It's late afternoon and Jerry Babij is sitting in the lounge of Image Model and Talent Agency on Lincoln Road discussing the past year's success. Babij (pronounced bah-bee) is a trim man who wears his brown hair brushed straight back from his wide, round face. Both his ears are pierced, and he's wearing cream-color pants, two-tone brown-and-white shoes, and a lime-green shirt made of some nearly diaphanous cloth with sleeves that balloon out. The effect is that of a well-groomed pirate.
On the wood-paneled walls is a faded shrine to Babij. In one snapshot he stands next to Sylvester Stallone. In another he's smiling amid a bevy of leggy models. It also appears Tommy Hilfiger and Miami Vice's Philip Michael Thomas have made his acquaintance.
Babij founded Image nine years ago, when South Beach was emerging as a prime location for fashion photography. The market has cooled in recent years so Babij has concentrated more on casting talent for commercials and movies. He is optimistic about the future. "Within five to ten years I want to be in the sphere of Stallone and [Steven] Spielberg," he says. "I think my production company can be that big."
The past year has been one of his best, he boasts. He claims to have booked 1800 models and actors in films and commercials, more than any other South Florida agency. And he recently signed the lease on a new office suite several times larger than his current digs. But Babij contends he is more than just a Miami Beach beauty peddler; he also is a force for good in an industry rife with predatory charlatans. Models who use drugs are dropped, he claims. "Most agencies tolerate drug use," he sniffs. When the state pondered deregulating the lucrative industry in 1998, he took a busload of his charges to Tallahassee to lobby for preserving state oversight. "There were so many people ripping off others, agencies charging girls $3000 to take their photos. We needed something for protection," he recalls. "I single-handedly stopped deregulation."
After finishing his riff on success and integrity, he makes an offer: "I want you to come see me teach my class," he says. At 6:00 p.m. the following Thursday, Babij stands by the door of his studio's waiting room counting heads as about 25 people -- young adults, teenagers, and one precocious elementary school student -- saunter in. They range from svelte Latinas to an overweight man who talks in a monotone with a slight lisp. After allowing a few minutes for stragglers, Babij steps up and bellows, "Good evening, class!" They respond with a hearty "Good evening!"
Chest out, gut in, he struts in front of the students like a Napoleonic general inspecting the troops. He's wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a short-sleeve denim shirt with Image stenciled on the back. Ships' flags run up the shoulders like epaulets. This is a sort of charisma boot camp, a training session to prepare raw recruits for casting calls and modeling jobs. "The reason we're holding this class is the reason we're the number-one booking agency," he proclaims. If members of the rapt audience follow his advice, they will get jobs, he promises, the first step toward becoming stars.
Bearing is critical, he says. Head up to prevent a double chin, back straight, don't fidget, lock your eyes on the camera. Women should make sure they've removed any facial hair at least two days before the shoot. Everyone should pluck eyebrows that have grown together. And never, ever, list your home telephone number on the sign-in sheet. "This [agency] is your home number," Babij commands, before giving Image's seven digits. The reasons are numerous, he emphasizes. Conflicts may arise. He recounts the time a director called a potential lead in a music video to ask her out on a date. When she declined, she didn't get the part. But the primary reason, he warns, is that production companies sometimes offer an unacceptably low pay rate. "I'm your agent and I'm the best agent in town," he boasts. "It is my job to do anything it takes to get paid for a job. If I have to, I go personally and collect money. I've made myself very unpleasant in the offices of some clients." Miami Beach's next Spielberg smiles, then proclaims, "I'm a good agent, I'm a tough agent, and I get the money."
It's appropriate that in a business that sells illusion, Babij's presentation is as much salesmanship as fact. Many of those whom he booked last year, for instance, took nonpaying gigs, such as extras in movies. And although Babij urges models to believe his company is a contender in Miami-Dade's roughly three-billion-dollar-per-year entertainment industry, Image is far less known than prominent concerns like Michele Pommier and Irene Marie.
Indeed Babij acknowledges he may be operating below the radar of elite agencies and, consequently, top clients. "I book in numbers," he exclaims lustily. "I book everything: trade shows, calendars. As long as it pays money, I book it.... [Rapper] DMX's last video? I did all of that, 250 people. I did all of Enrique Iglesias's last video. What I'm not doing is the high-end fashion stuff, where girls are getting $30,000 a shoot." The top grossing job he secured for a model last year, he says, was a beer commercial that paid $7000. For now he can't discriminate, he says.
And though he might have advocated reform, it's hard to find an agency head with a more controversial past. Since starting his company he's been arrested four times for everything from threatening and extorting a client, to battery against one of his tenants. He was cleared of everything except a drunk-driving charge.
The most dramatic accusations against Babij are contained in the pages of a civil lawsuit filed in 1996 by his former partner at Image, Peter Stavropoulos. The TV commercial producer claims Babij stole the company from him and two other partners by threatening physical harm and bragging of his connection with organized crime. While controversy is common in the modeling world, it mostly involves staid contract disputes. But Stavropoulos's claims reveal the seedier side of one of South Florida's largest and most high-profile businesses.
Others have accused Babij of gangsterlike behavior. Both a former employee and a client complain Babij threatened them with violence. Babij denies the claims. The only thing that's clear is that someone is lying. And credibility is at a premium in the remote corners of the fashion world.
Babij dismisses his enemies; he says he can prove they are all liars. He emphasizes he has prevailed against every charge against him. When asked why there are so many allegations, he explains, "I'm a pretty tough guy and I tell it like it is. If you're nice to me, I'm ten times nicer to you. If you're bad to me, I'm ten times badder." People who mess with him can expect a fight. "I worked hard for this business, and I'm not going to let anyone take it away from me," he comments.
The reason for Jerry Babij's pugnacious character is buried in his past. Born in Austria at the end of World War II, he was only five years old when his parents emigrated. The family eventually settled in a Bridgeport, Connecticut, housing project, and Babij's parents took factory jobs; they wasted no time immersing their son in the life of their new homeland. "[When I started school] I spoke Ukrainian and German, and I couldn't communicate," he recalls. Kids teased and pushed him. He'd arrive home disheveled, and his father would spank him for soiling his clothes. "I became a good fighter because I didn't want to get my clothes dirty," he says, smirking.
Following high school he entered Long Island University on a soccer and tennis scholarship. After graduation he took a job teaching high school in the Bronx, where he became disillusioned. Then he managed a restaurant in Manhattan called La Ranch for a while. "Those were some crazy days," he laughs. "One time a bomb went off in the restaurant, and afterward two guys came in and said, 'Looks like you got a problem. We're gonna be back tomorrow to work this out.' When they came back, I had [gathered] some of my friends and we had some, let's say, fisticuffs. They never came back."
Another time, he says, the price of garbage collection quintupled overnight. "I said, 'Hey, you can't do this.' The next day a garbage truck backed into the restaurant and dumped all this metal garbage on the floor." Smiling, Babij claims he collected all the junk, loaded it into another vehicle, and dumped it at the company's headquarters with the message: "Don't mess with me."
"I'm not afraid of anybody," he says matter-of-factly. "When you stand your ground, people learn to respect you."
Babij dreamed not of thuggery but of acting. And so he moved to Miami Beach in the late 1980s. His acting career didn't flourish, "but the real estate was dirt cheap, so I bought some property." The capital came from places he had acquired in New York.
In 1991, his dreams on hold, Babij opened Image Model Productions, Inc. Those early years were tough. He worked alone in a backroom office at I Paparazzi restaurant on Ocean Drive. When the real estate market took a dive, the revenue from his New York properties diminished and he had to work nights as a waiter.
In the early 1990s South Beach was changing from a scruffy little ghetto by the sea to an international fashion center. Ad agencies searching for winter locations to shoot catalogue models were enchanted by the faded Art Deco façades and bright sunlight. Modeling scouts began scouring the streets and beaches for new talent. There were some remarkable finds. In the late 1980s Pommier discovered Christy Turlington and Irene Marie discovered Niki Taylor. Both went on to become supermodels, earning million-dollar advertising contracts. The big operations in New York couldn't afford to ignore Miami Beach anymore. By the early 1990s, Ford, Elite, and Next had all set up shop.
Business bloomed. In 1993 the Miami-Dade Office of Film and Entertainment estimated the still photography industry spent $35 million in the county. By 1997, the latest year for which figures are available, that number had swelled to $127 million, and the gross revenue generated by all media -- film, TV, commercials, print, and music -- was $2.4 billion, making entertainment one of the top five local businesses.
It was at the height of the boom that Babij met a well-spoken Greek man named Peter Stavropoulos. On a recent evening, the 50-year-old Stavropoulos sat in David's Café, just up the street from Babij's agency, contentedly sipping coffee and nibbling on an Oreo cookie cake. With him was Jacqueline Pyke, his Canadian business partner. There was a time not long ago, the pair says, when they wouldn't have felt so safe dining on Lincoln Road.
Stavropoulos, who owns a small production company in Canada, began traveling to Miami in the early 1980s to shoot commercials. When inflation cut the Canadian dollar's buying power, work dried up, so Stavropoulos cast about for other reasons to stay. "I met Jerry in January of '94," Stavropoulos says, his Greek accent thick, but his English impeccable. "A makeup artist I used told me there was an agency in distress, so I visited." This, he thought, was his opportunity to break into the boom.
His partnership and subsequent split with Babij was not pretty, he says. (Babij disputes many of his claims.) Stavropoulos contends he invested about $15,000 in Image. Corporate papers show ownership was then split equally between Stavropoulos, his wife Vicky, Pyke, and Babij. "Jerry was like a lap dog back then," Stavropoulos says smugly. "He kept saying, 'How are we going to compete with Michele Pommier and Irene Marie?' Well, we wouldn't have made a nickel in the fashion scene going against the big agencies."
Instead, Stavropoulos claims, he instituted a three-part plan to bring in revenue. First he hired photographers, who would shoot five or six beginners in a day for a bulk rate. The company would charge the newcomers about $300 for the sessions. "We also did bikini models," Stavropoulos says. This was the second phase of his moneymaking plan. The company would book jobs for young women to display products at local merchandise marts, where salespeople, sometimes backed by sexy help, hawk everything from heaters to tires. Finally Stavropoulos and his partners began placing peoples as extras in movies, TV shows, and commercials. "So, the combination of extras, photo shoots, and bikini models was how we got started," Stavropoulos sums up.
Babij was cooperative, Stavropoulos says. "In the beginning [Jerry] did what he was supposed to do," he adds. "But soon his attitude changed and that is when the friction began." Babij began demanding more money. By July 1994, four months into their joint venture, tensions had grown to the point where Stavropoulos wanted to buy out his partner. "I had some business to take care of in Canada. I naively told [Jerry] that when I got back, we should split up." Stavropoulos left in early August. When Stavropoulos returned in September, Babij called; he wanted to meet in Image's office that night. Stavropoulos says he was suspicious, so he drove to Image and waited outside until he saw Babij entering with a musclebound man. This frightened Stavropoulos, who immediately called Babij on his cell phone and demanded they meet in public at the News Café on Ocean Drive. Then Stavropoulos called his wife and Pyke, and told them to join the meeting.
Both Stavropoulos and Pyke describe the following series of events: Babij arrived with his muscular friend and proceeded to bluntly explain he was taking over the company. The others would not be paid and, if they left quietly, they would not be hurt. Then he demanded they sign a contract ceding control to Babij. "Jerry shows up with this big thug named Tony," recounts Pyke, who now works as a booking agent in Canada. "I couldn't believe how he betrayed us." The three partners left in a hurry, without signing Babij's contract.
The two women returned to the apartment they all shared to pack. Stavropoulos says he stopped by the Miami Beach Police Department to file a complaint; the cops told him that without further proof, authorities couldn't do anything. The next day an anonymous caller warned Stavropoulos to leave town if he cared about his family's safety. And the number 666 -- a satanic reference supposedly meant to scare him -- appeared both on his beeper and in spray paint on his apartment door in "a very secure building." (Babij owns an apartment in the same place.) Stavropoulos withdrew about $1000 from Image's bank account and by midday, the three Canadians had packed up and left South Beach.
"Jerry had done a very clever thing," Stavropoulos says. "He had let the corporate license for Image expire, and he reincorporated under a different name." State records confirm Image Model Productions, Inc., ceased to exist on August 26, 1994; four months later Image Model and Talent Agency was born. Babij was the sole officer listed. "That is how he stole the company from me," Stavropoulos asserts.
"You want something to drink?" Jerry Babij has invited New Times to his West Avenue condo to review paperwork that, he says, vindicates him. With its white-tile floor and glass table, the apartment is a showplace of 1980s décor. (The bathroom, for instance, is done in black-and-white tile.) He pours some Publix lemon-lime soda and maps out his version of events. While he refutes, point by point, his former partner's claim, the contentious nature of the dispute reveals the murky morality of the low-end glamour business.
Yes, his business was floundering in 1994. And yes, he was grateful when Stavropoulos rescued it by investing about $2500. But after several months, he began noticing "this guy was ripping me off royally." He shows phone bills revealing hundreds of dollars in calls to Canada. And he displays a statement from a credit card agency to Image that seems to show a client was billed twice. It states "cardholder did not receive services -- cardholder billed more than once."
"I asked Peter about these things and he didn't answer me," Babij says. "He was setting me up to take the fall and getting ready to skip town." He claims Stavropoulos has an unsavory past. Stavropoulos once paid a fine in Canada for falsely representing in advertisements the benefits associated with his chain of weight-loss clinics. And in 1994 Palm Beach County authorities alleged Stavropoulos didn't have a permit to recruit talent in the state. The charges were later dropped.
So Babij says he hatched a plan to save his company. He met with a lawyer and drew up a contract for the other partners to sign over their shares. There was no attempt to stage a late-night rendezvous at the office; he arranged to meet them at the News Café. Tony, the muscled acquaintance mentioned by Stavropoulos, was not present when they gathered, he maintains. Babij admits he threatened his partners, but not with violence. "I was going to expose them for theft and double-billing," he says, as well as for conspiring to avoid paying taxes here. He denies making any phone threats or spray-painting 666 on anyone's door.
The only piece of evidence Babij offers regarding theft is a bank statement indicating a withdrawal of several hundred dollars on September 14, 1994, the day after the News Café meeting. (The same withdrawal earlier noted by Stavropoulos. "It was my money," he says.)
Then Babij adds this twist, partially confirmed by Stavropoulos. Several months after his former partners departed Miami, a man named Derek called and claimed Stavropoulos had authorized him to take over the company. "Peter made a deal with this guy," Babij says. "He was supposed to come in, kick my ass, and throw me out. I told him to fuck off."
Months later Derek visited the office. "He says to me: 'Peter fucked me over on another deal, so I just wanted to tell you that Peter hired me to muscle you out.' I said, 'Do you have anything that proves this?' and he gave me this." Babij then displays a two-page letter signed by Peter Stavropoulos on November 30, 1994. It outlines an agreement to appoint Derek (his last name is never used) president of Image. In the letter Derek is promised a weekly salary of $450 and "94 percent of the profits, after tax." But it never happened. When asked about Derek, Stavropoulos replies, "He was somebody I was talking to; nothing happened with him. He turned out to be a thug like Babij." Stavropoulos concedes writing the letter but says he did nothing improper.
With Stavropoulos in Canada, Babij set to work on his dream.
For Babij 1996 began on an embarrassing note, and the year didn't improve much.
In January the agency owner appeared as a guest on Geraldo Rivera's talk show. For a segment titled "The Dark Side of Modeling -- The Harsh Truth Under the Hot Lights," producers lined up a panel of second-rate models who complained South Beach agencies pressured them to get breast implants and that drugs were too accessible to refuse. Babij, who says he was suckered on to the show by lying producers, is attacked by a brunette named Tracy. The woman, who admits to a substance-abuse problem, claims she saw Babij doing drugs at a party. "Your agency was giving me a bad name," she says. He acknowledges using drugs, but says now he's clean and Image is the only drug-free agency on the Beach. A blonde named Courtney pipes up that Image has treated her well: "I have had no problem with Jerry and Image agency. As far as I'm concerned, they've been fine with me." The broadcast does not come across as a searing exposé of the modeling business so much as a lengthy whine session by the discontented and the self-involved.
In June a company called M2 Communications, which listed its address as 17100 Collins Ave. in North Miami Beach (in reality Sunny Isles Beach), hired several Image models for a print ad to push a 1-900 phone-sex line. According to an invoice for the job, M2 hired seven models and rented a large ice cream cone replica, as well as a photographer and assistant, for two days. The bill, which is dated June 21, came to $21,867. But according to Babij, M2's president, Jason Itzler, refused to pay, so Babij and his lawyer, Chandler Finley, wrote letters requesting payment.
On June 22 Itzler filed a complaint with Metro-Dade police alleging that Babij "contacted the victim, Jason Itzler, via land line and threatened to kill him and make matters worst [sic] if he did not pay him the $20,000 he felt he owed him for a photo job performed for the victim." The complaint also states that two cars were vandalized in M2's parking lot and a shot was fired through the window. On June 27, 1996, police arrested Babij for threats and extortion. The charges were later dropped. M2 Communications is no longer in business, and Itzler could not be reached for comment.
"That guy threatened me!" Babij counters. "He told me: 'Go fuck yourself; I'm not going to pay you.' I said, 'What do you mean you're not going to pay? I'm going to come over there and fuck you over.' He was a hotshot, crazy cocaine cowboy."
After scrapping with Itzler, Babij became embroiled in another bitter confrontation, this time with a stripper who lived with several other women in a rental apartment he owns in Octagon Towers on Nineteenth Street and Washington Avenue. On July 21, 1996, one of Babij's tenants called to say one of the roommates, Demetria Ekmektsis, had a man over and was smoking pot with him in the bedroom. Babij was concerned, because the lease prohibits visitors to the apartment. Accompanied by building security, Babij confronted Ekmektsis, who worked at Club Madonna on Washington Avenue. Ekmektsis was indeed lighting up in the bedroom with a man, who took off like a shot. Babij claims he then required Ekmektsis to leave that night, and gave her $150.
Ekmektsis told police Babij grabbed her by the neck, ripping the apartment key from a necklace she wore, and tossed her out. Police arrested him nearly eight months later for battery.
In September 1996 Stavropoulos sued. The suit's language is spicier than that used in most civil complaints. "Defendant [Babij] spoke of his connection to organized crime. He pointed to certain large, muscular, intimidating individuals in his company and said they were members of organized crime. In particular, he referenced having used such connections to force his prior business associates to comply with his wishes."
His trial in the Ekmektsis matter took place in June 1997 and lasted a little more than an hour in front of County Court Judge Beth Bloom. She found Babij guilty. He ditched his lawyer, appealed, and represented himself. His second trial, in February 1998, was held before a jury, which acquitted him.
Ekmektsis is now suing him in civil court.
Even inside the offices at Image, Babij failed to find refuge from the backbiting and accusations. In 1998 Babij hired Alain Mora to assess new talent. Mora only lasted a few months, a period etched into his memory. "Jerry Babij is not what an agent is supposed to be," the 26-year-old says. "He is the worst person I've ever met in my life." That's his only on-the-record statement.
Babij fired Mora in late December 1998. On January 4 Mora went to the Miami Beach police and filed this report. "Victim [Mora] states that subject [Babij] has threatened him over the phone. Subject believes that the reason his business has gone down is because of victim. Victim is afraid for his safety because subject told him 'Find out what happened to the last person who called the cops on me.' Victim was advised to seek a restraining order."
In a phone conversation with New Times, Mora argues police spelled his name wrong; it's Alan Morra, he points out. (State records show only Elio Alain Mora, with a date of birth of June 11, 1973, the same information on the police reports.) A few days later he calls back, a changed man. "I don't want my name used; [Babij] is crazy," he shouts. "I'm scared." Then after rambling on for a while, he blurts: "If anything happens to me or my family, I'm going to break both your legs, you motherfucker!" Later he shows up at the New Times office and makes a similar threat.
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If Babij is right, Mora is the scary one. When police interviewed him, Babij told a detective that "the victim [Mora] embezzled money from him and he has an accountant attempting to confirm said accusation. He claims the victim called him two weeks ago and threatened to have two guys beat up Babij. He said he told the victim that he would beat him up himself." On March 26, 1999, Babij told police Mora had threatened him twice that very day.
Babij is ecstatic to hear Mora threatened a New Times reporter: "See! This is what I have to deal with all the time. I guarantee you, when this is all over, I'm going to seem like the sanest one out there." And then he laughs.
The season is over. The photo shoots for fashion magazines and catalogue companies have dwindled to a trickle. The vast commercial fashion machine will now rumble north to New York and east to Europe. Summer in Miami is slow in the modeling world. But not for Babij. He's working feverishly to get jobs, bring on new talent, and promote his company. He works so hard, he has time for little else. "I'm married to my work," he admits. "I really don't have a social life." Or, he adds, any friends.