Suicide, allegations rock Tampa talent agency, entertainment industry

On the morning of Monday April 25, Christine Ponthieux beat everyone at the Benz Model & Talent agency, where she worked for 20 years, most recently as a accounting.

She walked into the private office of her boss, Steve Benzrihem, locked the door, and placed a note in an envelope on his computer keyboard.

“Steve, you broke my spirit,” he said, according to the Tampa Police Department investigation report.

Ponthieux, 51, a divorced mother of three adult daughters, later took her own life.

Days later, film, television and advertising professionals and Benz clients across the state began receiving an unsigned, typed letter alleging unethical behavior on the part of Benzrihrem. . The letter claimed, among other things, that he withheld the salaries of models and actors.

Jennifer Cooper, Ponthieux’s daughter, says her mother wrote this letter and sent copies before her death.

The letter, along with the fact that the suicide took place at the company’s offices, shook colleagues and sent shockwaves through the closely-knit entertainment industry. The Benz Company is one of the leading booking agencies for local models and actors.

Employees quit, and models and actors, wondering what is real, sought new representation. The firm acknowledges that around 50 models have quit.

It’s unclear how many letters were sent, but some people who received a copy shared it with friends and colleagues.

Tampa police found hundreds of additional copies of the letter, blank envelopes and address labels in the car Ponthieux parked near the agency that morning.

Benzrihem denies the allegations set out in the letter and said Ponthieux was to blame if someone was not paid.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “None of these things are true. Not a… If I did something wrong, why didn’t she go to the police or quit? … It is she who is guilty. He said he hired an accounting firm to investigate the books.

But a former Benz accountant alleges that some models and actors weren’t paid what they were owed, and that was due to Benzrihrem.

“I know because I did Christine’s job before Christine did that job,” said Natasha Correia, who now lives in Portugal.

Let’s talk about the industry

Makeup artist Toni Jo Peruzzi, who has worked with Benz, said the letter got “everyone talking” about the handful of sets she’s worked at in recent weeks. “Everyone wants to know the same thing: is it true and do they owe them money they’ve never heard of?”

Over the years, local Benz customers have included HSN, Publix and Spectrum. Commercials, print ads, movies and TV shows featuring their models and actors can be viewed worldwide.

Benzrihem said the company represents over 3,000 models and actors.

Hillsborough County Film Commissioner Tyler Martinolich said Benz, established in 1998, “is among the largest agencies in the state.” Benz’s website says it’s the biggest.

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A model or an actor is paid partly according to the duration of use of an advertisement. This length is mentioned in their contract. Among Ponthieux’s allegations is that Benzrihem did not always pay actors and models when an advertising contract has been extended.

“On occasion checks have been cut for talent renewal and never mailed,” Ponthieux claimed in the letter. “Over the past 10 years, checks returned with an undeliverable mailing address have been voided. No effort was made to contact the talent to obtain a current mailing address. The funds were redeposited into the company’s bank account.

Correia, the former accountant, claimed this past during his 17 years with the agency. Ponthieux, took over as accountant around 2011 when Correia became an agent.

“Sometimes I was told not to mail a check,” alleged Correia, who left Benz in 2018. “Sometimes the check would come out of the mail without me knowing until later. Either the check came back because the address had changed and there had been no survey to find the talent. The agency would then keep that money.

Correia claims that she would sometimes, without telling Benzrihem, tell models or actors that a contract had been renewed and suggest that they call the office about it, asking them not to mention how they found out. But it was “impossible” to know that not all models were fully paid.

“I don’t remember having a conversation with Natasha about it at all,” Benzrihem said. “I have no idea what she’s talking about.”

Kira Alexander, who worked at Benz for eight years, mostly developing new models, alleged she had “heard of situations where a talent would call and say, ‘Hey, I just saw my picture at the airport and it was supposed to be done two years ago. “”

Alexander said she left Benz in 2016 after eight years because she felt unappreciated and uncomfortable working in an environment in which she felt employees “regularly had to overcome cases. questionable ethics on the part of the owner”. She created her own talent development agency.

Valérie Orca claimed she is among those who did not receive contract renewal money for arranged employment through Benz. About 14 years ago, Orca said, she was in a tourist commercial for Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.

“I was running backwards and had my hair in my face,” she said.

A few years after he was filmed, Orca claimed, someone claiming to be the commercial’s producer asked where he should send his renewal check.

“I told them Benz,” Orca said, but she never got the money and Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater “used that clip until maybe three years ago.”

She left Benz after reading Ponthieux’s letter.

Ponthieux also alleged that “many times over the years, talent has been quoted and paid less than bargained for the project. So the money was taken from the top.

Former accountant Correia claimed the same practice happened when she worked at Benz.

It was not a surprise for some.

“Steve has been taking money for years,” said Traci Brevard, an Orlando-based talent agent.

About 10 years ago, Orlando-based casting agent John Perost began posting an employment rate alongside the call for talent because, he said, “the word was coming back to me. that Benz was misrepresenting the rates as much lower.”

Still, Benzrihem claimed, “I haven’t signed a check since 2011.” Ponthieux “looked after my stamp. She took care of everything. So no charges, I wasn’t even there to do it.

Fallout of the letter

Benzrihrem said those now speaking out against him are either disgruntled former employees or agency competitors seeking to harm his business. But it is undeniable that the the charges and the suicide impacted the business.

He said three employees have left since Ponthieux’s death.

Ryan Marshall has resigned as vice president. He said the contents of the letter were new to him, but he “could not continue to work for the company given the allegations and the fact that Christine had taken her own life in the office”.

Benzrihem said about 50 models have told him they are leaving, and he wonders if some clients will no longer want to work with the agency. “She killed a lot of our work.” Still, they have hired new agents and “our current team is resilient and continues to book jobs and deliver great results for our clients.”

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation has no complaints against Benz. The agency said it could only comment on or acknowledge the existence of investigations that concluded with a finding of probable cause.

The police report says the letter “escaped the owner’s ‘shady’ business tactics and money management”, but TPD spokesman Jamel Laneè said “the remarks in the letter are not being investigated.”

Orca said she never filed a complaint for her missing tourist trade check. Actors and models, she said, fear that speaking out could cost them future jobs with their agency or future agencies.

“That’s unfortunately true for many in this industry,” said Brevard, Orlando’s talent agent. “They have to keep working and worry that it might hurt them. But, they have to talk. »

A complaint against Benz was filed with the Hillsborough Film Commission last month after the letter was published, “concerning the non-payment of talent,” Martinolich said., the county film commissioner.

State law dictates that an agency has five business days to pay after receiving payment from a client.

After reading the letter, model Jan Gomper said she demanded to be paid for a commercial shot almost a year ago. She got paid, then left Benz.

Benzrihem, who at 52 was semi-retired, has returned full-time in recent weeks. He said he didn’t know models and actors weren’t being paid until he read the allegations in the letter. “I hired an outside accounting firm to come and review the books and make sure everyone was getting their due.”

Cooper, Ponthieux’s daughter, wants her mother to be remembered as someone with a “great personality” who “loved to laugh and have a good time”.

Marshall recalled Ponthieux’s kindness, saying she would leave canned goods behind the desk for the homeless and let them use the agency restroom to clean themselves.

“Fridays at work are usually a little lighter,” he said. “The weekend is approaching and people are in a good mood.” The Friday before Ponthieux’s death, “she was singing and dancing. I’m really struggling with it because I just didn’t see any signs.

Need help?

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741; or chat with someone online at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Tampa Bay Crisis Center can be reached by dialing 211 or visiting crisiscenter.com.

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