Banjo picker Stephen Lester stepped off a Greyhound bus from Asheboro, North Carolina, earlier this year without money in his pocket but with dreams of making it in the music business. When he started performing outside Burbank Town Center for meal money, someone mentioned that if he needed professional Hollywood headshots to advance his fledgling career, a place in Westwood was doing free headshots for starving artists.
So, Lester, 25, who grew up in tobacco country near Charlotte and speaks with a folksy Southern accent, came knocking at the door of Getty Images photographer Michael Bezjian, who has photographed many of the biggest celebrities in the world over the past decade. Bezjian invited the bluegrass musician inside his house for a free photo session, complete with full makeup and hairstyling by top industry companies such as Moonstar Beauty.
"It was awesome," Lester says. "They even had little knickknacks you could eat for free."
Welcome to the Starving Artists Project, which Bezjian launched about 18 months ago as a way to help actors and musicians get their start in Hollywood.
For his headshots, Lester also can thank actor and singer-songwriter Jon Mack, who has worked steadily in Hollywood for two decades. Bezjian calls her one of his "posing heroes," a group of showbiz professionals and established celebrities who volunteer to be photographed, both for his formal portraits and his "backstage photos," which may include these personalities wearing or holding product placements. Both types of photos are then sold through Getty Images and its WireImage division.
Bezjian displays the two styles of shots in two digital galleries that sell to media outlets worldwide; then he gets a cut of Getty Images' or WireImage's sales. And since he has a photo studio space all set up to perform his digital artistry, when he's finished shooting the professionals, Bezjian turns his camera on the unknown performers — who've already been styled, gratis, by the on-site hairstylists and makeup artists.
Among the professionals who have volunteered their time as "posing heroes" are keyboard player and songwriter Isabella Summers of Florence and the Machine, actor Corey Feldman (Stand by Me), comedian Andy Dick and actress AnnaLynne McCord of 90210.
Mack, who appears in the upcoming Mickey Rourke film The Effects of Blunt Force Trauma, says that by participating in the Starving Artists Project she is "paying it forward" to struggling performers. "We've all been in that position," she says.
Although they're largely invisible, perhaps 100,000 extras make the Los Angeles area home, appearing in commercials, videos, TV shows and movies. Many are scrambling to break in to steady roles while taking in as little as $10,000 a year. It's the very lucky ones who manage to join the actors union, SAG-AFTRA.
Talented musicians from all over the country, looking for their big break and often living on the margins, also are legion in L.A.
It's impossible to imagine Bezjian's symbiotic system working in more than a handful of cities in the world. Frances Fisher (Resurrection) came in to pose for a volunteer portrait shoot recently, for example, on behalf of a cause she supports: 99-seat non-Equity theaters in L.A. that may go bust because their union, Actors' Equity, is requiring the theaters to pay actors at least minimum wage, a cost that rises to $10 per hour next year. Actor Angie Everhart recently agreed to be a posing hero to help up-and-coming performers and other artists.
Bezjian, 56, says hundreds of unknowns have received professional headshots through the Starving Artists Project.
"We have people coming in with tears in their eyes, saving $500 or $600, and getting their headshots," he says. "We don't want their money. We will also set people up if they can't afford transportation" to his home-based studio in Westwood. "And we provide them with a free flash drive that allows them to download their images."
Earlier this year, Mack agreed to be photographed holding a small jar of Sex Butter, a lubricant. As Bezjian roamed the photo studio clicking off shots, Mack removed the lid with a logo depicting passionate-looking lips, dipped a finger into the vegan sexual condiment and then held her fingertip with the ointment near her own lips, her eyes never wandering from the camera lens.
Click. "Perfect," Bezjian told her as he snapped her photo while moving around the studio. Click. click. "Nice." Click. "Nice." Click, click, click. "Awesome!"
Magazines and entertainment sites buy shots like Bezjian's because they offer something different from images of personalities such as Mack, Everhart or Fisher pausing on a red carpet in a designer gown. Consumers want to know what brand of shirts or earrings celebs are wearing on the natural and what products they choose to pose with — as do sponsoring companies that may buy and display the shots containing their products on their own websites.
Companies providing products for Bezjian's project include Chiara Ferragni shoes, Agadir hair products, Elemental Superfood, Flips Audio, Hint Water, Wildfox Sunglasses, Kandy Wrappers swimwear, Sovage Fashion and Mayasutra Clothing.
Aspiring actor James DiLullo, who added the "Di" to his name since, he reasoned, it had the same ring to it as Leonardo DiCaprio, said he was living out of his car in 2014 when he saw a Facebook page for the Starving Artists Project and made an appointment to be photographed. He now works as one of Bezjian's assistants while still going to auditions for parts.
Tasia Wells quit her job in behavioral therapy and volunteered to intern at the project since she has always loved photography. Now she's working for Bezjian as producer on the Starving Artists Project, and he helped her land a contract shooting for Getty Images.
At one recent studio shoot, Loren Escandon, a former theater arts student and ballerina from Cali, Colombia, is seated in a makeup chair in Bezjian's leafy patio receiving final makeup touch-ups from Jade Martinez's crew at Moonstar Beauty before going before the camera.
Escandon, who appears in the CW Network's apocalypse-themed series The Messengers, is one of Bezjian's "posing heroes," but she still doesn't have an agent and hopes to find representation by sending out her headshots.
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When asked if she's actually a struggling actor, Escandon replies, "I think actors in general are struggling."
As for Lester, there's a glimmer of hope for the North Carolinian banjo player.
He says he's returning to North Carolina to form a band, then heading back to L.A. From his start in front of the Burbank mall, he's already scored a few small victories. He performed three times at a local watering hole and, in a seemingly unlikely twist, was hired to put down some bluegrass tracks — on a hip-hop album.
"I really make people want to drink," he says.