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Old School Meets New

Old School Meets New

December 19, 2008
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" When I started LA Direct, one of the biggest problems for an agent was finding talent, particularly attractive talent, there was more work than there was talent to do the work. "

For years the sign hanging outside World Modeling was the Porn Valley equivalent to Sin City’s Welcome to Las Vegas sign, a public salutation to the American underbelly. From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, virtually every big name in porn — as well as thousands of lesser stars and starlets whom few would remember — passed through the agency’s door.

World wasn’t the only game in town — Reb Sawitz’s Pretty Girl International was in the business several years earlier — but World built its reputation and became the powerhouse. The folders full of Polaroids, the talent casting calls, the time owner Jim South was busted for repping Traci Lords is all the stuff of legend.

As the new millennium unfolded, a new breed of agency cropped up, and most prominent among those was LA Direct Models. While Hannah Harper was initially the public face of the agency, it was her significant other, Derek Hay, aka performer Ben English, who was and is recognized as the driving force behind the company.

Hay started an agency in England in 2000 and opened shop in Los Angeles the following year. Looking back now, it seems an organized agency that provided drivers and housing for the talent as well as dependability for producers would have been a sure thing, but Hay said it was a daunting task.

“It didn’t seem wide open at all,” Hay recalled. “It felt very, very closed and tight-knit. World Modeling had a near-monopoly on the business. I was made fun of, belittled, made to feel like it was stupid to attempt to enter that marketplace in the first year or so. It was a David and Goliath story for a long time.”

While LA Direct Models may be today’s Goliath, Hay also opened the door for several competitors. Two, Lisa Ann Talent Management and Type 9 Models, were started by former Direct agents, Lisa Ann and Kevin Kline. Other agencies continue to pop up: Joel Lawrence’s Gold Star Modeling, Shy Love’s Adult Talent Managers, Spiegler Girls, IT Models, A List Talent, and countless other agencies of varying size, reputation and effectiveness. South, who closed World Modeling’s doors in favor of retirement last year, has returned to the game as well, even lucking into getting his old Sherman Oaks office space back.

But South knows well that the game has changed and that he has gone from top dog to underdog and it’s no surprise that he misses the days of yore.

“It’s like the industry has expanded in 10-15 different directions at one time,” South said. “I think there are too many performers, too many directors, too many producers and too many agents, at least people who call themselves agents. I think there’s six or seven of us that are actually licensed and bonded. I was told there is some website where there’s over 100 people saying they’re agents. A lot of competition, my friend.”

South originally opened his doors in 1976 and for 20-plus years it was the industry’s premier gathering place. The performers came and went, directors and producers spent hours pouring through his talent books and the hundreds of performers they offered, looking at Polaroids. Each week, usually on Thursdays after lunch, the masses would gather for the casting calls, giving producers an opportunity to meet the talent in person. When they found a performer they wanted to book, South gave them a phone number, leaving the details to be ironed out between the performer and the producer. It’s a system that worked well in an era when only a few hundred titles were shot annually and the talent came from a small, largely local pool. No more. The ’90s brought the Internet, Viagra and inexpensive cameras, changing not only the way business was done, but who was doing it.

The modern talent agency does much more than hand out phone numbers. Most truly manage their talent, offering drivers, housing, ensuring that each has his or her paperwork and tests in order and current. More and more are giving their roster opportunities for mainstream work and feature dancing, help with their websites, marketing and promotion and even financial services. Being an agent is not a full-time job, it’s a 24-hour lifestyle.

“The agent thing is going to continue to grow because Derek paved the way for a successful agency to be run in this business,” Lisa Ann said. “He’s good at it, he’s aggressive, he gets the girls there on time. He’s open on Sundays, he’s open on Christmas! Derek will answer his phone 24 hours a day. He’s committed. And when you’re competing against that type of commitment, you better step up to the plate.”

All of this is possible because of the extraordinary boom the industry has gone through in the past decade. LA Direct Models keeps a roster of about 125 female performers and around 30 guys. The bigger agencies all boast more than 100 performers on their sites. Procuring talent is now one of the easiest aspects of an agent’s job and most say they turn away the majority of potential talent seeking their representation.

Type 9 Models’ Kline said that he passes on around 80 percent of the people who contact him. Every agent said that attitude was as important as looks and that they would pass on a girl with a terrible attitude no matter how beautiful she might be.

“A girl that may lack a couple qualities, if she has the right attitude, she’s going to work more than an extremely pretty girl that has a poor attitude,” Kline said.

Mark Spiegler, the owner and namesake of Spiegler Girls, has been an agent for a decade and said he grills girls before considering taking them on and has even talked several girls out of working in the industry.

“I talk to each girl before I take them,” Spiegler said. “We’ll drug test them. I don’t care if they smoke pot, but don’t do it at work. I don’t care if they’re a social drinker, but if you’re an alcoholic, forget it. I tell the girls they have three jobs: there’s the sucking and fucking and then there’s the two tough ones: don’t make me look bad and don’t give me shit to worry about. We take care of girls and they see that, so they don’t want to let us down. If they’re iffy, that’s it.”

It’s a tough stance that agents can get away with in a time when teenage girls aspire to be porn stars.

“When I started LA Direct, one of the biggest problems for an agent was finding talent, particularly attractive talent,” Hay said. “There was more work than there was talent to do the work. The opposite is now true. It’s not difficult to find talent. Girls cold call the agency, walk in the door saying, ‘I’ve been watching porn since I was a teenager and I’ve always wanted to do this, can you help me?’ It’s not difficult to find talent, but on the other hand there are significantly less companies shooting now, so there’s less work, so other things are much more important to keep a girl working or make a girl successful. A professional outlook, a strong work ethic, a good sexual performance, sobriety and more.”

Back at World Modeling, South sounds pleased to be back at work even though the industry has changed so drastically. He’s proud of the talent that he’s represented over the years and the names come easily: Ginger Lynn, Christy Canyon, Tera Patrick spring to mind this time. Next time there will be others. With his history, there’s no need to name anyone twice.

“Back then it was like one big family,” South said. “We started a bunch of careers. I had Ron Jeremy, Randy West, Tom Byron, TT Boy, Jon Dough, there were 10 to 15 guys who got probably 75 percent of the work. But that’s when they were putting out 200, 300 movies a year. What is it now? Eight thousand? Eight-five hundred? Back then we didn’t know what AIDS was. You didn’t have to make a copy of the ID, you looked at it to make sure they were of age, you didn’t need to have the paperwork on movies.”

When South first started he would run a person out of his office if he found out they were shooting X-rated content. He handled only magazine stuff. Girls were paid $50 a day, $35 for half a day. Agents got $20. Like everything else today, the money is much bigger. Some guys get a thousand a day, and girls can run twice as much. Agents typically get $100 per booking.

Despite the brief retirement, things are pretty much back to normal at World Modeling. But outside the office on Van Nuys Boulevard something has changed, something is missing. It’s the sign. It’s gone.

“I haven’t put the sign back out there yet,” South said. “We’re gonna put it back, we just haven’t got around to it yet. Plus the trees on the street have grown so big you’ll have trouble seeing the sign anyway.”

Maybe putting the sign back up won’t bring back the agency’s glory days, but hanging up that little piece of adult industry history will surely make some feel like things are getting back to normal, even if normal isn’t what it used to be.


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