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At agency for smiles, some frown

Some customers criticize the Boom Talent & Modeling Agency for high prices, few results and conflicts over who owns the photographs.

By TIM GRANT

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 2000


TAMPA -- With his cute dimples, square jaw and big green eyes, 5-year-old John Ruisi turned so many heads that his proud mother dropped off his snapshot at Boom Talent & Modeling Agency.

Employees there told Diane Ruisi her son was gorgeous and they could find him lots of work. Before long, the 35-year-old Carrollwood woman said they made her believe she, too, could be a model. "By the time they were finished talking I saw lights and stars," Ruisi said.

She paid about $800 to get the process started. Soon afterward, her problems with Boom Talent began. In less than a month, the single mother of three had canceled her photo session and sent a lawyer after her money. Before it was over, she and Di Paulson, owner of Boom Talent and Hollywood Hotshots photography studio, had an angry confrontation over who owned the photographs.

In an industry that feeds on high expectations, disputes are not surprising. Some of Boom Talent's customers say they were pressured into paying large sums of money to a neighboring photo studio, the agencies failed to deliver the results they expected and they were left confused about who had rights to the photographs.

Critics also say Paulson circumvents a state law that forbids modeling agencies from charging fees up front. Modeling agencies are not supposed to charge models for anything, including photos, seminars or consultation. An agency's income is supposed to come solely from commissions it gets by finding work for its models.

Paulson furnishes photos, consulting and seminars through Hollywood Hotshots, which shares office space with Boom Talent in a Carrollwood shopping center.

"There's no law that says I can't own an agency and a photography business," Paulson said. "I happen to be a very talented person. Other agents want to bury me. I am a threat because I am so successful."

Paulson and her attorney, Steven Diaco, say no judgments have been entered against her. And Paulson said she does not fill her models with false hopes; rather, she tries to be realistic.

"No one wants to be told they can't be a model," she said. "And I can't take everyone who walks in here just because I don't want to hurt their feelings. We're very selective about who we work with."

* * *

Paulson, 48, says she was a New York model and later a makeup artist before she opened Boom Talent and Hollywood Hotshots in 1994. Paulson says she turns everyday people into the faces we see in commercials, catalogs and other product ads.

The first step, a photo session at Hollywood Hotshots, gives models experience in front of the camera. For about $500, a photographer shoots five rolls of the aspiring model. With luck, the model emerges with enough good photos to create a composite card that can be mailed to clients. Sometimes Paulson suggests more photo shoots, costing more money.

"People think they can come in here and do one test shot, get a comp card and become a supermodel," Paulson said. "Tommy Hilfiger is not going to hire you because you've done one test shot. They want to see a history. They want to know your personality."

But such thoroughness looks more like high-pressure sales tactics to some former customers.

Vivian Blickensderfer said she took her 16-year-old daughter Danielle to discuss a modeling career at Boom Talent. The whole family came along. Before they left, Blickensderfer said, Paulson tried to sign her son, who has braces and crooked teeth; their daughter; and even the family dog. "Because my husband is a lawyer, she figured we had lots of money," Mrs. Blickensderfer said.

She paid about $500, thinking it would cover the photo shoot and comp cards. Instead, she got negatives and says Paulson told her Danielle needed more pictures, costing another $300 to $500, to make a nice comp card.

"I told her I don't have that type of money," Blickensderfer said. "If I knew it would cost more than the initial $500, I wouldn't have started, because that's all I have."

Modeling agencies are regulated by the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Agency officials would not acknowledge any complaints against Boom Talent; department spokesman Judd Bagley said such complaints would not become public unless the business were found guilty of an offense or there were probable cause for an investigation.

Companies that harm consumers or violate state statutes could be warned by letters or be issued citations from the department, Bagley said. Depending on the severity of the injury and the company's track record of prior offenses, fines could reach up to $5,000 per infraction.

The most severe action is suspension or revocation of a company owner's license.

Some customers have gone to court. In a county suit filed in 1998, Miriam Miller said she met with Cheryl Neglio at Boom Talent to discuss a modeling career for her two children.

Neglio told Miller her children had "the perfect look that the industry was looking for," according to a letter filed with the suit. Miller alleges that Neglio sent her to Hollywood Hotshots even though she had pictures from another agency.

"Ms. Neglio was talking very fast," Miller wrote. She paid Neglio $909.50, believing it would cover the photo shoot and comp cards. The day of the shoot, Miller said there were 14 other people scheduled to take pictures. Miller said she asked whether they should postpone the shoot because of a curling iron burn on her daughter's neck. "It's so little it will not even show up," the makeup artists said, according to Miller.

Miller said that when she went to pick up her pictures and comp cards, she received only a handful of negatives. They said the comp cards would cost another $218.65. And the curling iron burn was noticeable in the photos.

She sued and eventually got a settlement. Neglio has since left Boom Talent.

* * *

Paulson said she has booked many models, but her success rate is hard to gauge and she said her models value their privacy.

She named Home Shopping Network as one local business that has used her models. Amy Panson, spokesperson for Home Shopping, said the network used to have a relationship with Boom Talent, but it has been severed.

Diaco, Paulson's attorney, said he could vouch for Paulson, both as a client and business associate. Diaco, who also is a boxing promoter, represents Paulson for free. In exchange, Boom Talent provides models to walk around the boxing rings.

Diaco said much of the criticism against Paulson comes from jealous competitors. He and Paulson declined to discuss most of the individual disputes.

He did acknowledge problems with a release form that models are asked to sign when they have their pictures taken. The document says that, although the pictures belong to the customer, Boom Talent and Hollywood Hotshots retain the rights to use them for their own commercial purposes.

Diaco said he plans to reword the contract to avoid future problems. Diaco said he also wants to address any other problems former Hollywood Hotshots customers or Boom Talent models might have against Paulson, and he invites people to call him at the law firm Adams Blackwell & Diaco.

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