Edited by Peggy Orenstein
Illustrations by Niki Pilkington
First appeared in California Sunday Magazine
Carey Lewis Arban stands onstage in the International Ballroom of the Hilton Pasadena holding her microphone like a socialite holds a champagne flute. The willowy 58-year-old has salt-and-pepper hair that falls to her shoulders in a perfect bell shape, a complement to the peplum hem of her structured white blazer. She’s paraphrasing the Parable of the Talents from the Gospel of Matthew: A wealthy man planned to take a long journey. Before leaving, he entrusted sums of money to three servants. When he returned, he found that two of his servants had doubled what he left them through shrewd investments. The third played it safe.
“He didn’t squander his Lord’s wealth,” Arban says. “He simply buried it. In the book of God” — her tone sharpens — “that is criminal activity. In the book of God, that third servant is called wicked and lazy.”
Three hundred or so people sit at the front of the massive ballroom. They are parents with chubby-cheeked kids, old men chasing second acts, shiny teens, middle-aged women in tight dresses. They are male and female — white, black, and brown in roughly equal proportion. They are Christians, and they are here because they want to be stars.
“Here’s a news flash for you,” Arban continues. “Your talents, whatever they are, don’t belong to you. You are simply the stewardof the Lord’s talents. When you meet Jesus face to face at the end, He expects a report from you. He expects a return on His investment.”
Actors, Models & Talent for Christ (AMTC), whose billboards are familiar sights in Los Angeles, calls itself a “ministry and a mission.” In big cities and small towns across the country, talent developers promise to smooth over the rough edges of prospective stars, make them industry-ready. Many of these outfits are run by hucksters. Others are as legitimate as fad diets or language-learning software, with the success of the few fueling the false hopes of the rest.
Arban’s organization operated in that world for more than two decades. Then, in 2006, she converted to evangelical Christianity. Claiming a higher calling, she transformed her service into a not-for-profit charity. It is now a “church without a roof,” cultivating “talent missionaries” who will spread the Good News as they pursue personal fame.
Several images flit across a giant screen behind Arban: Britney Spears with a sinuous, yellow python; stills from Twilight and Gossip Girl; the MPAA’s Rated R symbol. The photos dissolve to reveal a little boy sitting before a television. “By the time this kid reaches 17,” Arban says, “he or she has spent over 60,000 hours in media. Bad is bold in the entertainment industry today; therefore, good must be bolder!” Energetic applause fills the cavernous ballroom.
Recasting the entertainment industry as a “mission field” may give evangelical Christians permission to dream of secular celebrity, but stripped of the parables and the prayer, AMTC functions much the same as it did in its B.C. days. The agency recruits clients through free auditions, such as this one at the Hilton Pasadena. Those who receive callbacks are invited to enroll (at a cost of $3,900 to $5,000) in an online training curriculum. After that, they can attend the SHINE Conference, a biannual, six-day showcase in Florida where clients perform for agents and casting directors from both Christian and mainstream media. Although there are no guarantees, the implication is that a promising actor, model, singer, or dancer stands a reasonable chance of getting discovered.
A few of AMTC’s clients have been, sort of: Tim Urban, a singersongwriter, came in seventh in the 2010 season of American Idol (at one point changing a lyric in Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” from “Maybe there’s a God above” to “I know that there’s a God above”), while other AMTC vets have joined the ranks of bit actors or extras. The vast majority, however, simply return home.
After today’s information session, which includes a standing singalong of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” a reading from Isaiah, and a lot of call-and-response, Arban heads to a small conference room. Nervous chatter floats in from the hallway outside, where would-be clients have lined up to wait their turn. First up is a bright-faced 18-year-old, who strides confidently through the door in a green blouse and white flip-flops. Her father, a broad-shouldered man in a gray polo and penny loafers, wearing a conspicuous Bluetooth gadget in his ear, follows closely behind and takes a seat to the side of the room.
“Let’s start out with your acting,” Arban says.
The young woman holds AMTC’s standard script page, but she doesn’t need to look at it.
“It’s not like my dog cares if his food is organic,” she says with convincing gusto. “Jake’s ideal day is sniffing through the garbage and drinking from the toilet. But I care, so most of the time he eats Solid Gold dog food. I tried it myself. Pretty good!”
Arban nods, studying the girl’s application. “Are you singing opera today?”
She is, and she hurriedly finds her pitch on a smartphone piano app. After a few steady breaths, she unleashes an a cappella “O Mio Babbino Caro” that fills every corner of the conference room.
Arban is impressed.
“So,” she says, “do you feel God is calling you forward with this gift?”
“I do,” the performer answers.
Arban turns to the young woman’s father. “From your parent’s point of view, what stood out about what you heard today?”
The man takes a moment to gather his thoughts. Then, fighting back tears, he says, “I felt just like I was in church.”