Between her glossy magazine, website, weeklong teen gala, and talent show production, Enterteenment President and CEO Wallis Amanda Mills seemed well on her way to building her own mini media empire.
However, something crucial was allegedly missing amid all the activity: money — specifically, a payout to Mills’s group of high school writers who say they’d been enticed by the promise of career mentors and up to $5,000 in scholarship money to offset college-related costs.
Now, those same writers say they are disappointed, angry, and empty-handed, and some have threatened in a letter to sue Mills to recover what they consider their contractual compensation of payment for filling her publications with pages of teen- oriented articles.
“I was never paid a single penny,” says Alex Bair, a freshman at Wheaton College, who estimates he is owed some $3,600 for 27 articles he wrote. He covered sports.
All told, there are about 40 student writers -- with claims totaling over $100,000 and start times dating back to 2008 -- who have also been left in the lurch and allegedly not paid, according to advocates at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health.
With help from MassCOSH’s Teens Lead @ Work peer leaders, at least nine of the impacted writers have filed unpaid wage complaints against Mills with the state Attorney General’s office.
This is apparently not new territory for Mills. Online records show that Mills has found herself the target of criticism beyond the teen writers.
Reached by phone, Mills politely declined any comment.
Interviewed by Teens in Print, some of her young writers say they are still unsure of Mills’s original intentions, though they wonder whether the woman behind the glossy Enterteenment Magazine that she eventually shut down was too slick for her own good.
Writer Tia Di Salvo, a junior at Saugus High School, says that the workings of the magazine seemed hard to fathom.
Di Salvo says that whenever teens questioned Mills about sudden shifts in scheduling, for example, they received the same sort of response.
“Yada yada ya,” says Di Salvo.
Teens and parents say they got a similar runaround when they asked to be paid.
Di Salvo wrote about music and figures she is due at least $3,500 for her pieces now that Enterteenment Magazine, as Mills has acknowledged, is no longer publishing.
“As a payment for my work, I was promised scholarship credits post graduation,” Di Salvo wrote in her complaint to the AG dated October of 2013.
Di Salvo received a mentor through the program but others say that, for them, that was an empty promise, too.
* * * * * * * * * *
In the beginning, Mills’s roster of high school writers from across the country say they were attracted by promotions that were placed on Facebook, a Boston youth opportunity online newsletter, and other outlets. There was up to $5,000 in scholarships to be won after high school graduation, as well as a chance to solidify their young journalism careers.
“I thought it was pretty legit,” says Adaeze Nduaguba, a Dorchester resident who is now a freshman at Dartmouth College.
Nduaguba's beat was celebrity news. In her complaint to the AG dated October of 2013, Nduaguba said she is owed $3,700 for her work. Asked in the complaint whether she requested payment from her employer, Nduaguba wrote: “She told me I was going to receive a check in the mail around September 6.”
According to documents supplied by Enterteenment’s former parent liaison and obtained from MassCOSH, tight deadlines were delineated – “I understand that due dates require my editorial to be submitted on the date listed on my editorial schedule by 11:59 PM PST that night” – along with a strict code of conduct: “I will express disagreements or concerns maturely and speak respectfully to fellow writers, mentors and Enterteenment staff, clients and guests.”
The operation also had lots of hype. A 2012 press release trumpeted a premier publication’s debut:
successfully launched their highly anticipated, first-ever print issue on Monday November 19th. To celebrate this momentous occasion, Microsoft hosted a pre-release launch party on Sunday November 18th at their store in The Shops At The Prudential Center...”
There were performers, pizza, and photo-ops.
“This is definitely one event that will be talked about and remembered for years to come,” the press release concluded.
Asked by Teens in Print to describe its relationship with Enterteenment, Microsoft issued a statement that said, in part, “Youth groups, adult education, non-profit organizations and Microsoft employee groups are all welcome to book the Microsoft Store’s free theater space for meetings or activities."
By the following month, Enterteenment's celebratory cheer was being deflated by parental suspicions.
In a December 2012 email obtained from MassCOSH, Alex Bair’s mother, Alma, asked Mills for documentation detailing the scholarship fund: “As parent liaison and a supporter of Enterteenment,” she wrote, “I would like to put to rest the financial questions swirling around the solvency of Enterteenment...”
"The students will be paid upon providing proof of graduation as contracted and agreed upon," Mills responded, according to the email chain obtained from MassCOSH. “That said, I am not going to accommodate this request.”
In an interview with Teens in Print, Alex Bair now says: “I feel tricked and cheated….She made all these promises about money. Nobody’s been paid.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Alex Bair’s disenchantment with Mills echoes on the Internet.
A post at ripoffreport.com accused Mills of failing to pay staff that worked on her singing competition venture called Sound Off.
In her response, in December of 2012, Mills denied any fraud, saying: “It is simply a matter of debt and therefore delay….In seven years we have not fallen upon hard times such as these.”
In March 2013, according to an email to her writers and their parents obtained from MassCOSH, Mills was acting upbeat and name-dropping Microsoft again.
“I had a great meeting with Microsoft and they are interested in partnering to make Enterteenment and Teen Week as part of their Youth Spark initiative,” she wrote.
It’s unclear what happened next. Asked about this would-be partnership, Microsoft issued a second statement to Teens in Print, saying in part: “Microsoft declined to be a sponsor of Enterteenment Magazine and is not involved as part of its YouthSpark initiative.”
In an email obtained from MassCOSH and dated April of 2013, Mills was now pessimistic as she spoke to her writers and their parents about the financial difficulties she said her enterprise was facing: “As you know the spring issue of Enterteenment Magazine
was not supported (no ads sold)."
By June of 2013, it appears that Mills had reached the end of the line with Enterteenment.
In an email dated June 11, 2013 and obtained from the former parent liaison, Mills wrote. "After seven long years of ups and downs, it is with a heavy heart that I have decided to close Enterteenment....Everyone will receive the first 50% of their scholarship within 60-90 days from receipt of your documents."
MassCOSH Executive Director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb says that as of press time, she does not of any Enterteenment student writer who was paid any money -- including one who has since gone on graduate college.
This only caused some parents to further boil. In a September 2013 email to Mills regarding money allegedly owed to her son for his articles, Donna McCarthy wrote: “This is the third e mail I have left for you. You have not replied at all concerning payment to Sean. You have left me no choice to believe that you are a fraud and have taken advantage of a group of innocent kids. How do you live with yourself?”
* * * * * * * * * *
It was that kind of festering frustration that led one former Enterteenment writer to seek help from MassCOSH after he said he found little interest from other groups he reached out to, including legal and government entities.
For the past several months, peer leaders from MassCOSH’s Teens Lead @ Work program acting on this tip have researched Mills’s business practices, coordinated efforts to track down former Enterteenment writers and keep them informed, put them in touch with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, and encouraged them to file complaints with the AG.
“We want to make sure that teens know their rights so they’re not taken advantage of in the workplace,” says peer leader Justin Caballero, 16, from Boston Latin Academy.
As they wait for the legal process to play out, former Enterteenment writers who say they were not paid are trying to regroup.
Alex Bair says he was hoping to buy a car with his scholarship money. Now, he says, he’s been looking for a job.
“I’m having a lot of trouble making money,” he says.
Nduaguba says she’s worried about how to pay for next school year.
“She did prey on teens like us,” Nduaguba says about Mills.
Di Salvo says she loved being a student journalist and valued the experience. Now she’s working retail and socking away money for college.
“I’m just hurt,” she says.
Meanwhile, Mills can be found at an online site called WEI, where she calls herself a concept architect.
WEI boasts the same Newbury Street address and phone number as Mills’s old operation, Enterteenment.
This article was produced as part of a collaboration between Teens in Print and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting based at Boston University and at the studios of WGBH News. The project is funded by the family of the late journalist and author Caroline Knapp.