works as a housekeeper at the Fairfield Kingsgate resort in Williamsburg.
"I'm kind of excited about this,'' Oaten said quietly as she cast an eye around the room at a recent eModel open call. "I'm ready to go if I'm accepted.''
Scouts have long been fixtures in the high-stakes hunt for the profiles that promote products. Few companies, however, use scouts as aggressively or effectively as eModel. Where others lean more on advertising or simply hang out a shingle, eModel outlets deploy more than 3,000 full- and part-time, commission-driven scouts who make their one-on-one pitches in the places where people work, shop and play.
The approach has enabled the Orlando-based company to interest more men in what traditionally has been a female-dominated career field. More than a third of the Norfolk enrollees are male -- a ratio that mirrors the rest of eModel's Web site.
It's all helped propel eModel's explosion into what the company says is the world's largest model-scouting service. Two years ago, eModel consisted of an eight-person staff in a single office in central Florida. Today, the corporation and its franchises encompass some 5,000 employees at 51 offices with another 50 outlets in the works.
Roughly 17 scouts work out of the Norfolk office. They scour all sides of Hampton Roads, inviting potentials to one of three open calls held each week in a renovated second-story loft at 332 Granby St.
Attendance is light at Nichole Oaten's open call. About 20 hopefuls have shown up. Other sessions have drawn as many as 65.
Sitting alone or whispering with friends brought for support, an equal share of men and women wait, sizing up each other with sidelong glances. They come in all shades of skin and hair tones. Most are between the ages of 18 and 25, slim, about average height and well-groomed.
Michael Mars, 23, strides to the front of the room. He's one of the office's half-dozen or so talent executives -- one tier above scout in the eModel hierarchy. Stationed in the office instead of the field, talent executives process the prospects brought in by the scouts.
Tonight, it's Mars' turn to give the evening's 45-minute group presentation.
First up: a fast-paced, 10-minute video of fashion models strutting through a barrage of flashing camera bulbs. Newscast clips of eModel openings in other cities cut between a blur of endorsements from enthusiastic models.
A British-accented narrator tells of eModel's meteoric rise and its affiliation with thousands of agencies and clients, including the top agencies in the world. Former supermodel Kim Alexis -- eModel's official spokeswoman and a member of its board of directors -- says eModel is revolutionizing the industry.
When the film ends, Mars takes over.
He explains the difference between modeling agencies and a scouting service such as eModel. Scouting services don't actively pair models with jobs; they simply bring their discoveries to the attention of agencies that do.
Usually, to break into the business, models flood agencies with photos and hope to stand out in the stacks of glossies endlessly shuffled by the agents.
EModel replaces those glossies with Web-based versions. Agencies that register online are given a passcode and free access. A search program lets them narrow the field to models with certain characteristics.
Mars gives the group a brief cybertour of the eModel Web site. He points out where the famous models are featured. He talks about agents, their fees, pay rates and all sorts of industry insider tidbits.
His audience listens intently as Mars warns that eModel accepts only those with real potential. He says that while there are no promises, the company's track record shows that 84 percent of the sign-ups are contacted by an agency or client within 90 days of their debut on the Web site.
If invited to join eModel, Mars says, models must pay the $495 fee on the spot. Walk out, and they can't come back for a full year.
The $495 and a $19.95 monthly service fee are mentioned once before Mars reaches over and hits a button, and the pulsing beat of "I'm too sexy for my clothes . . .'' leaps to life.
It's time for the runway walk. Mars begins calling out names. The first few would-be models require a little prodding before rising to their feet and parading stiffly up and down an aisle between the chairs.
Fortified by applause, the walkers begin to loosen up. The music pounds. A strut creeps into their stride. A hand finds its way to their hip. Turn. Pose. Smile. Applause.
"Very 'wow,' '' Mars says.
By now, they're volunteering, hands held high in a bid to go next.
When the show is over, they wait anxiously for their two-minute, one-on-one exit interviews -- the next level of eModel's screening process.
Each will be called into an office, where a talent executive will measure their height, assess their smile and decide if they're model material.
If so, they'll be invited back for a second interview the next day. If that goes well, photos they supply themselves will be e-mailed to corporate offices in Orlando for approval. If it comes, they'll be offered a place on the Web site.
Chris Zemanek, 21, sits waiting for his exit interview, a gold credit card clutched in one hand.
"I know there are people out there who are better-looking than I am,'' says the ODU student, "but I think I have my own look.''
His height -- in the neighborhood of 5 feet 6 -- might be a drawback in the lanky world of professional modeling.
Zemanek doesn't seem concerned.
"If they think I'm good enough,'' he says, "I'm going for it.''
EModel says 10,000 agencies and clients use the Web site to discover new talent.
Among those mentioned at open calls and listed on the company's site: Elite, Next, Wilhelmina and, until recently, Look -- all renowned agencies, each with its own stable of supermodels.
Corporate representatives from three of the four agencies say their companies do not use eModel.
"What they're doing is using our name, and that's a big no-no,'' said Christine Schott, director of public relations and promotions for Elite Celebrities in New York.
Schott said Elite sent eModel notice in May to stop using its name.
"Apparently it didn't do any good,'' Schott said.
Diana Gormley with Next said the New York agency has also complained to eModel.
"We don't endorse them and we don't use their site,'' said Gormley, director of Next Management Co.'s New Faces Division.
Look Talent's Al LaCayo said the San Francisco agency has "absolutely no involvement at all'' with eModel.
"I don't see any value in it,'' said LaCayo, director of Look's men's division. "We have enough models knocking on our door.''
Look's name was recently dropped from eModel's registered agency list and replaced with Wilhelmina Models. Wilhelmina said its name belongs there.
"I can't say if we've used any of their models, but I'm sure we've looked at their site,'' said Peter King of Wilhelmina's New Faces Board in New York. "We definitely use all resources.''
Norfolk franchise owner Fenn said she's "shocked'' to hear that three of the four agencies deny any affiliation with eModel: "I just go by what corporate tells us. I have faith in the company.''
At corporate headquarters, media questions were directed to Brian Davis, who offered an explanation.
"Just because the home offices don't know about it doesn't mean their booking agents and branches aren't using us,'' said Davis, a marketing consultant who handles eModel's public relations.
Davis said he has proof that booking agents from the listed agencies have used eModel. He chose not to provide the information, saying he didn't want the agents "to start getting a bunch of phone calls.''
Supermodels were also part of the pitch at the Norfolk office, where Fenn ticked off a roster of top models she said were using the Web site: "Even they can always use more work.''
Among the household names on Fenn's list: Tyra Banks and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos.
Both are represented by IMG Models in New York. Nadine Johnson handles public relations for IMG.
"What?'' Johnson said when told of eModel's claim. "This is an outrageous situation! They have no business using our girls to promote their business.''
Terri Bears, an eModel senior vice president, said Fenn must have misunderstood the supermodel connection. Bears said the supermodel zone on eModel's Web site was merely a link to an outside site featuring information about the well-known models.
"It was just a mistake she made,'' Bears said, adding that the link has since been removed.
But two former eModel scouts in other cities said their offices also made the supermodel claim.
Huguette Charles scouted for eModel outside Chicago last summer. [A.S.] worked in Los Angeles until early January. Both said they quickly became disillusioned with the company, eventually quitting over pay disputes.
"When people hear those supermodels are on the site, and they see their pictures,'' Charles said, "they think it's an endorsement of the company. Even I thought it was true.''
Launched in 1996, eModel operated quietly in its early years as "just a Web site waiting for traffic to come on,'' Davis said. Business began booming in 1999, when the company started hiring scouts and marketing itself to aspiring models in central Florida.
A franchise program, kicked off in September 2000, took the company nationwide. The relatively modest start-up costs -- between $30,000 and $50,000, according to the company -- have helped put outlets in 44 cities. Some cities have more than one.
Bears said roughly 35,000 people have enrolled in the past year. Sign-up fees vary slightly from office to office, but at the Norfolk rate of $495, Bears' figures would translate into about $17 million.
She estimated that 30,000 are on the site now -- a number that would generate an additional $7 million per year in monthly $19.95 service fees.
Davis denied that eModel takes all comers, but he said he "wouldn't say we're highly selective.'' Company-wide, he said, an average of 70 percent of those who apply are accepted.
"But remember, the people who come in have already been screened by our trained scouts,'' Davis said.
Former eModel scout Rhonda Utke said the screening process at the Florida franchise where she worked was an act.
Utke started scouting for eModel last May. Three months later, she quit and filed a complaint with the Central Florida Better Business Bureau over pay she says she never received.
According to Utke, the selection process she encountered was anything but selective. "It was a joke,'' Utke said.
Bernard, the attorney for eModel, cautioned that "disgruntled employees are an unreliable source in any business.''
Fenn said screening is real in Norfolk. She said her staff accepts only 25 percent of the people they interview at open calls.
"I think we have to keep our standards high or none of the agencies will bother to use the site,'' she said.
Fenn purchased her franchise, the only one in Virginia, in June. Her first open call was Oct. 6.
A longtime Norfolk resident and one-time aspiring model herself, Fenn, 29, said she was seeking a change from a high-stress career as a local pharmaceutical sales rep -- a job she said contributed to her heart attack at age 26.
After a year or so of soul-searching, Fenn said, she decided to return to the business she'd always loved. Her own teen-age dreams of modeling had been scuttled by the realization that her 5-foot-5 1/2 -inch height and Asian-American features would limit her job prospects.
"So I decided to find out what the other end of the business is like,'' Fenn said. A search on the Internet led her to eModel.
According to Fenn, as of mid-December none of her sign-ups had landed a paying job. Last week, she wouldn't say if that's changed.
"Corporate said for us not to talk to the press anymore,'' Fenn explained.
Fenn has said she's trying to forge alliances with local production companies and advertising and modeling agencies.
"EModel doesn't make any promises, but I feel like I have to do something for these people,'' she said. "I know the odds of any of them getting picked up by a major agency are one in a million.''
It happened to Katie Enlow.
Spotted by an eModel scout at a mall in Orlando, the 5-foot-10, size 2 high-school senior attended a company-sponsored convention last year, where she was noticed by an agent from Wilhelmina Models' Miami office.
Wilhelmina recently signed Katie to a two-year exclusive contract. No dollar figure is attached yet, and Katie, 17, won't start working until after graduation, but her father is pleased.
"People have been telling me for years that my daughter should be a model,'' said Steve Enlow. "It was through eModel that she got her break with Wilhelmina.''
EModel spokesman Davis said the company has "thousands of success stories.'' EModel's attorney claimed that in October, "more than 2,400 models were directly requested for jobs.''
Davis provided The Virginian-Pilot with bios of 29 sign-ups he said are happy with the results they've gotten from the company. Calls were placed to all of those models. Interviews with the 15 who were reached produced mixed reviews.
Some, like Victoria Hornbeck, 30, from Montgomery, Ill., say their eModel connection is opening doors. Hornbeck said a Chicago production company found her through eModel and cast her for a small role in an independent film. She's not getting paid, but she is getting free acting lessons.
Randy Zingo, 27, from Fairfield, Conn., said he was paid $34 an hour for wearing a lumberjack outfit in the background of a Hungry Jack pancake and potato mix commercial. And, he said, he was hired to pose for a brochure for a small modeling agency that's expanding to New York.
Promotional work is more likely, though, according to interviews with other eModel success stories.
Stacey Bowen, of Davis, Calif., handed out samples of Yoplait yogurt at a breast cancer event. Starsha Collins, of Lansing, Mich., conducted a Pepsi versus Coke taste test outside a grocery store. Dawn Parr, of Burnsville, Minn., dispensed contest entry forms for Pontiac at a rock concert.
"I had a lot of fun,'' said Jessica Dahlman, of Radnor, Pa., who passed out programs at a fashion show for Bridal Magazine. "It was a good chance to interact with other people in the industry and an experience I never would have had without eModel.''
Others, like Adam Luck of Atlanta, are disappointed. Luck said he's gotten modeling work on his own, but not "a single job through eModel that was worth anything. Want to hear about the one I got? I stood outside a stadium in the rain for two hours handing out little plastic footballs. I don't know what I was thinking when I signed on.''
Crystal Quantock, of Ypsilianti, Mich., said eModel provided the newspaper with inaccurate information about her. Quantock's printed bio says a company-sponsored convention "opened a whole new world for Crystal. To her surprise, she had numerous callbacks from agencies . . . ''
Quantock is then quoted as saying, "The convention was a great thing. I was excited and amazed at the fact that I've already been booked on jobs!''
Quantock said she didn't go to the convention.
"I don't know what they're talking about,'' Quantock said. "In fact, I'm considering stopping my monthly payments to eModel. A monkey could have done the jobs I've gotten.''
Promotional jobs, which start at around $15 an hour, are the most plentiful and the easiest to land in the industry. Chris Pace, of Ahead of the Pace agency in New York, said he has hired about 125 eModels over the past year for promotional work at conventions, fairs and stadiums around the country.
Barry Lerner of Chicago's ASAP Models, Talent and Promotions said he has found promotional jobs for 200 to 300 eModels in the past eight months.
"It's just such a great convenience,'' Lerner said. "If I've got a job in Podunk and I don't have any models in that area, I can find them through eModel.''
Lerner said rookie models can set their sights too high: "Some of them think promotional stuff is beneath their dignity. They don't realize that they've got to start someplace.''
Judy Pepper, president of the Central Florida Better Business Bureau, said her office has recorded a "pattern of consumer complaints'' about eModel: 79 complaints lodged over the past 18 months.
Located on eModel's home turf, Pepper's office collects complaints made against company headquarters and company-owned outlets. Those filed against franchises stay with BBBs in the franchises' hometowns.
Pepper said roughly half the cases in her file concern pay disputes with scouts. The other half stem from models.
"I think there'd be more from the models if it wasn't such a real ego buster,'' Pepper said. "When you don't get the jobs, you think it's just you -- that you're just not good enough.''
EModel's Terri Bears said the grumbling is minimal, considering the size of the company. And, Bears said, all but two of the complaints have been resolved.
Pepper said BBB records show that 23 of the complaints were closed as unresolved. The remaining 56 are divided between resolved and still pending.
Bears said the BBB has "incorrect information.''
"We don't promise anyone success,'' said eModel spokesman Davis. "But we do everything we can to make it happen.''
He mentioned Models Only, a company offshoot launching a line of cosmetics and sportswear. Although the products are now sold in only five mall kiosks in California and Florida, Models Only held a spokesmodel contest in August in Orlando. Competitors were chosen from the eModel Web site.
Win or lose, the models got a chance to rub elbows with talent scouts from various agencies who judged the contest.
About 800 models paid to compete by buying weekend packages at an average cost of $650 each.
This year's contest takes place during a three-day Carnival cruise to the Bahamas in April. Cost to go and compete: about $1,000. An estimated 1,200 models are expected to attend.
He said he was skeptical at first, but decided to give the company a try.
"What the heck, you know?'' Lamoreaux said. "It's just a shot in the dark, and even if nothing comes out of it, I'll have gone on a cruise with at least a thousand young people.
"That sounds like fun no matter what.''
That's probably the best attitude for people who decide to plunk down the dough, said Thomas Cash, an Old Dominion University professor who specializes in the psychology of physical appearance.
"If you look at this modeling thing like playing the lottery, then fine,'' Cash said. "Of course, the lottery does tell you up front what your odds are, even if it is in small print.''