When Ford Talent rolled out of town nearly three months ago, its departure sent shudders through the ranks of Cleveland's beautiful and talented.
This was, after all, the once venerable David & Lee agency -- purchased by Ford only three years before. It represented most of the city's top actors and models, who were stunned when the New York office closed it down.
"David & Lee/Ford was the big kahuna in Cleveland for so long," says Richard Kohn of the Pittsburgh-based Talent Group. "Some people were with them for 15 years; they were a very strong organization. Their closing has freaked a lot of people out."
The Talent Group is one of three major agencies jostling for prominence in the vacuum. Now the city's beautiful people are left to bet on which one will come out on top.
Ford's leaving came down to economics. Its Cleveland office wasn't the only drain -- the company made cuts in Miami and Chicago, too, says Karen Fields, the former local director. "Ford was hurting everywhere. It was absolutely because of the economy."
Yet Cleveland was different for a number of reasons. The office was staffed with experienced people, and "Ford was not used to paying the kind of salary in a smaller market that they were paying," says Fields. Nor was there enough lucrative work to support the agency here. "I don't think they ever really understood what Cleveland did. It's not a fashion mecca."
The fact that two Pittsburgh agencies arrived in Ford's wake shows that someone thinks the territory is worth cultivating -- and fighting over. The Talent Group and the Docherty Agency are fierce competitors back home. But Dominick Palazzo, whose IMI agency has been in Cleveland for five years, isn't about to concede the turf. He's heard that bad blood existed between his competitors in Pittsburgh. "They're going to be cat-fighting. We're going to be booking models."
Kohn shrugs off the notion of anything but a healthy rivalry. "There's never been cat-fighting. We're just getting the job done."
Deb Docherty, owner of the Docherty Agency, says she has "no interest in slamming our competition -- I don't feel we need to."
Though all three agencies have signed former Ford clients and all claim to have a competitive edge, there is no longer one obvious choice for local talent.
Before, it was either "go with Ford or scratch for work," says actor Mike Kraft.
Now, observes actress and model Dawn Pierce, "Instead of a great white shark, we've got very, very strong other sharks feeding off the same pieces of meat -- good clients."
Short of the occasional Hollywood movie shoot, most jobs here involve training films, annual reports, and advertising. But the city's advertising market has been in a slump, mirroring a national downturn. "One of the things that's happening is that the volume of work that used to go through here has dropped drastically. It's just killing the ad agencies," says longtime actor Greg Violand.
When advertising is down, it affects everybody on the creative end, from models and actors to the agents who book them. "There is work here," says voice actor Joe Cali, "but this is not the richest time for work."
Even in the best of times, the 10 percent agent's fee goes considerably further on the East or West Coast, where actors on a television commercial, for example, usually receive 20 percent more than the $500 they would get in Cleveland. There's a big difference in modeling fees as well: $100 an hour here, compared to $250 in New York City.
All of which makes it rare for full-time actors and models to support themselves with work in Cleveland. They must pick up jobs in New York and L.A., and travel the regional circuit.
Brian Fife, who's in his 19th year of modeling, recently drove to Milwaukee for a shoot for Kohl's advertising fliers. As a young man, he posed for European Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, and spent a couple of seasons in Paris and Milan; now, at 38, he poses for store catalogs. Fife also gets work in TV commercials, videos, and industrial films.
American Federation of Television and Radio Artists members like Fife can sign only with agencies recognized by AFTRA -- in Cleveland, that means Docherty, the Talent Group, and IMI.
Docherty took over Ford's old office space, hired three-fourths of its staff, and even kept the same phone number, which has some industry insiders depicting her agency as Ford's rightful heir.
Kraft is rooting for her. Because every agency demands exclusive contracts, models and actors have to make a commitment to one. The more dominant their agency, the more likely they'll have a shot at the best work available. For that reason, says Kraft, "It is in my best interest if one agency is the big agency. I'm with Docherty."
Others have had a hard time deciding. "It's a confusing time for Cleveland actors," says Violand. "There's a lot of uncertainty, a lot of insecurity. Nobody's sure what's going to happen."
No matter what, it will take some doing for anyone to reach the status enjoyed by Ford -- or, more specifically, Ford's director, Karen Fields. "Honestly," says Pierce, "Karen was it. She had the talent, she knew the talent. She was the business."
Cathy Nowlin, executive director of AFTRA's Cleveland local, says Fields was exceptional in her dealings with union members. "She was very much the mother figure," says Nowlin, "real concerned about their overall well-being."
Fields is still sensitive over Ford's closure. She was about to sign a lease for new office space when the plug was pulled January 3. It officially closed the next month.
Nowlin is now getting used to working with three different agents, rather than one trusted colleague. She's heard rumors that the Pittsburgh reps didn't get along, but she hasn't seen backbiting here. "For right now, it seems to be very polite," she says. "I've made it clear we're not Pittsburgh."