‘I Was Bullied By My Agency’
The Story of an American Artist
Model/Actress Renee Simone
US-born model lays bare how Korea's E-6 visa system can be abused
Seoul-based model/actress Renee Simone was spending time with her family at her home in New Jersey when she received a shocking message from her friend in Korea. According to the message, she had been accused of theft by her Korean management company.
"Unbeknownst to me, the agency reported me to the police and requested damages and fees, claiming I had stolen money from them," Simone, who was featured in many huge commercials including an ad for global tech behemoth Samsung Electronics, told The Korea Times. "I was told that I had to see the police as soon as I got back to Korea."
“I fell in love with being in a foreign country and experiencing new life.”
Simone settled in Korea about three years ago. She first
worked as an English teacher, but later landed a new job
in a dance and drama club until a Korean talent agency
got hold of her via Instagram. They said they saw her
dance video and were eager to sign her under the agency.
"They told me they would be able to provide me an E-6-1 visa, so that I can do all the performances I want," Simone recalled. "So I got my E-6 visa through them, but they told me there are some fees that I had to pay. We went to a lawyer's office together to get a stamp on our contract and that cost about 70,000 won ($49)."
But Simone was asked later to pay extra fees for an unknown reason.
The visa issue, however, was only the tip of the iceberg.
Simone expected her company to give her guidance and
help her find work, but they did not.
“I did a lot of things for myself, looking for my own work, booking my own things," she said. "For seven to eight months, I just sent my list of things that I did to my company."
Simone and her agency's relationship began to turn sour after she got an offer to appear on E Channel's singing competition program, "Topgoal Rhapsody" (2020). When her agency heard she was going to be on a TV show, they suddenly wanted to play a bigger role in it. They told her she could not sign directly with the channel and demanded a 50 percent commission. For Simone, it was a tall order, so she chose to sign directly with E Channel, without involving her agency.
"My company was very upset when they heard this news," she said. "They called me and said, 'How dare you sign documents by yourself!'"
This was the beginning of constant verbal assault and bullying. The company even asked her to give them her passport.
"I later got to a point where I asked them to give me a release letter and allow me to leave. But they said no. They said I could not leave until I pay them money for all the jobs that I have ever worked and also for the future work that I might have."
According to Korean law, Simone could not transfer to another agency unless she got a letter of release from her current agency. Or else, she had to go to court.
"If I were to go to court, I would have to change my visa status so that I would be allowed to file a lawsuit," she said. "But that means I would stay in Korea for however long it would take to go through the lawsuit, but not be able to work and make an income."
Simone decided to return to the U.S. and stay at her home for a while, so that she could put a stop to her current visa and get a new one. But during her stay, she received a message from her friend that her company reported her to the police.
"The sponsoring entity of an E6 visa needs to be a proper, well-functioning talent agency because otherwise, a foreign entertainer could be tied to what's essentially a slave contract," Attorney Lee Ji-eun of Liberty law firm, who was Renee’s legal representative, told The Korea Times.
"These agencies can use their visa sponsorship as a tool for blackmail and threaten to have their foreign artists deported if they do not do what they ask. It is difficult for foreign nationals to find out why they were considered to have violated certain contract terms.”
Aancod Abe Zaccarelli, a singer from London who used to hold an E-6-1 visa, echoed that sentiment.
“To have an E-6-1 visa, you need to be 'owned' by the CEO of the company, who can very easily do things to ruin your career and get away with it completely,” he said. “They may not allow certain jobs to get through to you and have all your payments go through them before they reach your bank account.”
Starting in January of this year, the Korean government made it compulsory for talent agencies to disclose their tax filings and sign an oath to operate their business lawfully. But according to Lee, the attorney, this policy cannot be a silver bullet to tackle all problems.
"I think the government should also check the criminal records of those looking to start a business in the industry. As of now, anyone can start a business in the arts and culture industry if they meet a certain criteria and receive training at the Korean Creative Content Agency (KOCCA)."
Most workers at local authorities have no experience in dealing with matters related to foreign artists, Lee pointed out.
Nellywn Fox, who has been working as a singer, voice actor and model in Korea for over a decade, said even the Korea Immigration Service, under the Ministry of Justice, could not give her a helping hand.
“The Korea Immigration Service makes the rules of the visa system, but they do not seem to enforce them,” she said. “They have no clear guidelines. When I called them eight different times with the same question, they gave me eight different answers.”
"I think the justice ministry can take charge of enforcement, operating a website and other platforms to allow foreign workers to easily report any grievances," Lee suggested. "If an agency ends a work contract, it should be required to state a clear reason for doing so. There should also be a way for foreign workers to file an official appeal.”
Park Kyong-ju, a non-standing committee member at Art Council Korea and the founder of the Diverse Artists of Korea Association, underscored that the E-6-1 visa system's requirements have to be lowered.
“I think it will be great if the E-6-1 visa system does not require foreign artists to have talent agencies as their sponsors, so that they can still get the visa as freelancers. As of now, it is hard for foreign artists to show proof of their work and access many services offered by the Korean Artists Welfare Foundation.”