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[whitespace] Shelly Ashworth
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Model Citizen: Shelly Ashworth, a former client of the San Jose-based modeling agency John Robert Powers, fought in court to get a refund of her money and won.

Powers That Be

Angry former employees and clients say the local John Robert Powers school charged high dollars for a promised ticket to professional modeling and acting careers, but used phony 'talent scouts' and high-pressure sales tactics

By Traci Hukill

CHERE ANDRE CANARIS, also known as Cie, started with John Robert Powers 42 years ago and opened its landmark San Jose location across from Valley Fair, visible from Highway 280.

Beautiful and well preserved, a woman who wears fur-trimmed collars and bright lipstick, Cie Canaris (her first name is pronounced "see") calls everyone "dear" and has a habit of distractedly asking, "Now where was I?" after every interruption. To hear her talk, John Robert Powers is the only modeling and acting school in the business offering customers a square deal.

"Most of them are, to me, scams," she says. "If people want to model, they have to be tall, have small bones, a long neck and good eyes, far apart. In a year we might find three, and that's the truth."

"I think commercial acting is where it is today," she goes on. "Everybody needs actors. And people who take acting, even if they never do any of it at all in the world, it gives them a tremendous sense of confidence.

"But the real work we do here is personal growth," she says, warming to her subject. "We help people put forward a good first impression. If it were just modeling and acting--" she makes a deprecating gesture with a gem-laden hand. "We care about people. I feel this is God's business, and I'm not going to offend Him."

Canaris is convincing, but the agency that nicknames itself "The Star Makers" has some unhappy customers who think that they were deliberately misled by advertisements and salespeople.

Rita Kompelmakher is one. She knew something was wrong when she noticed that everyone at the John Robert Powers "audition" was coming out of the consultation room smiling.

"It didn't seem like anybody was being rejected at all," says the 14-year-old Lynbrook High School student, who had come seeking a serious acting class. "I thought it was going to be an audition, but I got the idea that anyone who paid would be 'accepted.' "

The standing-room-only crowd of mostly teenagers and children had come to an event touted as a talent call with a national scout, expecting an evaluation of their talents. But when they were ushered into consultation rooms in small groups, what they got was a sales pitch from a John Robert Powers employee.

If they signed up for classes, they were told, they would learn the skills necessary to succeed in commercial acting. They would learn softer skills, too.

"She said, 'We are going to teach you how to wear makeup, how to take care of your skin, how to eat well,' all this stuff--and I was thinking, 'What does this have to do with anything?' " Rita says.

Rita's a serious girl who knows what she wants. Since she was little she's been passionate about theater--not TV stardom, but drama. In August 1998, Larisa Kompelmakher was feeling concerned about fairness between her children: Rita's brother was playing hockey while Rita's longtime interest in theater languished. So Kompelmakher looked in the Yellow Pages and called John Robert Powers.

"I didn't know very much about this," confesses the elder Kompelmakher, who moved here from Russia 10 years ago. "They tell me, 'We have auditions, we will call you.' So we went."

At the audition, Larisa Kompelmakher says, the two were escorted into an office and pressured to sign Rita up for the classes. Although Rita wanted to study dramatic technique, she decided the classes in acting for the camera "wouldn't be totally useless."

But when Larisa asked if she could wait a couple of days to consult with her husband, Vladimir, who was out of town, the saleswoman told her the offer would expire. If worse came to worst, the saleswoman assured her, she could get her money back.

So Larisa Kompelmakher charged $1,200 to her credit card for 10 acting lessons. Without having seen Rita act, the saleswoman put her in the advanced acting class, because she "seemed determined."

Two days later Rita attended a disappointing class.

"All they did was have us stand there and turn our heads," she says. "Everything was on looks, on presentation. I think it was just charm school."

When the Kompelmakhers tried to get their money back, the saleswoman at John Robert Powers told them the $300 registration fee was nonrefundable, but that they would get the rest in the mail. So the Kompelmakhers waited.

And waited.

Then sued.

It took over a year, a lawsuit in small claims court, three court appointments at which Cie Canaris failed to show, numerous frustrating phone calls and hundreds of dollars in subpoena and court fees for the Kompelmakhers to get $1,000 back.

Vladimir Kompelmakher is determined to get the rest of his money back. For him the remaining $200 have become a matter of principle.

"I cannot believe they can cheat us so badly," he says incredulously. "Do they think they are above the law?"

IN PUBLICATIONS throughout the South Bay, including Metro, John Robert Powers runs breathless advertisements about "once in a lifetime" opportunities to be discovered by international talent scouts. In fliers distributed on high school campuses, acting and modeling hopefuls are promised a shot at the big time. Parents get calls at dinnertime inviting them and their children to auditions for commercials. Always the instructions are the same: come to the audition.

Ronnie Bogle, a San Jose-based fashion designer, worked at the John Robert Powers San Jose studio as a wardrobe instructor and manager for six months, from October 1998 until this past April. He says he left because he became concerned about his professional reputation. "I was the only one at the company who knew anything about fashion," he says.

Bogle also believed the auditions were little more than setups for the sales staff.

"They would run ads for international talent scouts, and these people would not be certified in anything," he says. "They didn't know anything about fashion or modeling or any of it. At one point they had actors in there playing the part of international talent scouts."

Bogle, who speaks in a soft southern drawl, deplores the hard-sell technique he witnessed at his workplace. It was not so much the value of the classes--he believes they're worthwhile--as the promises of success that bothered him.

"I've seen parents who can't afford the money for tuition bullied, coaxed, forced to max out their credit cards, whatever, in one sitting because [someone at John Robert Powers] said their child could be a star," he says.

"I can't tell you what it's like to see a child leave the store and then see the salespeople laughing at that child, at his crooked teeth, at his appearance, whatever.

"It gives the industry I'm trying to get into such a bad rap."

Other employees thought there was something amiss, too.

Cynthia Ward worked at John Robert Powers from July 1998 to January 1999 as a telemarketer. She finally quit, she says, because her paychecks kept coming late and then bouncing. Ward is one of eight former John Robert Powers employees who filed complaints with the Labor Commissioner's office this year over payroll disputes. Ward is annoyed about the money--she says the company owes her a paycheck and bank fees--but she also expresses misgivings about what she was asked to do.

"I would tell them to get their child in because we were going to have an audition for modeling and there would be a scout," she says. "Then people would come in and there would be a gal acting like a scout pretending to recognize their kids, and then they would get the salespeople and try to sign them up for classes.

"Basically it was like a scam to me," she says. "I felt so bad when I found out how raggedy tacky it was. I felt guilty, so caught."

The cash flow at the agency sputtered continuously. Another former employee, Kimberly Coyne, also left John Robert Powers after two months because of late and bounced paychecks.

Coyne, who coordinated the classes and assisted Cie Canaris, says payment was on a first-come-first-served basis.

"As soon as I got my checks I left work and ran to the bank. I had to beat the other employees to the bank because I knew how much money was in there. It was terrible."

SHELLEY ASHWORTH was a new mother with a toddler son when she answered a John Robert Powers ad seeking photogenic kids. When she went to the agency she was told her son wasn't outgoing enough, but that she could have plenty of work and that she ought to get some photos done. The saleswoman gave her a deal, Ashworth says--$600 for photos, hair, makeup, everything, and began calling her "relentlessly." Finally Ashworth agreed to sign up.

Ashworth says the Powers sales rep promised her the moon.

"She said, 'By the time you get your credit card bill, you'll have made enough money to pay it back.' I never heard from them again."

When she went to her photo appointment, the photographer told her she would need to pay an extra $200 for her hair and makeup.

"I started thinking, 'Where did the rest of my money go?' "

Ashworth never had the photos done and started calling the saleswoman.

"I demanded my money back and she said, 'Good luck,' " Ashworth recalls. So she sued in small claims court.

"I went to the court and said, 'I'm suing John Robert Powers,' and the judge said, 'Where's Cie?' She's well known at the court."

Even after Ashworth won her claim against the agency the money didn't come. In the end, Ashworth paid $100 to have a sheriff take the money out of John Robert Powers' bank account. She could have sued to cover that expense, but she declined.

"I learned so much," she says with a rueful laugh.

IN 1923 JOHN ROBERT POWERS the man opened a modeling school and agency in New York that named among its graduates Lucille Ball, Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Candice Bergen and other luminaries. But after the business was franchised in the '50s and Powers, who had established himself as a force in the fashion world, ceded authority over the stores that sprang up across the nation, the star power of The Star Makers waned. Now the only name on the graduate roster anyone recognizes is that of supermodel Niki Taylor.

Canaris knows John Robert Powers San Jose stands accused of luring people in for auditions and then selling them training, and she stands by the ethics of that practice.

"Yes, if they need training, they're damn well going to get it from us," she exclaims. "Because an agent is going to look at them and say, 'Do a monologue for me,' and they won't know how to do it, and that agent will say, 'You're wasting my time.' "

Canaris' position on the authenticity of the "international talent scouts" is unclear. First she responds that, yes, John Robert Powers gets talent scouts "from everywhere." In the next breath she says, "We use our own people now. We don't even use those people anymore."

Questioned about the sales technique of her staff, Canaris paints a scenario much different from the one the Kompelmakhers and others describe.

"They come in and we have a seminar," she says. "We tell them, 'We want you to come in, but if you feel it won't be necessary, then you're excused.' Then we give them a packet and say, 'You take that home and you call us if you're interested.' Is that hard pressure?

Canaris leans forward and narrows her eyes. "I have a $2 million home in Los Altos Hills, I have two Mercedes and an aeroplane and a ranch. Do you think I give a damn about getting more money?"

Canaris dismisses her detractors as "a bunch of disgruntled employees" and explains her company's failure to pay its employees and grant refunds in a timely manner as a routine risk of doing business.

"Well, these things happen," she says. "I'll tell you what happened. We sold the building across from Valley Fair and gutted this whole place [the Westgate suite]. That cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was supposed to be ready in December and it wasn't ready until April."

But former employees report payroll problems before and after that period of time.

Canaris says that during that time she refunded money for hundreds of people who weren't able to attend classes in which they'd enrolled.

"I've been in business 42 years. I must be doing something right," she says testily.

JOHN ROBERT POWERS HAS AN "unsatisfactory" rating from the Better Business Bureau, a designation bestowed in the wake of two unaddressed complaints in a three-year period. Canaris blames unrealistic expectations and irresponsibility for most of the gripes, noting that "some people don't read an enrollment contract before they sign it."

But it seems that for every dissatisfied customer who filed a claim this year against John Robert Powers (six) and every employee seeking restitution for a bounced paycheck and bank fees (eight), there is a letter on the bulletin board at John Robert Powers from a satisfied customer. Most mention confidence and personal growth and fairly gush with gratitude toward John Robert Powers for giving them something they could get nowhere else.

Cassidy Mudurian, 19, credits John Robert Powers with giving her the self-assurance to pursue a modeling career, which she notes is going swimmingly (John Robert Powers is her agent). Mudurian signed up for three classes with John Robert Powers in February in runway modeling, commercial acting and personal development.

"When I started, I had a really bad opinion of myself," she says. "Especially the personal development course really made me feel confident. And it helped my posture so much."

"The key is to make yourself available. You have to get work done if you want to get stuff back," she adds.

The photos of attractive young people scattered generously throughout the John Robert Powers website (www.jrpowers.net) are no guarantee of success in the industry. But the site does give clues about its real promises, if a person reads it carefully enough. Here's an excerpt from the short bio of John Robert Powers himself, where the words "supermodel" "Los Angeles" or "modeling career" do not appear.

"Mr. Powers believed that there is no such thing as an unattractive person, just some people who do not know how to make the most of themselves. He dedicated his life to helping people to develop and take good advantage of their personalities.

"Naturalness was his gospel. He encouraged his female students, 'Don't make up, make down.' Our schools still believe and teach this philosophy. Be yourself. Be natural. That is what our courses are all about."

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From the December 9-15, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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