At 79, Lois Krebs is not the typical runway fashion model. But she thought she might find a place in ads that appeal to senior citizens.
"I had a notion I could do what I saw other people my age doing on television," said Krebs, a great-grandmother.
The first agent she met at Models 2000 Inc. told Krebs she had a distinctive look that companies want to sell their products. When Krebs got no work there, she tried another agent at Boom Talent & Modeling Agency, who also fed her hopes for a successful modeling career.
Krebs says that between the two agencies, she paid about $1,200 for photographs they said she needed to launch her career. But they quit calling after she bought the photographs. And a year later, Krebs still has no work as a model.
Her story is common in Tampa Bay's talent and modeling community.
A handful of agencies here have gained a reputation for making money off expensive photographs after promising to find modeling work for people who have little chance of being models.
Now Krebs and about 40 others who bought photographs at Models 2000 have written affidavits supporting a Hillsborough County civil lawsuit against its owner, Nancy Sniffen. And Tampa police say they are conducting a criminal investigation of the agency at 4844 W Gandy Blvd.
"I want her shut down and I want restitution paid to the other victims," said Rick West, a retired Detroit firefighter, who is suing Sniffen on behalf of his 17-year-old daughter Christy, who paid $855 and got only photos, not jobs.
Sniffen, who also uses the last name Keogh, declined to comment for this report.
Although there are no complaints against Models 2000 on record with the state agency that oversees the talent and modeling industry, dozens of customers say they have aired their grievances with the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Some also have complained to the Tampa Police Department, prompting a criminal investigation that began last year, said police spokeswoman Katie Hughes. She said the department will not comment on the case in progress.
A spokesman for the state Attorney General's Office said authorities in Tampa have received complaints about Models 2000, but because state law gives DBPR jurisdiction over modeling agencies, that agency will handle the case.
West and other former customers of Models 2000 said they have been contacted by an investigator from DBPR, though officials at the state agency will not confirm a formal probe.
The lawsuit West filed against Sniffen in March 2001 accuses her of fraud, trickery and misrepresentation.
According to West's lawsuit, Christy answered a newspaper ad in January 2000 seeking teen models for print, movie and fashion work. It seemed like a job with high pay and travel opportunities. She ended up paying $855 for photographs, but Sniffen never got her a modeling job.
"I said that's a lot of money and we can't afford it," said West's wife, Fiona, who was with her daughter at the interview with the agency. "But (Sniffen) said Christy would make that money back in no time because she had a partner in Atlanta connected with J.C. Penney Co., who could get Christy in the catalog."
West said he eventually asked Sniffen to refund the money and she refused. When he learned that the state would not order a refund, he filed a lawsuit and began looking for other unhappy customers.
Using the Internet and word-of-mouth, he found about 40 of them. Several informed J.C. Penney that Sniffen had promised them jobs with the company.
Alan Langer, a lawyer for the department store chain in Dallas, wrote Sniffen on July 13, 2001, ordering her to stop using the retail company in her sales pitch.
"As you know, such representations are false," the letter said.
One of the people West found was Gina Hughes, a former Models 2000 customer who also was busy locating former customers.
Hughes said she paid $1,040 for photographs of her 3-year-old daughter, Gabriella. She said her bank refunded $700 after it investigated her complaint. Now she wants to keep others from going through what she did.
She remembers the people she met the day of her daughter's photo shoot at Models 2000: a farm worker who hoped her daughter could help generate income for the family; a single mother with her preschool son; and a beautiful Brazilian woman who did not speak English.
"I saw the people who were there and I just think they need their money back," Hughes said.
According to state law, talent and modeling agents are not supposed to charge models for anything, including photos, seminars or consultation. An agent's income is supposed to come solely from commissions received through finding work for models.
In Carrollwood, modeling agent Di Paulson has had multiple complaints against her in recent years for selling photos and other products through a second company that she ran inside her Boom Talent & Modeling office. Paulson has since moved her business to Safety Harbor. She did not return telephone messages seeking comment.
Publishers of the Florida Bluesheet, an industry newsletter in Orlando, hear many of the complaints about bad business practices throughout the state. They say Tampa Bay has a few agencies that give the area a bad name.
"We get more complaints from Tampa than Miami, which is surprising because Miami has more agencies," said Gersh Morningstar, Florida Bluesheet's publisher.
Morningstar said many complaints involve agents slow to pay models after a job. With Models 2000 and Boom Talent & Modeling, the complaints almost always involves people who say they have paid for overpriced, poor-quality pictures with hopes of modeling careers that didn't happen.
One Tampa modeling agency that consistently gets jobs for its clients is Alexa Model & Talent at 4100 W Kennedy Blvd., which has been in business since 1988.
"We make our money off people working," said owner Susan Schwabinger. "We don't just take anyone on as a model because if they don't work, we're not making money."
Still, she said she cannot always predict which models will make it big. "There are no guarantees," she said. "This is the most unpredictable business in the world."
_ Tim Grant can be reached at 269-5311 or at grantsptimes.com.