Reality Bites

In an age of instant celebrity, the TV producer is king. But sometimes even cameras lie.

Rodney Bowling
When Julie Durkin turned 17, her mother signed her up with a local modeling agency. Agents were impressed by her pep and her toothy, Julia Roberts smile. She appeared in a few local commercials and print ads, but by the time she turned 18, her career was stagnating.

"You have to go to New York if you want to have a chance of making it big," she says, twirling her hair around her finger. "You don't really have that much of a chance here."

Hope arrived in the form of Rodney Bowling. According to her modeling agency, he was a television producer who was starting a reality-TV show about models in Cleveland, titled Top Model Search.

She met Bowling at a car dealership in Bedford, where he was signing up contestants. He certainly looked the part of a big shot; he was impeccably dressed and handsome, with a baby face and chipmunk cheeks.

Bowling told Durkin that she didn't have to pay anything to enter, but if her friends and family wanted to watch her compete, they'd have to shell out $20 each. Since part of the judging was based on audience applause, it was to Durkin's benefit to pack the house. So she forked over $160 for eight tickets. Then she went home and tried to recall all the episodes of America's Next Top Model she'd seen. ("I really like Tyra Banks," she squeals.)

But the Cleveland competition didn't operate the way it did on UPN. For one thing, instead of eliminating people, there seemed to be more fresh faces at each new event. ("I thought this was supposed to be a competition," Durkin complained.) And though Bowling promised the show would run on PAX TV, the only camera Durkin saw was the digital one her mother aimed at her face.

After six rounds of auditions, and with no finale in sight, Durkin resigned. Yet she kept receiving phone calls from Bowling, each time congratulating her on advancing to the next round. It was then that Durkin realized that the show "might not be legit," she says. "I feel bad, like I got scammed."

Durkin's not the only one. Rodney Bowling markets himself as a midwestern Mark Burnett, promising to turn hopeful auditioners into freshly minted celebs. But the truth behind his brand of reality TV is somewhat less than glamorous. Bowling is less a star-maker than a scam artist. In an age when everyone is ready for their close-up, sometimes cameras do lie.

When Bowling strutted into Cleveland last summer, he appeared to be the archetypal local boy made good. Over expensive drinks at downtown bars, the Maple Heights native regaled his friends with tales of his success in Detroit, where he claimed to have run a successful mortgage company. Crain's Detroit Business crowned him one of the top 40 businessmen under 40. He'd even dined with the governor.

Now the Trumpian tycoon was planning a new venture: a reality-TV production company called Tiger Media. He had experimented with the genre in Detroit and had some success, he claimed. But it would be in Cleveland that he'd really go big time. To get there, he'd need manpower. He asked his friends to help him recruit.

It wasn't a hard sell. Bowling impressed people with his Hollywood-style accoutrements. He arrived at West Sixth Street clubs in stretch limos. He held business meetings at the tony Shoreby Club. When potential employees arrived for interviews, they found him floating on a plastic raft in the pool, sipping a toddy.

"I wanted to be around him," says Dave Trumbull, Bowling's sales manager and former right-hand man. "I wanted to be part of that lifestyle."

But if Trumbull dreamed of Laguna Beach, he soon realized that Bowling's reality wasn't what it appeared. Three weeks after the employees moved into Bowling's new Beachwood office, their paychecks began to bounce. Then there was the little matter of Bowling's television production skills -- or lack thereof.

"Rod had no idea how to put the titles in, how to write transitions, how to do the basic editing," says David S., an employee who asked that his last name not be used, for fear that it would hurt his career. "He didn't know anything about lighting or editing. He knew how to turn on a camera, and sometimes he stumbled with that."

Had the workers looked more closely at Bowling's background, they'd have found even more reason to be suspicious. His time in Detroit was hardly the success he'd made it out to be.

For starters, there was the not insignificant matter of his criminal record. In May of 1999, Bowling hired a construction company to remodel his apartment, billing the work to his landlord's tab. When he was caught, Bowling was ordered to pay back the $20,000. Instead, he disappeared. When he was tracked down and captured, he was sentenced to 60 days in jail.

And Bowling wasn't nearly as wealthy as he pretended. An October 2002 financial disclosure form provided to the Michigan court shows that Bowling was broke. When he sought release from probation in June 2004, his probation officer reported that Bowling "needs to relocate to the State of Ohio where he can reside with his mother due to lack of employment and housing in Michigan."

As for Bowling's career as a successful television producer, that too turned out to be bunk. The one time Bowling was actually on TV was as the subject of an investigative exposé by the local news.

Two years ago, Fox 2 in Detroit inducted Bowling into its Hall of Shame. He had conducted a talent competition called "Showdown in Motown," promising contestants that the show would air in prime time and that the winners would receive endorsement deals with Pepsi and Kmart, as well as savings bonds for college. But the shows never aired, no commercial opportunities materialized, and none of the winners received checks.

Fox 2 investigative reporter Rob Wolchek confronted Bowling with the accusations outside a local restaurant. The footage shows Bowling with his palms up, denying every claim, acting wounded that anyone would accuse him of wrongdoing.

After the nine-minute segment aired, Fox 2 received more than 100 phone calls and letters from people around the state who claimed they had been scammed by Bowling, says Wolchek, who won an Emmy for the piece. Wolchek isn't surprised that Bowling would run the same scam in Ohio: "The guy's got incredible gall."

No one in Cleveland knew about Bowling's history last July, when he started production on a TV show called Rolling for Dollars.

The program, in which local bowlers tried to knock down pins for money, was a blatant rip-off of the similarly named Bowling for Dollars, the cheesy 1970s show that starred Mets broadcaster Bob Murphy. Apparently, originality isn't Bowling's strong suit.

But true to his surname, Rodney was indeed an accomplished bowler. He wore a big brass ring on his right finger to commemorate a perfect game. It gave him credibility when he marketed his new television show to local bowling alleys.

Teresa Burns, the assistant manager at Brunswick Ambassador Lanes in Bedford, was swayed by Bowling's pitch. The alley would receive 30 minutes of screen time in exchange for hosting the event and paying $250, Bowling said. He even screened a video of the Detroit edition of the show in the managers' lounge.

"This could be big," Burns thought, but said she'd have to talk to her superiors before agreeing to the deal.

In the meantime, Bowling arranged a meeting with the Greater Cleveland Bowling Association, the sport's epicenter locally. Bowling impressed the group with his polished speech and padded résumé.

"I thought, oh gosh, he has a pretty decent portfolio," says Tony Brooks, the executive director of the association. "It seemed like it was on the up-and-up."

Still, to do his due diligence, Brooks asked for references. Bowling gave him the phone number of Mark Martin, the executive director of the Greater Detroit Bowling Association.

It was a brazen move, considering that Bowling still owed Martin $5,000.

When Brooks asked Martin about Bowling, the commissioner started laughing. "Rodney Bowling?" he said. "Yeah, I know the guy."

In Detroit, Bowling had produced only 2 of the 10 shows he'd promised, then stopped returning phone calls, Martin explained. Contestants complained that they never received their awards, and the emcee's check bounced.

"The fact that he used me as a reference is really kind of stupid, given the fact that he hadn't fulfilled his promises," Martin says. "I don't know why he'd do that. Delusional thinking is the only reason I can come up with."

Bowling has an entirely different memory of the Detroit events. "I did eight shows," he says. "The problem is that nobody knew that all eight shows ran. They probably only thought that one show ran. But I'm not going to call a thousand people to tell them when the show was on. That's not my responsibility."

After speaking with Martin, Brooks sent a warning letter to local bowling alleys. But it came too late for one local business. Last year, Meszar's Lanes in Cleveland gave Bowling $250 to host one of the productions, but the show never aired.

Says Frank Meszar, the owner of the lane: "We gave him the money, then we never heard from him again. He just disappeared."

Bowling brushed off the bowling-show failure the way one does a piece of lint on a suit jacket. The man who once compared himself to David E. Kelley had plenty of other ideas for television shows.

One of them was a karaoke sing-off called One Mic, which was clearly modeled after American Idol. The show centered on 200 young singers, divided into age groups, competing for scholarship money and a Chevy Aveo from Tim Lally Chevrolet in Bedford. Guests paid $20 per ticket to watch the singers perform. The show, Bowling claimed, would air on PAX TV.

At the same time, Bowling was pitching another reality show that could be described as Sex and the City meets The Bachelorette. Bowling's crew videotaped a few hand-selected, catalog-pretty women as they partied at chic Warehouse District bars and restaurants. Bowling charged each of the businesses $500 to $750 for the exposure.

Neither show aired, and no refunds were given, though Tim Lally Chevrolet did make good on its promise to provide the winner of One Mic with a car. It just had to eat most of the cost.

"We thought a partnership seemed like a good idea at the time," says Mark Clark, finance manager at the dealership. "It would be good publicity for us. But we knew we had a problem when the guy couldn't pay a $500 radio bill."

The contestants were disappointed to learn that their faces wouldn't be gracing the cover of People anytime soon.

"I knew it was a scam," sighs Nicole Cuglewski, a contestant in One Mic who's out $60. "I should have followed my instincts. But I needed a new car, and you should never miss a chance to get exposure. You never know where it might lead."

Aspiring stars weren't the only ones played for dupes. Bowling enrolled entire municipalities in his reality-TV fantasy.

He pitched Willoughby, University Heights, and Brook Park with a show he called In Your City. The program was to highlight the history of a different city each week in a 30-minute program to air on PAX.

Bowling solicited local businesses to pay $250 per minute each for commercials. He sold spots to the United Methodist Church of Brook Park, John Carroll University, Ford Motor Company, and 20 other operations.

The City of Willoughby even sent a letter to local businesses, endorsing Tiger Media. "It sounded like a good promotion," says Janice Lipscomb, Willoughby's community-development manager, who wrote the letter. "He seemed legitimate."

But the shows never aired, and the money was never returned.

It wasn't the only time Bowling banked on local pride. Earlier this year, he offered area restaurants the opportunity to be featured on Dining in Style, a show that was to highlight Northeast Ohio's premier eateries. To sweeten the deal, he claimed that a portion of the proceeds would be donated to the Salvation Army.

"How could I say no to that?" says, Giovanna Daverio, owner of Battuto Ristorante in Little Italy.

The restaurateur signed a check for $250, then waited for word of her television debut. Two months later, she was still waiting. Suspecting fraud, Daverio called Bowling three times a day, asking for a refund. He never answered. She'd almost given up when Bowling suddenly showed up at her restaurant one day in April.

"I'd never seen the guy before, but I could tell by his body language that was him," she says. "I worked as an elementary-school teacher [one summer]. I know the expression kids get, just before they're about to make up an excuse about why they can't hand in their homework. That's the look Rodney had."

Bowling apologized profusely for not sending the money sooner. He explained that his car-rental company had been overcharging him for three months, causing his bank account to overdraft. He even brought paperwork to prove it.

If she still wanted her money back, Bowling said, he'd be happy to cut her a check. She took him up on the offer, but when she went to deposit the check in her account, it bounced.

The Salvation Army of Greater Cleveland never saw money from Bowling either. "We never gave him permission to use our name on any donation pledges," says Phil Mason, the agency's director of development. "Before we put our name on anything, we have to check everyone's background thoroughly."

At least one of Bowling's proposed shows did air. It was the first installment of Rolling for Dollars. To pay for it, Bowling wrote PAX a $500 check.

But the check bounced, says LaTonya Pettit, the station's business manager. After six months of trying to collect the bad debt, she turned Bowling's name over to a collection agency.

"It's the strangest thing: I often get different phone calls from different production companies [asking about Bowling]," Pettit says. "Rod is always talking up his relationship with PAX -- which I don't understand, because it was so bad. I guess he's banking on people not verifying his contacts."

It's one thing to prey on an adult's television-star fantasies, but quite another to mislead a little girl. For one of his biggest productions, Bowling recruited contestants from cafeterias and classrooms in local public schools.

The show, which Bowling immodestly called Ohio's Top Talent, was modeled after Star Search. The children would compete in four categories: acting, singing, modeling, and dancing. The winner was to receive a $1,000 college scholarship. The finale would supposedly air on UPN.

Erin Troy, a 12-year-old blessed with the swagger and voice of a young Aretha Franklin, heard about the show during a karaoke contest in Geneva, when Bowling took the stage and encouraged the contestants to audition for his show.

Erin begged her dad to let her compete. Her father, Thaddeus, a jazz-loving former collection agent for the Illuminating Company, readily agreed.

"What got me was the television part," says Thaddeus. "The money was nice, but I thought she could use the exposure."

He forked over $240 for the competition -- $20 for the entry fee and $220 for tickets to the performances.

Erin didn't really practice much for the event -- "She's naturally gifted," her father boasts -- but she quickly made it through the opening rounds.

Yet the finals, which took place at the Cleveland Play House, hardly seemed ready for prime time. There was only one camera -- a cheap video recorder mounted on a wobbly tripod. The event's emcee did double duty as the DJ. And he didn't do either job well -- several songs hiccupped from scratches on the CD.

"My daughter had to sing a cappella, because they destroyed her CD," Thaddeus says.

Nevertheless, Erin belted out the words to Mariah Carey's "Vision of Love" in a husky, sultry voice that belied her 12 years. The audience loved her -- as did the judges. She won first place in the under-13 category.

When she bounded onto the stage to accept the award, Bowling handed her a paper certificate and a shiny blue ribbon. He also gave her a sheet to fill out, to claim her $1,000 scholarship.

Erin mailed it in the next day. Six months later, she and at least three other contestants have yet to receive any money.

When told that the UPN programming manager had never heard of Rod Bowling, Thaddeus Troy sighed. "I was probably too naive here, but you just want your daughter to be a star, you know?"

At about the time Bowling was conducting his Top Model Search, his reputation was starting to catch up with him.

Camille Bridges has known Rodney Bowling since the seventh grade. She and his cousin were good friends, and they hung out together at middle-school parties. Bowling, she says, "was always a fun person to be around. He could really get you into his confidence."

They kept in touch when Bowling was in Detroit, and when he came back to Cleveland, he asked her to work full-time for him as an IT consultant. She agreed, convincing several friends to work for him too. When her first check bounced, she came to Bowling, who assured her he'd fix it.

But when her third check bounced, she knew she'd been had. She tried calling him, but he never answered the phone. She tried to hunt him down at the office, but he'd already moved. Bridges was out $6,000, and she was pissed.

One Thursday night in July, Bridges' friend Stephen Thomas happened to walk past Flo Café in the Warehouse District and spotted Bowling, prancing around in a three-piece suit.

Surrounding him were a camera, a DJ, and a roomful of young models from his show-of-the-moment. Bowling had christened the event the "White Party" -- an idea borrowed from P. Diddy -- so all the girls were dressed in slinky white ensembles.

Thomas took out his cell phone and called Bridges, who was lounging in her apartment on West Ninth Street. "You will not believe who's across the street," he said. Bridges threw on a pair of jeans and joined Thomas. The two stormed into Flo to confront Bowling.

"I see you're still scamming people, Rod," Bridges sneered.

The aspiring models and their mothers, who had been munching carrot sticks at the swank soirée, stared in disbelief. Bridges turned to them and announced, "I used to work with this guy. He's a con man. He's been passing bad checks. I hope you haven't given him any money. This is a scam."

In the back of the room, Bowling took out his cell phone and called 911. There's a fight, he told the dispatcher. Someone has a knife. Come quickly.

Minutes later, the police arrived, and Bowling slipped out the back door. Police took statements, and quickly realized there had been no knife, no fight. An hour later, as the cops and Bridges were leaving the club, she spotted Bowling at Liquid, a bar across the street.

"That's him -- that's the guy!" she screamed.

Police arrested Bowling and charged him with making false alarms. He spent the night in jail. In September, the court sentenced him to 16 hours of community service and a $250 fine.

But the authorities aren't conducting any further investigation into Bowling's practices. "We don't have any basis to go further," says Beachwood detective Tom Karduck.

On a Monday in October, a reporter's cell phone rings, revealing a restricted number. It's Bowling, calling from a friend's house in Arizona, where he now lives. He's heard from friends that Scene has started looking into his company, he says. He wants to clear up some details.

Bowling maintains that he's an honest businessman and that the complaints from customers were all just a misunderstanding. After all, he explains, plenty of TV pilots never make it to air.

"That's television. Every show that starts doesn't get completed," he says patiently, like a physics professor trying to explain a very complicated formula. "That happens every day. We didn't charge people any money. No one was hurt."

But what about all the people who claim to have paid him to be featured on his shows? Bowling can't be troubled by the details.

"Are you going to sit here and smear Rod Bowling?" he gripes. "I was just trying to do something positive in Cleveland. So a couple of people didn't get paid. Generally, people had a good experience."

Suddenly, Bowling seems to think better of talking to a reporter. "You know, I'm not sure I want a story about Rodney Bowling in Scene," he says. Then he hangs up.

Five minutes later, he calls back and picks up the conversation right where he left off, as if he had never hung up.

"You know, there's tons -- thousands -- of names I could give you of people who had a positive experience here." Asked who they are, Bowling pauses, then offers meekly: "I don't know their names."

He offers to fax over a list of references. "I've got a note from [former Michigan] Governor John Engler that says Rod Bowling was the best person in the world," he says. "An article from Crain's magazine saying Rod Bowling is the best person in the world."

Bowling says he's going to pay back all the money he owes, just as soon as he makes a profit. As he speaks, his phone begins to cut out. He promises to call back, but never does.

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