OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- Modeling can be glitzy, glamorous and -- as some models will tell you -- a lesson in what not to do.
“He doesn't keep his promises,” Lawrence resident Alexia Martel said. “He doesn't give you what you want to be. He will only bring you down.”
Michelle Adam was equally upset: "I'm thinking, 'How is my son ever going to do anything if he stays with this agent?'"
They were both talking about Ray LaPietra, the owner of Career Images Model and Talent Agency.
FOX4 Problem Solvers reviewed two (later dismissed) lawsuits filed against Career Images. We also spoke with models, their parents and industry professionals to get a better understanding of a talent agent who boasts of being a 30-year leader in his industry but who some models claim locked them into a five-year contract and provided little, if any, paid work.
Martel, now a high school junior, said she and her mother were told that if she ever wanted to have a career as a model, she needed to sign a five-year exclusive contract with Career Images. She was 15.
Almost three years later, Martel said she has had only one paying job for $75.
Carter Adam hasn’t had any jobs.
“He said at the beginning a lot of his models have done this, they've done that, they've been paid in other countries,” Adam, a high school student in Johnson County, Kansas, said he was told by LaPietra . “At first I said, 'OK I'm going to get paid.'"
But his mother Michelle Adam said the only money to exchange hands in the last year went directly to LaPietra to pay for photo shoots and workshops.
“They kept asking us to pay for the boot camp, the collaboration shoots, but Carter wasn't getting any modeling gigs,” Michelle Adam said.
She estimated she had given LaPietra about $500. She even had to pay extra when she insisted she be allowed to have an adult chaperone her then 15-year-old son on a photo shoot.
“Oh my gosh, that's so outside of industry standards it's not funny,” said Heather Laird, a Kansas City casting agent. “It's scary.”
Laird, who works with talent agents across the metro to cast for commercials, movies and television shows, said any professional would insist a minor be accompanied by an adult -- for everyone’s protection.
“And you don't pay to be there with your child,” Laird said. “That's ridiculous.”
At the request of FOX4 Problem Solvers, Laird reviewed Career Images' contract. She said most talent agency contracts are for one year, not five years as required by Career Images. Plus Laird said no one should feel locked into a contract with a talent agent.
“All the agents I work with, if there is an unhappy relationship on either side the talent leaves, the agent leaves.” Laird said. “There's no point in staying.”
Four models sued LaPietra and Career Images last year. The combined lawsuit alleged LaPietra and Career Images didn’t provide the services promised and refused to let them out of the contract when they complained.
The lawsuit was eventually dismissed. LaPietra told FOX4 that he was unaware that some models were upset with him until after they filed a lawsuit.
He said as soon as he found out, he released them. He said he was surprised to hear that models were unhappy with his services since the same models had written glowing reviews of his company.
Former Career Image models told FOX4 that LaPietra told them to write the positive reviews and LaPietra even provided them with the exact wording he wanted them to use.
“Please do the 5-star positive reviews we discussed that will give public credit to my generous services ... Ray LaPietra is a dedicated agent and manager and we like that he works 7 days a week and is always there for us. We could not ask for more," LaPietra wrote in an email to a model.
The models said when they later posted negative online reviews, they were removed.
LaPietra insisted many models and their parents are thrilled with his service, including Mike Immer whose wife and three daughters have modeled for LaPietra for a year.
“As we got to know him better, I got to respect him greatly,” LaPietra said. “He's a wonderful negotiator.”
Immer said he trusted his family with LaPietra in part because of LaPietra’s law enforcement background. LaPietra worked as a part-time reserve officer for Merriam and Wyandotte County more than 20 years ago.
Immer said he also chose LaPietra because he had a solid reputation -- something he said he didn’t find with other agents.
“The other ones I looked at online did not have the sterling reputation, the years of business and weren't interacting with the models in the same way,” Immer said.
FOX4 Problem Solvers asked which agents he had observed. Immer said he had not actually observed other agents but had observed other agents’ models at events.
Immer said he was impressed LaPietra was always at the events working with his models.
Another model also told Problem Solvers that she enjoyed working for LaPietra, had been with him a year and had no problems. She cited two jobs where she had been paid.
Another model said she had made $1,500 working for Career Images.
Although several models FOX4 spoke to were unhappy with the Career Images’ contract, LaPietra said it was standard to the industry. He said his 25 percent commission is 5 percent higher than his competitors because he’s available to his models 24/7.
Model Dan Wise sued LaPietra and Career Images in 2016 when he claimed LaPietra demanded 50 percent of a modeling fee. LaPietra said he was entitled to the higher fee per the terms of the contract. The case was settled out of court.
So what do you do if you're in a modeling contract you want out of?
Consumer attorney Bryce Bell said minors like Carter Adam and Martel can almost always walk away from a contract even if it has been cosigned by their parents.
“A lot of judges are going to be skeptical about holding the parents liable for the child's decision to leave the contract if they feel that was necessary for them,” Bell said.
As for adults, Bell cautioned they should be careful what they sign. For example, the Career Images contract makes no guarantee you’ll ever get a job. However, the contract requires the agent to promote the model.
Bell said models should speak to multiple talent agents to find out what are standard terms in an industry and be skeptical of any contract that’s multiple years in length.