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Cameo Was Made for the Coronavirus

A Cameo to remember. Photo: Photo Illustration by Vulture and Photos by Getty Images

Mandy Moore is home-recording fan shout-outs on Cameo, the social platform where, for a fee, you can request personalized video greetings from your favorite celebrities, athletes, digital creators, and viral stars riding out their 15 minutes of fame. Tomi Lahren, Flava Flav, Snoop Dogg — priced at $420, naturally — The Bachelor’s Chris Harrison, and Survivor’s Jeff Probst are, too. For $200, you can hire Lindsay Lohan to film a quick video of herself wishing your brother or mom or boss a happy birthday. She signed on at the beginning of March; Moore joined a week later. That same day, New York Times columnist Ben Smith posted a video of former NFL player Leonard Marshall telling Smith’s dad to wash his hands. “I need you to play defense in these crazy times,” Marshall says. “Sanitize. Wash your hands.”

Before the coronavirus, Cameo had developed itself into a sort of digital island of misfit toys for hire. Reality TV stars, YouTubers, viral has-beens like Ken Bone of 2016 election fame, and Santa impersonators all offering up themselves as on-demand content creators. Lots and lots of people who are technically famous in some capacity but whose names would likely make you say “who?” They set their rate, and you, a fan, fork over some cash along with general instructions — the recipient’s name, how to pronounce it, what you’d like the celeb to talk about — and wait for a slightly weird custom video experience to arrive in your inbox. An unexpected side-effect of worldwide stay at home order has meant more and more A-listers are joining now too, capitalizing on suddenly empty calendars where once concert tours and film shoots and, well, work would have been. Cameo is ready and willing to take them all. The famous: Busy Philipps. The infamous: Honey Boo Boo’s Mama June or any number of Real Housewives. The both: Rod Blagojevich. It’s all good for the bottom line.

“Our business was almost tailor-made for the social-distancing era. The whole idea of Cameo is: How do you get a selfie with someone without physically being there with them?” Cameo CEO Steven Galanis said. “There are plenty of people that we’ve talked to over the last three years since we started the business that were like, ‘Hey, I love Cameo. This is so cool, but I just don’t have time to do it.’ Suddenly, for the first time in human history, every single athlete, actor, entertainer, musician, and comedian all find themselves out of work at the same time, and fans don’t suddenly stop caring about their favorite people.” Stars are now reaching out to Cameo instead of what was traditionally the opposite way around. Akon, who, according to Vice, had originally declined to join the platform, has since been in touch. Galanis told me he recently got a text from Bob Saget’s wife, Kelly Rizzo. Both Rizzo and Saget are now making videos. Moore and boxer Mike Tyson are two of the biggest names, according to Galanis, who have joined since the pandemic escalated in the United States. “Both of them came inbound, which was really cool, texting my team or DMing me directly to join,” Galanis said, adding that Tyson, a convicted rapist, was “someone that we actually tried to get from basically the beginning.” His videos now cost $500 each.

The last three weeks have been three of the company’s top five since it launched in 2016. (Perhaps my favorite detail about Cameo’s origin is that there was another, rival company that almost beat it to the business model. It was, according to a feature from Medium’s Marker, founded by one Billy McFarland.) Last week, Cameo’s “best week ever,” outpaced Christmas, typically one of the company’s busiest times, along with Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. “Our business looks a lot like Hallmark. They’re mostly gifts. People have birthdays every day. That’s our most popular use case,” Galanis said. “But now we’re seeing people booking Cameos to thank their friends that are first responders or ER nurses. People booking Cameos to send to their friends that are sick or quarantining. People sending messages because they can’t go to their parent’s 70th birthday party because they live in another state.”

Starting April 16, the company will host Cameo Cares, a three-day virtual conference with events like streaming concerts and comedy shows. It will be donating a 25 percent cut of every Cameo booked during those three days. “We’re envisioning this as the modern telethon,” Galanis said. “Our goal is to raise a million dollars for COVID charities.” It’s like a feel-good Kickstarter; instead of getting a romper for dudes or a literal nut button for your contribution, you get a short video of a recognizable figure saying your name.

Some creators, like Survivor’s Jeff Probst, joined solely to fundraise for COVID-19-related relief efforts. (Mandy Moore and Busy Philipps fall into this category as well.) All of Probst’s profits are going to a nonprofit, No Kid Hungry. There’s a logo on his Cameo page indicating this so you know where your money is going, excluding the platform’s cut. Everyone on Cameo has always had the option to partner with a charity, Galanis said. “Bookings help support the American Cancer Society & the Urban Justice Center,” reads a line in Catfish’s Nev Schulman’s bio, which doesn’t specify how much of your Cameo purchase is actually going where. Unlike Probst, his account is not formally linked to a charity. And then there are, of course, plenty of people who are using Cameo as it was initially designed, as a fundraiser for themselves.

Probst told Vulture he’s keeping his videos capped at $20 to make sure they’re accessible to all his fans. Last month, a friend of mine requested a Cameo — creators are always free to decline — for myself and my girlfriend, whose weekly Survivor viewing party has become a Zoom event of late. He politely passed, noting he’s recording videos only for children and essential workers. “What surprised me was the number of requests for friends or family members who are on the front lines,” Probst said. “It really brought home how much of an emotional impact this is having on nurses, doctors, teachers, and other caregivers.” At the end of March, chefs from Bon Appetit’s test kitchen were available for videos for a few days, also raising funds for No Kid Hungry. When the campaign launched, I eyeballed the prices and considered purchasing one from Claire Saffitz. The chefs raised $10,000 in the first half hour, and when I looked later, they’d upped the rates significantly. The Saffitz video I’d been considering for $50 would now run me several hundred dollars.

Sorting Cameo-ers by price is a strange exercise in human mathematics, laying bare a calculus of how much people value their time divided by the value of their star power. Price yourself too low as an in-demand personality and you’re losing out on profits. Price yourself too high as a D-lister and you’re not going to see much profit at all. The average cost of a video has decreased amid the pandemic, down $17 to around $46. There’s a weirdness to seeing which folks are apparently not using Cameo as a fundraising platform. Caitlyn Jenner, whose Cameo label is “icon” and who is worth an estimated $100 million, charges $2,500 for about 30 seconds of her time. There’s no mention of any charitable donation.

Jenner isn’t who Galanis built Cameo for, though. “We didn’t create the product to help Kim Kardashian and Drake make more money, frankly,” he said. “We created it for the people that are more famous than they are rich. There’s more famous people now than there’s ever been. And there’s never been a wider gap between them and the ability to monetize.” Earlier this year, Jerry Harris — your, mine, and everyone’s favorite from Netflix’s Cheer — had been the most booked person on Cameo, according to Galanis. Then Tiger King came along. “In this world where people are sitting at home, watching more content, that viral star that pops up can become hyper famous in record time,” he said. “Now they are outperforming, you know, some of our more established people like Brett Farve and Snoop Dogg, out of nowhere.” Galanis would not comment on Carole Baskin’s late husband. “One thing I will say is, a lot of the talent on Cameo seems to believe that [she killed him],” he said. Baskin, along with Joe Exotic, are the only cast members not on Cameo.

It’s telling that even with the bigger names coming to the platform daily, these smaller, more obscure types are still Cameo’s biggest hits. Sure, it’s lovely to get a short message from the star of This Is Us, but that’s not what Cameo is about. Gilbert Godfried is reportedly the company’s top consistent earner. Turns out it’s more fun to send your buddy a video of the comedian who voiced a talking bird in Aladdin or somebody obscure from the Netflix show the whole internet won’t shut up about than it is to send one featuring a person your parents might actually recognize. These are the people who know how to get a little weird or earnest or funny and talk with fans as friends, likely because that’s how they already operate off the platform. Influencers and viral stars cultivate fandoms and often communicate — however calculatingly —  like real people; capital-C celebrities … not so much. Marginally famous people are also more likely to be generous with their time. That $200 you paid to Lindsay Lohan only translates to about 16 seconds.

Not everyone, however, is down to Cameo. “There was … I forget his name. I think it’s like something Charles,” Galanis told me. He means James Charles, a controversial beauty influencer. “My team had reached out to him recently, ‘Hey, James, this is a great opportunity for you to engage with your fans.’ Then he went on Twitter and made this post about how disgusting it was that we were trying to profit off fans [during the coronavirus.] This guy, you know, sells meet and greets, sells products. He supports himself fully by selling himself to his fans.” I mentioned that Charles had, once again, been “lightly canceled” this month for participating in TikTok’s “Mugshot Challenge,” where he posted a photo of himself with fake facial injuries some claimed were a glamorization of abuse. “I didn’t know who he was before that tweet,” Galanis said. Cameo, he added, would still welcome him to join.

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Cameo Was Made for the Coronavirus