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Rachel Miller

Rachel Miller is a PhD candidate in American Culture at the University of Michigan, where she is completing a dissertation titled “Capital Entertainment: Stage Work and the Origins of the Creative Economy, 1830-1910.”  Her work has been published in scholarly journals and edited collections as well as in the Los Angeles Review of Books and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

"The True Origins of the Talent Agency:  How Lady Vocalists and Fancy Dancers Built the Entertainment Industry"
You don’t need to have watched any of HBO’s Entourage to know Ari Gold, Hollywood agent, an abrasive bully who berated assistants, slammed doors, and secured favorable contracts with gigantic paydays. Fictional agents inhabit a world of glamour and celebrity, reflecting received and scholarly wisdom that talent agencies emerged to coordinate and create motion picture stars. This is not the case; in fact, the opposite is true. U.S. talent bureaus formed a half-century before Hollywood—at least thirty separate firms between 1860 and 1880—to process the thousands of non-star stage performers whose labor fueled the rise of a national variety industry. Most of these agencies were founded to route European American women dancers and singers through a burgeoning circuit dependent on cheap and interchangeable acts, functioning more like temporary staffing agencies than as glamorous star-makers. (Think Molly Maids or Manpower). Agents framed themselves as a necessary support for performers without established connections, but the agency ultimately rendered much of its “product” fungible, supplying low-priced labor for the benefit of managers. This contradiction was present at the agency’s inception, from the layout of the offices to the language agents used to attract and promote their players. My paper narrates this early chapter of the talent agent in the rise of transnational variety theater, which was structured by a gendered division of labor that continues to shape the entertainment industry today. I offer a granular take on the agency’s emergence—and the performer’s attempt to navigate this power imbalance—in order to provide historical depth and nuance to our understanding of the culture industries’ construction and deployment of “Woman.” I will also discuss the subsequent arrival of African American women variety performers on commercial stages, and make connections to contemporary conversations about creativity, precarious work, and sexual assault in the entertainment industry.