American influencer Tana Mongeau – glossy, tanned, blonde – sits on a balcony overlooking the gold-tiled pool at the palatial Villa Casa Casuarina hotel in Miami, talking earnestly into her phone camera. “Hey Hannah, this is gonna be really hard for me,” she says as she contemplates the message she’s about to deliver. Her heavily mascaraed eyes, just visible behind a pair of tortoiseshell sunglasses, dart around the hotel restaurant. “Because I’ve been evicted before in this life, and it’s automatically one of those things that is really upsetting for me.” She looks directly into the lens: “But, um, clearly, by what I just said, you can tell that you are getting evicted by Andie.”
Unexpectedly, Mongeau laughs – perhaps due to nervousness, or the absurdity of what she’s been asked to say, or the juxtaposition between the unspeakable luxury of her own surroundings and the unsolicited advice she’s about to offer the newly-evicted Hannah. “So maybe pay up, maybe stop spending your money frivolously, maybe get to that bag,” she continues (the latter of which, according to Urban Dictionary, translates as ‘obtain a large amount of cash’).
What makes the scene more surreal is that Mongeau, who is 21 and boasts almost 13 million followers across YouTube, Instagram and Twitter, doesn’t actually know either Hannah or Andie. Yet in January 2019 she was paid $100 (£78) by the former to evict the latter via Cameo, a video messaging site that lets anyone with a credit card book a personalised celebrity dispatch.
Mongeau’s proxy eviction notice wasn’t necessarily the kind of message Cameo’s co-founders Steven Galanis, Martin Blencowe and Devon Townsend envisioned when they first had the idea of creating a website that would allow fans to order bespoke messages from celebrities. “We started the business three and a half years ago now with the idea that the selfie is the new autograph,” Galanis explains via Zoom from Chicago, where he is quarantining from coronavirus when we talk in April. “When you see somebody famous in real life, no longer are you picking up the Sharpie and getting them to sign something. Now you need to take a selfie with them and put it on Instagram or it didn’t happen. That said, very few people are ever going to meet their idols in real life.”
Which is where Cameo comes in. The site boasts more than 30,000 “celebrities” across a plethora of industries from entertainment to sports to social media to business, all available to deliver individually-tailored missives at the touch of a button. All you need to do is select a name, type in what you want her or him to say and fill in your payment details. The person you’ve booked then has seven days to record your message and upload it to Cameo.com, where anyone can view it (unless you’ve opted to make the video private).
At the time of writing, fees range anywhere from £8.30, for New Zealand cricketer Peter Younghusband, to £41,500, for American comedian Chris D’Elia, who, unsurprisingly, has never been booked at that price. Talent set their own price tags, although Cameo, which takes a 25 per cent cut of each transaction, does offer guidance. “It’s about how much your fans can afford, not how much you’re worth,” says Abbie Sheppard, who heads Cameo’s UK and European office. (Galanis puts D’Elia’s eye-watering fee down to his wacky sense of humour.) For those with a more restricted budget, there are still plenty of household names available for under £1,000, including Snoop Dogg (£622.50), Lindsay Lohan (£249), John Cleese (£352.75) and even 94-year-old Dick van Dyke (£830), whose video greetings are recorded at a piano and almost always include a few lines from some of his best-known hits.
The company maintains an equally hands-off approach to the content, style and even length of the videos delivered. “Authenticity is our most prized value at Cameo,” says Galanis. “So some people are going to go on for five minutes ‘cause that’s the type of person they are, others aren’t.” The shortest so far has been 6 seconds, by skateboarder Andy Roy (£24.90) and the longest a whopping 22 minutes from Meet the Parents actor Teri Polo (£62.25).
Once they join, celebrities can also hop on and off the site according to their schedules – at the time of writing neither Snoop Dogg nor van Dyke were available, having apparently been inundated with requests – and record them wherever they want. “We’ve had people do them on the beach, in the bath,” says Sheppard. Caitlin Jenner (£2,075) films messages in the car; Vinnie Jones (£249) records them on the golf course; and The Inbetweeners’ James Buckley (£41.50) bashes them out from bed (so prolific is Buckley he recorded a whopping 1,939 videos between March and June, including one that was uploaded a mere 14 minutes after it was booked). At least one Cameo has been recorded from prison.
“The deliberation at first when we first started was like, should […] people have to stand against a white wall and these be really professional videos?” Sheppard says. “[But] if they’re hanging upside down on a fitness bar at the gym, that’s what is very authentic to them, and I think that’s the type of stuff that fans really want to see.”
Not that customers – who can leave reviews on the site – always appreciate a more casual vibe. Former White House Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci, who memorably lasted only 11 days in Donald Trump’s administration, appears to have mothballed the slick suits and puffed-up posture familiar from his brief political tenure in favour of splaying on the couch in baggy T-shirts, causing one recipient to complain: “I wish he had sat up or made more of an effort or at least brushed his hair and dressed up a bit.” Still, Scaramucci, who currently charges £41.50 per video, has garnered 195 mostly favourable reviews since joining the site almost a year ago. “Literally responded within hours,” wrote one satisfied customer recently. “The Mooch is king.”
Abbie Sheppard, head of Cameo UK and Europe. She says: “there’s no reason why the Queen shouldn’t be able to record a birthday message”
On an unusually gloomy April morning in Los Angeles, Martin Blencowe, Cameo co-founder and executive vice president, dials into our Zoom call from the home he shares with his wife and young daughters in the affluent enclave of Bel-Air. As we exchange pleasantries he offers to show me his view, which includes a swimming pool, elegantly landscaped lawns and, beyond that, mountains. Not bad for a boy from Brighton. “When I was ten years old I wanted to move to America,” Blencowe says in his trans-Atlantic twang. “I always just had the American dream.” Having grown up on a diet of Baywatch and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, as soon as Blencowe came of age he packed his bags and headed west, enrolling at the University of Southern California where he majored in political science. Like many of USC’s alumni, he wound up working as a producer in Hollywood, which is where he met Galanis. “We did some stuff in the movie business together,” Blencowe says. “And then that business kind of just went… Well, it was going downhill. The numbers weren’t making sense anymore.” With traditional film and television business models being upended by streaming services, the duo called it quits, with Galanis returning to his native Chicago to work for LinkedIn while Blencowe stayed in LA to retrain as an NFL agent.
It was in 2016, when Blencowe attended Galanis’s grandmother’s funeral in Chicago, that their fortunes changed. As Galanis gave his friend a lift back to the airport, Blencowe talked about his new career as an NFL agent, explaining he was particularly intent on finding business opportunities for players off the field. At some point during the drive, he also pulled out his phone and showed Galanis a congratulatory video he’d asked one of his clients, Seattle Seahawks player Cassius Marsh, to record for a friend who’d recently had a baby. The friend, he said, had been bowled over. Somewhere en route to O’Hare, inspiration struck. “And months later, we made a business out of that,” Blencowe says sunnily.
Initially, things didn’t run quite as smoothly as Blencowe’s deep tan and crisp shirt might imply. “When we sold the first Cameo it was basically a disaster,” Galanis admits. The company launched in March 2017 without an app, and the website – then “BookCameo” because they couldn’t afford Cameo.com – was beset by technical issues, causing their first customer, a father who ordered a greeting from Marsh for his 16-year-old daughter’s birthday, to receive the video too late.
Sheppard, who joined as an intern four months later (she swiftly quit her degree in international business at Nottingham Trent University to join Cameo full time), says the website’s original backend was so rudimentary that video requests were delivered to celebrities’ Facebook inboxes via a bot. “They’d have to remember the request and then they’d have to record a video on their phone, upload it to Facebook Messenger and somehow it would get emailed to the customer,” she recalls. “As you can imagine, we had lots of talent who would say people’s names wrong or they’d forget a part of their request because it wasn’t in front of them.” The bot has since been replaced by a phone app that layers a customer’s script directly over the screen like a teleprompter, allowing celebrities to face the camera while reading the recipient’s name and any other details they’ve been asked to reference.
Galanis and Blencowe were not the first to create a website where fans could pay for celebrity video greetings. CelebVM.com was launched out of Bristol in 2013, the brainchild of entrepreneur Angus Lancaster. Lancaster, who had neither Hollywood contacts nor technical expertise, was inspired to develop his site after supplying giant inflatable balls for a One Direction music video (one of his other companies, WaterWalkerz, sells inflatable items). On set, Lancaster watched as extras repeatedly tried to engage the band in conversation, despite having been explicitly warned not to. “The polite people would not go up to them, but the people who didn’t really care would just go up and get an autograph,” he recalls. “So I thought, well, they must be getting this all the time and there must be a need there: a more fair, easier way where a genuine fan would get this connection.”
Despite its four-year head start, CelebVM doesn’t boast quite the same calibre of international stars as its US competitor, although it does appear to have a larger roster of British talent, such as Danny John-Jules from Red Dwarf and TV presenter Cheryl Baker. A number of celebrities, including Superman actor Dean Cain and Lindsay Lohan’s mother Dina Lohan, are on both sites. Over the years, Lancaster says, he’s seen a handful of companies try to emulate the formula with varying levels of success. In Europe, a website called Greetzly, which has been around since 2014, seems to have cornered the market on celebrities from Germany, France and Italy, while TheWysh.com is predominantly populated by Bollywood stars. “Many other platforms have come and gone, despite having substantial press and investment,” says Lancaster, who claims he is currently consulting on similar sites in Japan, Thailand and the Philippines.
While Cameo might have arrived relatively late to the world of personalised celebrity greetings, it did have one considerable advantage: its founders’ sprawling and star-spangled networks. Early on, Galanis brought on Microsoft manager-turned-Vine star Devon Townsend, a fellow Duke University alumnus, as co-founder and CTO. Between the trio’s contacts across sports, Hollywood and social media (joining Marsh as one of the earliest celebrities on the site was Townsend’s friend Cody Ko, a YouTuber with almost five million subscribers), Cameo quickly gained traction. Last summer the company was reportedly valued at $300 million – and that’s before the Covid-19 crisis turned it into possibly the pandemic’s foremost purveyor of intangible gifting. Last June, when the trio closed $50 million in Series B funding, a partner at VC fund Kleiner Perkins, which led the round, congratulated Galanis, Blencowe and Townsend by sending them – what else? – a Cameo (from Friends actor Michael Rapaport).
For many celebrities, there’s something uncomfortable about charging fans to wish them congratulations or simply say hello. Actor Chris Dennis, better known as his drag alter ego La Voix, first came across Cameo on the cabaret scene last year when a colleague signed up to it. “I thought it’s quite a brave, assuming thing to do,” says Dennis. “Imagine expecting people to pay to wish someone happy birthday? It sort of jarred a little bit with me.” Although drag performers are a popular category on Cameo – there are currently 237 to choose from – Dennis has yet to join them. “We ask more and more of our fans and followers,” he says, citing merchandise, tickets and paid meet-and-greets. “When does it end?”
Similarly, novelist and TV presenter Dawn O’Porter and her actor husband Chris O’Dowd only joined Cameo earlier this year when they realised they could donate their profits directly to Choose Love, a refugee charity co-founded by O’Porter. “I have to admit, before there was the charity element to it I wouldn’t have charged people for those videos,” O’Porter says. “It’s not something that I felt massively right about. However, I’m definitely starting to move more into a space of realizing the amount of stuff that [content creators] give for free.”
Early on, Blencowe says, it was challenging to persuade celebrities to join the site. “Year one it was like everybody saying no,” he recalls. “I remember an email being like, ‘My client’ – I don’t want to say the client’s name – ‘would never, ever consider using this.’”
Sheppard says that over the last two years she’s “probably reached out to every single agent, manager and/or talent” in the UK. It’s only since the coronavirus crisis shut down the entertainment industry that many of them have finally responded to her email or Instagram DM. Galanis says that from February to March of this year there was a 77 per cent increase in talent joining the site. Some, whose pre-Covid-19 lives were a whirlwind of performances, shoots, travel and fan interactions, were bored at home. Others, like US singer Mandy Moore, who in March texted the team asking if she could join to raise money for charity, had more altruistic motives. (Moore donated proceeds from her videos to US child hunger campaign No Kid Hungry.)
Still, some managers remain skeptical. “It’s prostitution of talent,” Nico Cary, who owns social media agency Influentially, says emphatically. Cary, who primarily represents TikTok stars, says that influencers in particular, who rely on brand deals for revenue, could be devaluing themselves by selling shout-outs on Cameo. So averse is he to the concept he claims he would refuse to manage anyone with a Cameo page. “It doesn’t do it for me,” he says. “It’s very cheap, it’s very crass and it’s very – it reminds me of the era when you used to download ringtones from MTV that sounded like your favourite songs. It’s very naff.”
Of the 30,000 celebrities on Cameo, only a handful can actually claim to be household names. Some aren’t even human (you can book shout-outs from both puppets and animals).
A scroll through the homepage typically shows actors, musicians and athletes jostling for attention alongside Playboy models, Trump impersonators and even a horse. Click on the “All categories” tab and things get weirder. Of the 668 sub-categories currently listed on the site you can browse pretty much anything from “Netflix” to “E-sports”, “Tarot Card Readers”, “Disney”, “Astronauts” and “Furry” (meaning members of the furry subculture, who dress as animal characters; real animals, including dogs, cats, pigs, hippos and a sloth, have their own category).
Perhaps the most uncomfortable section to peruse is “Viral”, which features, among others, three “childhood cancer fighters”; actor Monica Ruiz, who shot to fame after starring in a much-maligned Peloton bike commercial; and aspiring rapper Charles McDowell, better known as Wide Neck, whose mugshot went viral in 2018 because of his, well, exceptionally wide neck. (It’s Wide Neck who is responsible for making a Cameo in jail: he talks through the handset on one side of the visiting room glass while an associate films him from the other). “[Cameo] is for people that are looking to extend their monetisable value rather than people at the peak of their power,” says Harry Hugo, co-founder of influencer marketing agency Goat.
While some celebrities might balk at competing with magicians or zoo animals for custom, Cameo’s founders reject the notion that the breadth of talent on the site might prevent genuine A-listers from joining. “Instagram has everybody, Twitter has everybody,” Blencowe shrugs. The company’s philosophy, Sheppard explains, is that whether you’re nine or 90 years old “there should be someone on Cameo for everyone.” If anything, the Cameo team are especially keen to sign up inadvertent viral stars. They closely monitor who fans are searching for on the site: as soon as there’s a sudden influx of people looking for a particular personality, “our talent team is all over it and they’re going to IMDb and finding out who that person is,” explains Galanis.
Within two weeks of Netflix releasing big cat true crime documentary Tiger King, for example, the majority of the cast was on Cameo, some earning tens of thousands of dollars. Since Wide Neck has proved even jail is no barrier to entry, Galanis is hopeful that Joe Exotic, currently languishing in a Texan federal prison, might yet make an appearance on the site. “We haven’t got to [him] yet,” says Galanis. Exotic’s arch-nemesis Carole Baskin joined as WIRED went to press: she costs £140.27, has a 5-star rating, and introduces herself as “Joe Exotic’s intended murder victim”.
When I ask Dennis whether he would be concerned about sharing a platform like Cameo with flash-in-the-pan viral stars, his reply is pragmatic: “That’s showbiz through and through, isn’t it?” Cultural historian Antoine Lilti comes to a similar conclusion in his book, The Invention of Celebrity, in which he writes: “When a writer, an actor, or a criminal becomes celebrated, the curiosity they elicit is no longer evaluated by a standard of criteria specific to their original activity. They have become public figures who are no longer judged solely with respect to their competencies, but rather with respect to their ability to capture and maintain curiosity on the part of the audience.” In short, the ephemeral nature of celebrity is precisely what Cameo capitalizes on. It’s why, for £186.75, you can buy a video from Lord of the Rings actor Elijah Wood or, for exactly the same sum, a TikTok star called Jason Coffee.
Sheppard’s ultimate goal is to have every celebrity on the planet on Cameo. “I think the statistic is there’s like five million talents in the world and we have 30,000,” she says. What is the minimum quantum of fame required to join? Sheppard says anyone with more than 20,000 Instagram followers is automatically admitted onto the site. Others, for example West End stars or television actors with small but highly engaged fan bases, can be approved manually. When I speak to Sheppard in April she’s in the middle of trying to lure 100-year-old Captain Sir Tom Moore, who raised £32 million for the NHS by doing laps of his garden, on to Cameo (she says her grandparents would love a video from Moore) as well as a woman called Sandra who went moderately viral after uploading a video of herself wandering the streets of Liverpool searching for her African Grey parrot Chanel. Sheppard says she has extended an invitation to everyone from Nigel Farage to Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. “There’s really no reason why the Queen shouldn’t be able to record a video message for someone’s birthday,” she says hopefully.
Cameo has also begun experimenting with other forms of talent-to-fan communication, including a paid direct messaging feature on the app, which celebrities can opt into and typically costs much less than a video, as well as a pre-booked live video call option via Zoom, which costs much more. Cameo also allows talent to offer a business-to-business option, recording shout-outs for companies rather than individuals, usually for a higher fee.
“We throw ideas around all the time,” says Sheppard, pointing out they’ve even dabbled in setting up brand deals for their talent, including with tequila brand Don Julio and drink mix Kool-Aid. With near-instant access to 30,000 celebrities, could Cameo eventually turn into a fully-fledged talent agency? “I think right now we’re really focused on what we’re doing,” she replies. “We’re not set[ting] out to take over the jobs of agents and managers […] our whole thing is personalised experiences for fans.” When I ask Sheppard who she regards as Cameo’s biggest competitor she namechecks Community, the text message-based service used by A-listers such as Ashton Kutcher, Kerry Washington and January Jones to communicate privately with followers.
The comparison that came up most frequently while I reported this piece, however, was OnlyFans, a pay-to-view social media platform where users can post X-rated content traditionally forbidden by Instagram and Facebook. Although subscription-based, OnlyFans also offers patrons an option to buy personalised or exclusive photographs and videos. While nudity is technically forbidden on Cameo, porn stars and glamour models are welcome. “If we had said, ‘Well, they’ve been naked in the past so they shouldn’t be allowed to be on Cameo’, why is that different from an Instagram model or an actress that’s been nude in a film?” reasons Galanis. Some talent are on both sites: Tana Mongeau set up an OnlyFans account in May, charging subscribers $20 a month to access “uncensored” pictures.
Lewd requests have filtered over to more family-friendly Cameo acts, such as Broadway actor Nick Adams, who says he’s been asked to record shirtless videos and even a striptease. “I just think people – because they’re online, there’s no face-to-face interaction – they get really confident about what they can request,” says Adams. One customer even explicitly asked him to discuss his genitalia. “[It] just felt, like, gross,” Adams recalls. “Like they were treating me like not a human being.” When he replied with a more appropriate greeting, the recipient left a negative review (it was later removed by Cameo at Adams’ request). Galanis says that, of one million videos that have been requested, only three per cent have been declined, of which “a tiny fraction” were inappropriate. He points out that Cameo’s paywall also deters abusive messages on the platform. “The fact that you can DM somebody something nasty or say something for free on Twitter, why would you pay to do it?” he says.
For some, though, fees aren’t a deterrent: in 2018 a handful of celebrities including NFL player Brett Favre, comedian Andy Dick and rapper Soulja Boy were tricked into recording shout-outs for a white supremacist group, some of which included coded antisemitic messages. “You guys are patriots in my eyes,” Favre, who charges £249 per video, said in the video, mistakenly believing he was talking to a veterans’ organisation. In the same year, Flava Flav was duped into sending a “happy retirement” message to an Australian cardinal who had recently been convicted of sexually abusing children (the conviction was later overturned).
“It’s very rare that it comes up,” says Sheppard of the potential for mischief. Cameo does have an algorithm that scans requests for hate speech and coded language. “It’s very sensitive,” Sheppard adds. “So you know, if I [wrote] “Okkkay” with three “K”s it would flag as a KKK request.” Anything that gets flagged is then reviewed by a team of moderators. “But we’re not like YouTube or Facebook needing a thousand-person content moderation team at this point,” says Galanis. “And hopefully we’ll never need that.”
Humans have long found a thrill in involving famous people in their lives. It’s why celebrities give graduate commencement speeches at universities, why they get roped into facilitating proposals on stage at concerts or plays, and why we hand them our babies to pose with when we bump into them at Starbucks. With Cameo, a platform that enables not only access but elaborate planning, it’s no surprise we’re now asking them to deliver birthday salutations, anniversary greetings or, as in Tana Mongeau’s case, eviction notices. “[We] believed talent would interact with their fans more if there was a safe way to do it,” says Galanis. “And that fans would get more creative with the asks, if they weren’t put on the spot and getting nervous.”
Ergo a woman booking NFL player Tyler Lockett to tell her husband that she’s pregnant, a fan requesting that actor Dolph Lundgren wish his doctor friend luck fighting Covid-19, and one customer asking influencer and voice actor IRLRosie to tell someone to stop talking during films – in the manner of Amazon’s Alexa device. From mid-March to mid-April Cameo reported a 176 per cent increase in bookings; Galanis says many were requests for reassurance or advice.
Yet watching Cameos can often feel awkward and sometimes even cringeworthy. “It’s because you know it’s false,” says Carey. “The talent doesn’t want to do it.”
While that may be true of many celebrities on the site, there are plenty who don’t need the money. “Harry Potter star Tom Felton is charging fans £200 for personalised shout-out videos… despite being worth £28MILLION,” ran a MailOnline headline in April.
“There’s loads of multimillionaires on the site,” Lancaster says of the talent he hosts on CelebVM, many of whom turn around videos quickly and at a reasonable price. “It’s not about desperate people trying to pay their rent.” Teri Polo’s genuinely touching 22-minute Cameo, for example, requested by a mother whose daughter was apparently going through a hard time, was clearly no cash grab.
For Galanis, Cameo is simply the latest incarnation of a singing telegram or greetings card. “People always, as humans, use conduits to spread messages of delight, love and joy to our friends, family and loved ones,” he says. “I don’t think that Cameo is unique in creating a new medium, but I think the delivery mechanism is certainly different from things that have happened in the past. I don’t think pre-Cameo you could basically pay someone to say something, you know, on demand. And that may be our legacy to the world.”
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