Latest scam exploits secret dreams to become stars
By Doug Young
SHANGHAI is working hard to reclaim its place as Asia’s entertainment capital, and has made big progress in that direction through recent major tie-ups with two of Hollywood’s leading stars, Disney and DreamWorks.
But that drive to the stars took on a new dimension over the past week when local media exposed a major local scam that feeds on people’s hopes of becoming celebrities.
Before coming to Asia a decade ago, I worked and lived in Los Angeles for most of the 1990s and got a first-hand look at the inner workings of the world’s entertainment capital.
That included a thriving field of fake talent agents and other scam shops that sell the Hollywood dream of fame and wealth to ordinary people who secretly harbor dreams of stardom.
China seems to have no shortage of scam artists these days, selling everything from real estate to luxury products. Some also play con games to steal money from unsuspecting people.
I almost became a victim of one such scam last year, after receiving a text message from someone who claimed to be my landlord and told me to pay my rent to her husband’s bank account.
I have nothing but contempt for most of these scoundrels, but have to admit I smiled just slightly on reading about the latest scam that pays a backhand tribute to Shanghai’s rising star power. After all, this kind of a scandal would almost certainly never happen in any other city, and has an almost movie-like quality about it.
According to the report, the scammers would attract their victims by sending out text messages advertising free activities at the Haha Fun Fortress (哈哈欢乐城堡) for parents and their children. The parents would then arrive with their kids and have some “free” photos taken, only to later get pressured into signing expensive contracts promising to make their kids into stars.
One woman who fell for the scheme described how she attended a session with her child and had the free photos taken.
When she returned the next day to get the pictures, she was told how attractive her child was and offered a contract that promised to get her child onto magazine covers, into advertisements and onto TV programs. The cost for agency representation ranged from 4,000 yuan (US$644) for a year to 8,000 yuan for a three-year deal.
Reading the report, I found myself not only smiling but also feeling a strong sense of déjà vu. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, I also went to one such fake talent agent after seeing a newspaper advertisement. I didn’t really harbor big dreams of stardom, but figured I could earn a little extra cash by acting in ads or perhaps small movie roles.
When I arrived at the place, the hallway outside the office was filled with similar young people sitting and standing as they waited for their appointments with the star-maker. When my turn finally came, the agent was friendly enough and even encouraging, though he emphasized there were no guarantees I would become the next Tom Cruise.
He then told me about the different packages I could buy to assemble the proper photo portfolio to promote myself, starting at around US$600 for the cheapest one. I told him I would think about it and left, and that was the end of my first and only brief encounter with the Hollywood star machine.
Magnet for scams
By comparison, this particular Shanghai star scam seems a bit less sophisticated, probably because the industry is so young in China. At its heart, the fraud plays on the exact same principle as the one I experienced 20 years ago in Hollywood, namely the secret hope many people harbor that they may have the potential to become celebrities.
I’ve been quite impressed with Shanghai’s rapid progress toward reclaiming its role as Asia’s entertainment capital over the last decade.
The city began working in that direction in the early 2000s with its transformation of many historic areas into popular shopping, dining and tourist destinations. It made a major advance when it signed a deal to build China’s first Disneyland in 2009. Two years later it made another big move forward with plans for a major new entertainment complex to be built jointly with DreamWorks in Xuhui District.
All those official developments involve huge investments, and it was almost inevitable that the scam artists would follow the big money to Shanghai. While such scoundrels are really just thieves wearing high-class suits, their choice of scam certainly validates Shanghai’s rising status as an entertainment hub, and I expect we’ll see many similar schemes as the city’s star power continues to grow.