Model Kelleth Cuthbert, also known as the ‘Fiji Water Girl’, has found herself locked in a legal battle over unauthorised use of her likeness by Fiji Water, the bottled water company which facilitated her rise to internet stardom as a viral meme.
The 31-year-old model, whose real name is Kelly Steinbach, had originally been photographed several times at the 2019 Golden Globes red carpet event in Hollywood simply holding a tray of Fiji Water bottles whilst standing behind various famous celebrities stealing, their limelight as her photobombs went viral. She has now exploited this exposure signing her own deals, including a similarly staged promotion of dog food and a cameo appearance on American daytime TV soap ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’.
Her legal proceedings with Fiji Water, and its parent company the Wonderful Company, concern the use of a cardboard cut-out featuring her likeness in a worldwide promotional campaign by the company, inspired by her online fame. She is alleging in her suit that such use of her likeness and identity was not authorised, and she is not receiving remuneration.
Her suit was filed in California, the state in which Fiji Water is based. Californian state law prevents the unauthorised use of a person’s likeness for advertising purposes and a successful claimant is entitled to damages in addition to the defendant’s profits attributable to the use. Ms Steinbach is therefore demanding entitlement to $500,000 damages and Fiji Water’s profits.
On the other hand, Fiji Water has filed a countersuit against Ms Steinbach for breach of contract, claiming she knowingly signed a one-year deal worth $90,000, which allowed the company to use her name, likeness, and performance during this time as she operated as a ‘Fiji Water Brand Ambassador’. They even contend that they have video evidence of Ms Steinbach signing this particular agreement.
Ms Steinbach, however, is contesting Fiji Water’s claim that she signed this contract, saying that no agreement with Fiji Water was ever reached after what were initial pressured negotiations. The video evidence claimed by Fiji Water purports to show Ms Steinbach actually signing a fake document in a fake promotional video, and that this document later destroyed by Ms Steinbach.
Ultimately, they contend that by suing the company she is attacking those who have developed her career and pay her. They are therefore seeking monetary damages and legal fees, as well as to have Ms Steinbach’s suit thrown out.