When American talent scouts come to town looking for Christian entertainers, Hollywood dreams get a boost from the Holy Spirit.
Before noon this past Saturday, a long line of hopeful entertainers snaked through the lobby of the Sheraton Toronto Airport Hotel and Conference Centre, down the hall, and around the corner to the conference rooms. Clean-shaven guys strummed guitars and mouthed lyrics while aspiring actors recited lines to themselves. Moms fussed over nervous teenagers, attaching lanyards with numbers written on them. Modestly dressed women and bearded youth pastor–types waited expectantly. The approximately 300 people were there for what some might consider a divine audition: trying to make it into the Actors, Models & Talent for Christ (AMTC).
Unlike The Voice or American Idol, where the eventual goal is some combination of fame and fortune, the AMTC auditions offered a hazier prize. Hitting more than 30 international locations, the U.S. organization was on tour in search of new talent. Getting a callback would mean an invitation to join AMTC, which provides acting tips, a training program, a “national-level” photo shoot, and a chance to meet “top media executives” at the SHINE convention, thereby bypassing the cesspool (their word) of paying dues in a cutthroat industry. Accepting the invitation would come at a cost: $3,895 to $4,995, not including travel and hotel expenses. It would also mean an opportunity to represent Christ in the secular realm of popular media.
Prior to the actual audition, attendees squirmed in their seats as they endured the slick audio-visual presentation during an hour-long information session. The audience was informed that talented performers who successfully fulfilled the requirements (primarily, “a teachable spirit” and “an earnest desire to become role models in the entertainment industry”) would be called to AMTC’s mission. By the time the presentation was finished, the audience was so keyed up (often shouting out “Amen!” and “Praise Jesus!”) that the hefty price tag seemed barely a concern.
Later, in a private audition room, AMTC scout, former model, and rugby player Jaco Booyens ran his fingers through his remarkably shiny hair and assessed the steady stream of hopefuls. The mostly young women possessed varying degrees of talent in modern dance, comedy routines, modelling, dramatic monologues, and emphatic hymns, though each invariably made certain to stress her unflagging devotion to Jesus. Number 104, an 18-year-old girl with a sandy-brown ponytail, hammed it up, reading off a commercial script about Mrs. Dash Salt-Free Seasoning. “I like this girl,” said Booyens to himself, before telling her, “You’re pure.” Number 104 replied, “I’m quite mouldable!”
AMTC wasn’t always so holy. It evolved from founder Millie Lewis’s modelling and finishing school in South Carolina to a national enterprise—for decades, the “C” stood simply for Competition. The business became a non-profit corporation in 2012 after Lewis’ daughter, Carey Lewis Arban, had a “come-to-Jesus” moment and changed the focus from talent convention to religious mission. Though AMTC’s current website touts alumni such as Megan Fox and Mena Suvari, those actors trained with the organization prior to its overhaul—one that lost AMTC 75 per cent of its affiliated agencies and performing schools and put a damper on the willingness of many media executives to attend its conventions.
In its current inception, AMTC is not without its critics. Internet reviews warn against coughing up nearly $5,000 just to get recognized. Others accuse AMTC of being scammers that use the Jesus bent to rip off young, trusting believers.
When asked what percentage of AMTC’s students go on to make it in the industry, AMTC executive director Adam She replied rhetorically, “What is success? What is actually ‘making it?’ AMTC really gives you the foundation just to be a better person of moral character in whatever profession you’re called to do, to speak with greater confidence, to perform with greater conviction, and to make sure you maintain that moral standard.”
And yet the popularity of the ministry lies in its talent-search approach—the idea of being chosen is extremely seductive to those with going-to-Hollywood aspirations. The next contestant, a 22-year-old Ottawa woman, explained that she deferred university and worked in retail as a way to make money to do this. “I’ve travelled from Ottawa to Toronto for acting classes every weekend for two years,” she said, as her mother nodded. She had performed an athletic dance routine that she choreographed, then took a hit from a puffer. “You have asthma?” Booyens asked, astonished. “Yes,” she said, catching her breath. “I just feel a huge pull to do this.”