On the morning of Monday, April 25, Christine Ponthieux beat everyone into the Benz Model & Talent Agency, where she worked for 20 years, most recently as the firm’s bookkeeper.
She entered 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,” it said, according to the Tampa Police Department’s investigation report.
Ponthieux, 51, a divorced mother of three adult daughters, then killed herself.
A few days later, film, television and advertisement professionals and Benz clients throughout the state began receiving an unsigned, typed letter alleging unethical behavior by Benzrihem. The letter claimed, among other things, that he had been withholding pay from models and actors.
Jennifer Cooper, Ponthieux’s daughter, says her mother wrote that letter and mailed copies before her death.
The letter, plus the fact that the suicide happened in the firm’s offices, rattled coworkers and sent shockwaves in the closely knit entertainment industry. The Benz firm is one of the foremost booking agencies for local models and actors.
Employees have resigned and models and actors, wondering what is true, have sought new representation. The firm acknowledges that about 50 models have quit.
It’s not known how many of the letters were mailed, but some 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 that Ponthieux parked near the agency that morning.
Benzrihem denies the allegations laid out in the letter and said that Ponthieux was to blame if anyone was not paid.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “Not one of those things is true. Not one ... If I was doing anything wrong, why didn’t she go to the police or quit? ... She’s the one with the guilt.” He said he hired an accounting firm to investigate the books.
But a previous bookkeeper for Benz alleges some models and actors didn’t get paid what they were owed, and that was due to Benzrihem.
“I know because I did Christine’s job before Christine did that job,” asserted Natasha Correia, who now lives in Portugal.
Talk of the industry
Makeup artist Toni Jo Peruzzi, who has worked with Benz, said the letter has “everyone” talking on the handful of sets where she has worked in recent weeks. “Everyone wants to know the same thing: Is it true and are they owed money that they never knew about?”
Over the years, local Benz clients have included HSN, Publix and Spectrum. Commercials, print advertisements, films and television shows featuring their models and actors can be viewed throughout the world.
Benzrihem said the firm represents more than 3,000 models and actors.
Hillsborough County film commissioner Tyler Martinolich said Benz, established in 1998, “is among the largest agencies in the state.” The Benz website says it is the largest.
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A model or actor is paid partly according to how long an advertisement will be used. That length is cited in their contract. Among Ponthieux’s allegations is that Benzrihem did not always pay actors and models when an advertisement contract was extended.
“On occasion, checks were cut for talent renewals and never mailed,” Ponthieux asserted in the letter. “Over the last 10 years, checks returned with an undeliverable mailing address were voided. No effort was made to contact the talent to obtain a current mailing address. Funds were redeposited into the business bank account.”
Correia, the previous bookkeeper, claimed that happened during her 17 years with the agency. Ponthieux, took over as bookkeeper 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 was taken out of the mail without me knowing it until later. Or the check would come back because the address had changed and there was no investigation to find the talent.” The agency would then keep that money.
Correia asserts she would sometimes, without telling Benzrihem, tell models or actors that a contract had been renewed and suggest they call the office about it, asking that they not mention how they learned. But it was “impossible” to know about every model not being fully paid.
“I don’t ever remember having any conversation with Natasha about that at all,” Benzrihem said. “I have no idea what she’s talking about.”
Kira Alexander, who worked at Benz for eight years, primarily developing new models, alleged she had “heard of situations where talent called and said, ‘Hey, I just saw my picture up in the airport and that was supposed to be done two years ago.’”
Alexander said she left Benz in 2016 after eight years because she felt unappreciated and was not comfortable working in an environment in which she felt employees “had to regularly overcome instances of questionable ethics by the owner.” She formed her own talent development agency.
Valerie Orca claimed she is among those who did not receive contract renewal money for a job booked through Benz. Around 14 years ago, Orca said, she was in a tourism commercial for Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.
“I was running backwards, and my hair was in my face,” she said.
A few years after she was filmed, Orca asserted, someone claiming to be a producer for the commercial reached out to ask where he should mail her renewal check.
“I told them Benz,” Orca said, but she never received the money and Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater “used that clip until maybe three years ago.”
She left Benz after reading the Ponthieux letter.
Ponthieux also alleged that “over the years, many times talent were quoted and paid less than negotiated for the project. So, money was taken off the top.”
Former bookkeeper Correia asserted that the same practice happened when she worked at Benz.
That wasn’t a surprise to some.
“There has been buzz for years that Steve has been taking money off the top,” said Traci Danielle of the Brevard Talent Group, an Orlando-based talent agent.
About 10 years ago, Orlando-based casting agent John Peros began posting a job’s rate alongside the call for talent because, he said, “word was getting back to me that Benz was misrepresenting rates as being much lower.”
Still, Benzrihem claimed, “I have not signed a check since 2011.” Ponthieux “was in charge of my stamp. She was in charge of everything. So, any accusations, I wasn’t even there to do it.”
Fallout from the letter
Benzrihrem said that those now speaking out against him are either disgruntled former employees or agency competition seeking to damage his business. But there is no denying that the accusations and the suicide have impacted the firm.
He said three employees have left since Ponthieux’s death.
Ryan Marshall resigned as vice president. He said the contents of the letter were news to him but he “couldn’t continue working for the company considering the allegations and considering Christine took her 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 has killed a lot of our work.” Still, they have hired new agents and “our current team is resilient and continues to book jobs and provide great results for our clients.”
The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation has no record of complaints against Benz. The agency said it can only comment on, or acknowledge “the existence of investigations which have concluded with a finding of probable cause.”
The police report says the letter “eluded to the owner’s ‘shady’ business tactics and handling of money,” but TPD spokesperson Jamel Laneè said “the remarks in the letter are not being investigated.”
Orca said she never filed a complaint for her missing tourism commercial check. Actors and models, she said, worry that speaking up could cost them future jobs with their agency or future agencies.
“That is sadly true for many in this industry,” said Danielle, the Orlando talent agent. “They need to keep working and worry it could hurt them. But, they need to speak up.”
A complaint against Benz was filed with the Hillsborough film commission last month, after the letter went out, “in regard to nonpayment of talent,” said Martinolich, the county film commissioner.
State law dictates 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 that was shot nearly a year ago. She was paid, then left Benz.
Benzrihem, who at 52 was semi-retired, has returned full-time in recent weeks. He said he was unaware that models and actors were not being paid until he read the letter’s allegations. “I hired an outside accounting firm to come in, review the books, and make sure everyone was being paid what they were owed.”
Cooper, the daughter of Ponthieux, wants her mom to be remembered as someone with a “big personality” and who “loved to laugh and have a good time.”
Marshall recalled Ponthieux’s kindness, saying she would leave canned goods behind the office for the homeless and let them use the agency bathroom to clean up.
“Fridays at work are usually a little more lighthearted,” he said. “The weekend is coming, and people are in a good mood.” The Friday before Ponthieux died, “she was singing and dancing. I’m really struggling with that because I just I didn’t see any signs.”
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, reach out to 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 Crisis Center of Tampa Bay can be reached by dialing 211 or by visiting crisiscenter.com.
(Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Traci Danielle’s name)