The weeks since we first met Fiji Water Girl — a.k.a. Kelleth Cuthbert, whose real name is Kelly Steinbach, keep up — at the Golden Globes have booted us into a petty whirlwind of niche drama, a glorious gift from on high for those of us who live for this kind of thing.
First came Cuthbert’s bottle rocket ascent into viral fame: She hit the Golden Globes red carpet on January 6 as a relatively unknown model, photobombing a wonderfully long string of celebrity photo-ops in an elaborate feat of product placement. Fiji Water Girl immediately became a trending meme, but as is inevitable with overnight celebrity, controversy quickly gate-crashed the party. Days after achieving internet renown, Cuthbert sued her employer over a kind-of-creepy marketing campaign they engineered around her likeness, allegedly without her permission. Now, “Page Six” reports that The Wonderful Company and its spawn, Fiji Water Company, are countersuing Cuthbert, arguing that she has “bitten the hand that feeds her.”
In a lawsuit she filed in January, Cuthbert contends that Fiji tried to co-opt her fame one day after she found it, printing cardboard cutouts of her and placing them in stores before striking a deal with her agent. Further, Cuthbert accused Fiji of dangling “gifts” under her nose to “entice” her to sign over her right of publicity. And then, there was the odd allegation that Fiji had contrived (and filmed) a simulated contract scenario to make it look like Cuthbert had officially become a brand ambassador. In short, she alleged that the water company went to great lengths to bamboozle her out of a cut of the profits it made off her image.
On Friday, Fiji filed its own lawsuit, arguing that Cuthbert signed on as a water ambassador for one year, which — in exchange for $90,000 — allows the luxury label to use her “name, likeness, and performance” during that term. They say she signed a real contract, but conveniently, that she took the only copy. (Cuthbert says she destroyed whatever document she did sign.) On top of that, they say they showed her the cutouts and clarified the marketing plan, and that Cuthbert has been publicly referring to herself as a brand ambassador, even as she promotes other products — a violation of her contract. Fiji accuses Cuthbert of crossing “the very company that is entirely responsible for providing her the opportunity and the means to capitalize on her fleeting 15 minutes of internet fame.”
And indeed, Cuthbert leveraged her golden moment into a soap-opera spot, which — given her apparent thirst for drama — feels appropriate.