I-Team report: The Price of Fame

July 30, 2012 2:21:34 PM PDT
It's a modern twist to that age-old Hollywood line, "Hey kid, I'll make you a star."

In this case, the promise of a chance to star on a Disney show. An audition. And if you are chosen, a trip to Orlando to perform in front of dozens of talent agents. The price tag? Up to $7,900 plus travel costs.

Some describe it as nothing more than a very expensive talent show.

It starts with a pitch on radio stations, tempting the young with visions of stardom using the names of Disney stars.

Consider Margaret Zielonka, 9, and her 11-year-old sister, Alicja. The Chicago girls heard the commercial, called the number, and were "accepted" for a free audition at an Oak Brook hotel. Their parents were called the next day by the company.

"And say your daughter passed. And they say please come for a second interview and bring your credit card," said Mira Zielonka, the girls' mother.

During that second meeting, Alicja was chosen to meet with talent scouts at a larger showcase at The Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida.

"During the registration time when we're trying to ask questions, even the man related to the company was coming up two or three times asking: What is taking so long? Don't worry about anything, you just fill out the papers," said Dariusz Zielonka, the girls' father.

The company -- listed on documents presented to the Zielonkas as The New Event, Inc., licensed to sell and promote The Event, or THE EVENT ORLANDO DECEMBER 2012 -- even brought in a Polish translator to help with the contract, which required a payment up front of $3,795. The contract also required the Zielonkas to arrange and purchase their own travel and hotel accommodations. The Zielonkas estimated that would cost them another $4,000.

"They rush, rushed us to just go boom, boom, boom!" said Dariusz Zielonka.

Allegations of high pressure tactics have resulted in official complaints to authorities in Illinois and several other states.

The Better Business bureau has given the company, "THE," which the BBB lists as an alternate business name for "The Event" and "New York Studio, Inc.," a failing grade, and has posted warnings for parents who consider signing up. A representative of The Event says that New York Studio is not the company with which the Zielonkas did business but is a separate licensee.

In a written statement, which you can access in full here JUNE 7, 2012 STATEMENT FROM The Event, and in other written communications, the Delaware-registered company said it:

- is not a talent agency.
- doesn't make promises to anyone.
- isn't affiliated with Disney.
- spells out all arrangements in legal contracts.
- and has many satisfied customers.


Hayden Byerly, 11, from Colorado is among them. Two years ago, he won the talent event in Orlando. His family says the $8,000 dollars they paid was worth it because scouts and agents saw him resulting in several TV roles, including the Disney show "Zeke and Luther."

"I know that a lot of families move out to LA in hopes that their child will be this big star, and I don't know if it's necessarily about being famous as it is just about doing what you love," said Michelle Byerly, Hayden's mother.

The Zielonkas say they just wanted a refund, but according to the contract they signed, the $1,000 "registration fee is not refundable under any circumstances."

"I understand there might be some registration fees, but not $1,000 for a five-minute registration," said Dariusz Zielonka.

Disney is mentioned numerous times in the commercials for the event in dozens of cities across the U.S. and Canada and recently in Australia.

Attorneys for Disney, the company that also owns ABC7, say there is no affiliation with the company.


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