Thank God Lou Pearlman is laughing, otherwise things could get ugly.
"I can't say how he'll do in space, but he was a terrific flight engineer in my movie," Pearlman says, via cell phone, of 'N Sync's Lance Bass. The self-congratulatory reference is to Pearlman's 2001 direct-to-video film, "Longshot," which also features 'N Sync member Joey Fatone as a pizza cook.
Pearlman is on his phone, fielding questions as he dashes between meetings. We've already covered the softball stuff: How the "American Idol" people stole the idea from his "Making the Band," how Virgin's Richard Branson is "a real trip," and (yet again) how Art Garfunkel is his cousin.
The idea is to keep him laughing so I can dip into murkier areas he's not used to treading in when the local press calls. Specifically, I want to know more about a few of his recent business ventures, which are as puzzling as they are questionable. As an August New York Times article noted, the era of the boyband is finally (and mercifully) coming to a close. Which of course means that Pearlman's entertainment empire, Trans Continental Companies (www.t-con.com), has to expand into new territory to keep the cash flowing. So what will Orlando's Svengali do to fill his bubblegum-music income gap?
In September, Pearlman, 47, bought a significant portion of Karma, a definitely-not-gay Orlando-based fashion magazine, which he plans to convert into Industry, a nationally circulated show-business magazine. He also has a new TV show in the works, tentatively titled "It's All About You," to audition and advance America's most beautiful, right from Orlando.
Both the magazine and TV show are shaky foundations on which to continue an empire. Karma has churned out little more than localized fluff since launching in December 2001. "It's All About You" might just ride the "American Idol" momentum, but interest could just as easily wane without the musical focus and a snappy, British panelist like Simon Cowell.
But Pearlman's oddest move came in early September, when Trans Continental purchased the controversial model-scouting firm, Options Talent Inc. That company has gone by three names in two years: Studio 58, eModel and Options Talent. The first was a test company of sorts, while the second and third shared virtually the same staff. Each incarnation carried with it scores of unhappy clients who felt they were ripped off, and bad blood from other talent agencies that thought Studio 58/eModel/Options Talent preyed on model and actor wannabes who don't know how the industry works.
Today, Options Talent is called Trans Continental Talent. Aside from the name change, it's largely the same company it ever was, with the notable exception that Lou Pearlman is in charge. The question is, can the man who ruined music for the rest of us turn this cloudy company into a reputable firm?
Inside the mothership
TCT is a polished, bustling company headquartered in a sleek office building in MetroWest. More than 70 offices worldwide report to the Orlando mothership, and the company claims to have more than 600 employees. Talent scouts from Singapore to Tulsa scour their respective areas for the proverbial diamonds in the rough. The next Julia Roberts or Giselle Bundchen, goes the argument, just might be discovered noshing in the nearest food court. And that next star could be you.
Of course, to get discovered, you first have to have a "comp card," which is basically a head shot or a collection of photos on the front of a piece of glossy stock, with your measurements and r?sum? on the back.
TCT sells an online version of the traditional comp card, just as cold and impersonal, but with the benefits that such a dynamic medium can offer. Photos can be automatically updated to reflect new looks, and registered agents and casting professionals can quickly search through the database to find the people they need.
To get people to sign up for the service, TCT scouts approach wandering collegians for their youthful beauty and stocky shoppers for their "edgy look." Everyone has potential and no one need be excluded. The result is an affirmation for the overly confident and long overdue redemption for the introverted. Scouts simply hand over a card and the romanticism begins.
The lucky and talented get a call back following their audition and, if all goes well on the phone interview, are granted an opportunity to pay $595 to join the TCT elite (with a $19.95 monthly maintenance charge). TCT's success is based on quantity. The company is not at all selective, and everyone who is scouted and attends an audition gets a call back. But company procedures dictate that the point need not be beaten into applicants.
Everyone at TCT looks vaguely like a cast member from "Friends." On a recent office tour I spent the majority of my time in the office of Ryan Saniuk, who evokes a less-witty Matthew Perry, with nearly identical glasses and hair that is gelled upward to a short point. Saniuk is the vice president of talent services, a division of the company that promotes clients to agencies and casting directors.
Eight people staff the talent services, zipping from room to room, seldom off the phone for long. Twenty-four employees field customer-service calls in the next room, while more than 100 "talent executives" place follow-up sales calls to prospective clients who have attended auditions. The sizes of the departments imply the sense of priority of each.
Saniuk says 80 percent of TCT's enrolled members have found work through the program. The percentage is split between those directly contacted, based on their individual characteristics, and those who were sent mass e-mails, such as calls for extras. The remaining 20 percent who weren't contacted at all either haven't updated their contact information or live in areas that weren't casting, he says.
That kind of exposure is all that TCT provides, says the new boss. In fact he's so sensitive about the company's past that he says it over and over: "Our operating method will be different; we're not selling dreams. We'll just be providing website exposure."
Indeed, Pearlman is already putting his imprint on the company.
Earlier incarnations of TCT were led by a management team headed by Cortes Randell and Mohamed Hadid, two directors that had been on board since the very beginning. Both are now gone. "Mohamed Hadid is out," says Pearlman, before adding, "It was a cordial departure. And Cortes is no longer working here."
Pearlman is adamant about the company's new direction, right down to the recruitment of talent. Scouts are now on salary, he says, so the pressure is off to sell dreams to those who will never attain them. "Unlike Options, talent scouts will not work on commissions," he says, "We're not using their business plan."
Make the sale
Even though the service is digital, no one at TCT can say exactly how many clients the company has. Pearlman puts the figure at about 85,000, while chief executive officer Mark Tolner says the number is closer to 75,000. An Atlanta TV-news crew estimated 33,000 clients, while Saniuk guessed the figure was about 60,000.
A larger question is how all those people got to be clients in the first place. Were they told before signing up that TCT takes everyone with $600 to spend? That depends on who you ask.
"They'd tell people coming in that some people were turned away if they had braces or were too fat," says a former salaried employee who asked not to be named. "Those people could try again in a year, after they'd made some changes."
While at the TCT headquarters, I was taken to every corner of the business, except the offices where the talent executives work. My guide, Erin Cameron, said my presence would distract the execs as they worked the phones. I asked Cameron if I could plug in with the TCT supervisors who monitor calls from an adjoining room, but again I was politely turned down. The company didn't want to reveal its trade secrets, she said.
The former employee later told me that, had I witnessed the talent executives in action, I would have "clearly seen unethical behavior resulting from a lack of monitoring and training."
Their job is to use hard-sell tactics to ensure that scouted prospects become paying clients. Prospects are told to decide immediately, or risk having to wait up to a year to reapply. Talent execs use the age-old car-salesman's trick, putting callers on hold while they ostensibly run interview responses by supervisors. In reality, they are killing time to give the appearance of an approval process, says the source.
"You'll see them outside smoking while someone's on the line. I've heard a lot of bullshit to get the sale."
The scouted -- Trans Continental's "chosen" people -- can provide a more complete accounting of the process.
For most, first contact with the company happens in decidedly unglamorous surroundings.
Tara Kahle, 30, is a buoyant, energetic elementary and middle-school teacher in the small town of Seminole, just south of Clearwater. At 5 feet 5 inches tall, she is sometimes mistaken by school visitors as one of her students. She tries to maintain a regular fitness regimen and occasionally shops at discount department stores. Basically, Kahle is more prepared for the classrooms of Florida than the runways of Milan.
"It happened last April," says Kahle of her "discovery" by a TCT scout, "while I was in a Target store in Largo. I had just come from working out. I was sweaty and had on a tank top with a baseball cap and a ponytail. [The scout] said I had an Ã?athletic look' which was what they were looking for, for commercials and athletic modeling."
Though Kahle wasn't quite certain what "athletic modeling" was, she was interested enough to attend an audition in St. Petersburg the next day. There she saw people of various shapes and sizes being photographed and interviewed. A few were cause for skepticism.
"Some of the people there, I just couldn't imagine getting work," she says.
Kahle says her own talent executive was impatient and pushy.
"When he called me back, because I wouldn't decide right then and there, he just said, Ã?Well, we can't go though this interview process again for another year,'" she recalls.
Kahle was left with the impression that there was indeed a selection process. "[The talent executives] make it sound like you have to interview well," she says, "and then they have to run your interview responses by a supervisor saying, Ã?She will make the final decision.'"
Lou Pearlman flew into town with his Airships International, the source of much of his wealth.
His blimp-and-aircraft service eventually succumbed to more streamlined competitors like Virgin Airlines. But Pearl-man learned a great deal from one former client, New Kids on the Block, who exhibited their success with $250,000 monthly jet rentals. That spark led to the creation of Backstreet Boys, who have sold more than 65 million albums worldwide.
Pearlman followed that success with 'N Sync, a second profitable act that often competed with Backstreet Boys in the homogeneous boy-pop arena.
Allegations began to surface concerning Pearlman's heavy-handed management style, highlighted by a 1998 incident involving Backstreet's Brian Littrell needing surgery for a leaky heart valve. The group's managers asked Littrell if his surgery could be postponed until after the tour.
Both bands have subsequently sued Pearlman for release from restrictive contracts. In a 1998 suit, Backstreet Boys accused Pearlman of earning $10 million since 1993, as opposed to their $300,000 take. He mentions some of his legal troubles in "Bands, Brands & Billions: My Top Ten Rules for Success in Any Business," a simplistic business memoir co-authored by Wes Smith earlier this year. In the book, Pearlman references his many "nuisance lawsuits."
"I should be used to it by now," he sighs, "but I still dread being sued."
His acquisition of Options Talent and Karma, then, may be an attempt to branch off into less litigious lines of work. By extending into the talent industry, Pearlman might have tapped into an endless supply of youth and newness, the bread and butter of modern entertainment. Still, if he intends to run a simple web-page service for actors and models, why adopt a firm with such a contentious history?
A day after talking with Pearlman I get a call from Brian Anderson, TCT's PR consultant. And Anderson is furious. He demands to know why I interviewed Pearlman the night before, and why my questions "went in a negative direction."
"I've been with this company since the very beginning," he shouts, "we have never claimed to be a selective company. There are four different times [in the process] that we tell people we aren't selective."
Anderson wants me to tell him everything bad I know about TCT and its predecessors. Much of the bad press, he says, can be explained by the fact that top modeling agencies in New York are out to get the little guys elsewhere. It's a conspiracy, he says, and the reason for the rash of bad press surrounding Options.
"What people don't realize is that these allegations really hurt us personally," he says. "Everyone here works very hard, and we know that we provide a valuable service and it affects the morale in our office much more than it affects business."
The bad press he's referring to is a string of TV-news reports in cities where TCT did business as Options. WAGA-TV in Atlanta, a FOX affiliate, aired a story in May that included hidden-camera footage of a 10-year-old girl and her friend attending an Options audition. The report included a follow-up phone call from a "talent executive," who told the girl's father, actually the WAGA reporter, that the girls were "gorgeous" and were encouraged to join in the program right away. If they didn't join immediately, the caller said, it would be "close to a year" before they could try out again.
WPVI in Philadelphia, an ABC affiliate, also did a story in May. The station sent a 39-year-old producer to an audition where she was told, "You do have a very nice look, so, we'll definitely let you stay."
KRON in San Francisco and WFTV Channel 9, an ABC affiliate here in Orlando, aired nearly identical accounts with different witnesses and Options participants. Both included visits to the audition and accounts of the talent-executive phone calls afterward.
The stories likely grew out of an Orlando Better Business Bureau "unsatisfactory record" of Options, based on a pattern of "misrepresentation in recruiting practices and misrepresentation of the modeling agencies who use their services." The BBB files have been updated as of Sept. 19 to reflect Pearlman's involvement but still show that "consumers somehow confuse the services offered by Options Talent." Though the BBB website states that some of the complaints have been resolved, others were closed without resolution.
Bob Kahn, an Orlando casting director with 33 years of experience, holds some rather severe opinions of Trans Continental Talent and Lou Pearlman.
Kahn considers modeling, and especially acting, to be a specialized profession. TCT, he says, trivializes the industry by presenting it as something anybody can do.
"The person they're going to attract has no knowledge of the business and does not understand the selection process," says Kahn. "If the wannabe actor understands what is required of them and the practice that is necessary, they would see right through this charade."
Might there be some benefit from joining TCT, even for increased exposure?
"None whatsoever," he responds sharply, "other than making somebody else some money."
Kahn notes that the average cost of a traditional "comp card" is about $100 for 100 copies. That's more than enough because casting tends to be very local, he adds, and aspiring performers need only concentrate on those talent agencies in their immediate area. Central Florida has about 16 talent agencies and South Florida 20, estimates Kahn. Beyond that, fame-and-fortune seekers are wasting their time.
"So, who needs to pay $600 to put it online?" he sniffs.
Kahn's critique of TCT extends to its new boss. "If you only understood Lou Pearlman and understood how lucky he is," said Kahn. "He is extremely lucky; he has not been successful on his own, not one thing on his own."
That particular statement sounds odd, given that Pearlman has made millions off his musical endeavors. But it has a ring of truth when you realize that both of his most profitable bands came almost fully formed, ready for an expert's care to market them. Pearlman calls it "image styling." Backstreet Boys only needed some tweaking and a management adjustment. 'N Sync arrived on his doorstep, complete and ready to sing.
Kahn predicts a long and arduous road ahead for Pearlman, perhaps a new kind of journey for the fortunate mogul. It may prove to be an individual triumph for Pearlman, or his greatest, most expensive mistake.
His mastery of PR handling may be too little, too late for a business like TCT. He is used to finding and polishing a valuable commodity, not overhauling and starting from scratch.
If precedent serves as any example, Pearlman will bring an initial flood of positive press. But will it be enough to sustain a company without a credible purpose?