The pandemic prompted thousands of celebrities to join the video messaging service, and its current roster of stars – big and small – is mindblowing. And addictive. Oliver Keens deep-dives into a world of rappers, right-wingers and Hollywood royalty to see what it says about fame in 2021
I’ve discovered somewhere online that’s so warm and friendly, it’s almost magical. It’s a place where Jerry Springer bestows congratulations on the impending birth of your first child from the driver’s seat of a parked car. Where Kenny G stops an important studio session, sax in hand, to wish you a happy retirement. Where Nigel Farage cheerily offers you good luck in your new job as a project manager, or the usually scabrous Azealia Banks sweetly wishes you a happy 16th birthday. I am of course talking about Cameo, where celebrities will smile at you like you’re an oligarch’s son. For a small fee.
I first realised I was addicted to browsing Cameo when I messaged a friend at 3.22am to tell her: “Jesus Christ, you’ve got the exact same kitchen layout as Robbie Coltrane.” Names of such delicious randomness would flash before me – Samantha Mumba, Chet Hanks, Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips, Roseanne Barr, Steven Berkoff – and I’d just have to tell someone. I felt like people needed to know that Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen has really nice wallpaper, or that Ginuwine is bearded but still a hottie.
Cameo is the personalised video service that, since 2016, has been connecting celebrities with fans – and has taken off worldwide. In exchange for a payment – say, £36 for Bargain Hunt’s Tim Wonnacott or £562.50 for Ice Cube – the celebrity will record a short video message for you which you are able to post online, send to a friend, or – in the case of someone I know last summer – play at a party mid-DJ set. Buyers can outline what they’d like in 250 characters. “Please don’t send scripts,” asks Larry Hankin, who played Mr Heckles, the crank who lived under Monica and Rachel’s apartment in Friends. He’s on Cameo; a steal at £37.50.
Covid was the making of Cameo. As work at every theatre, TV studio, music venue, sports arena and fan convention dried up, so did a cavalcade of income streams. The site suddenly ingested talent from all corners of entertainment: actors, comedians, sport stars, musicians and influencers. Today, like a gigantic stray dog pound, there’s over 30,000 of them on the site – all in their own way saying “Pick me, pick me”. Add the fact that you can watch past Cameos on every profile page, and you have a highly engrossing and neverending source of free content. As the costs of most streaming platforms look set to rise, I’m considering cancelling Netflix et al and just watching Cameo for the rest of my life. It is without doubt the most entertaining and mind-altering catalogue ever made. Sorry Argos.
One of its most unbelievable things is that everyone is on Cameo. Cameo’s homepage flags up prestige shows like The Office and Game of Thrones, RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Sopranos and Parks and Recreation. But every other conceivable vestige of celebrity is here too. Carole Baskin of Tiger King fame is one of many faces you’d maybe expect to see, just like Chris Noth (Mr Big), David Hasselhoff, rappers Vanilla Ice and Flavor Flav, and Fresh Prince actor Alfonso Ribeiro. But show me another platform that also unites intergalactic funk legend George Clinton, cricket commentator Henry Blofeld, former sex worker Stormy Daniels, Mutya from the Sugababes, and the actor who plays Herr Flick from wrong Eighties comedy ‘Allo ‘Allo! Truly it’s the website with everything, if your conception of everything factors in Caitlyn Jenner, “Nasty” Nigel Lythgoe and – like the undying cockroaches of entertainment that they are – some Elvis impersonators.
It’s easy to get caught up in the fact that everyone is purely on Cameo just to nakedly earn some bucks. In 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan dropped “C.R.E.A.M.”, which stood for “cash rules everything around me”. Today they drop birthday good wishes on Cameo for £270 a pop. Celebs have always sold out, but unlike shamelessly making a blockbuster movie, an accessible album or even an advert, there isn’t a single artistic justification for making content like this – even though, ironically, every contributor is still subject to critical appraisal via user reviews ranging from zero to five stars. Even the most likeable man ever – Police Academy actor Steve Guttenberg – once received no stars from a man complaining he’d got his wife’s name wrong (his other 185 reviews all get top marks though).
Despite the obvious cringe factor, the many people on Cameo who are viciously shackled to a catchphrase have at least made it work for them: Biff from Back to the Future (“McFly!”), the snooty maitre d’ from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (“You’re Abe Frohman? The sausage king of Chicago?”) or “Ghostbusters” singer Ray Parker Jr (“Who you gonna call?”) to name just a few. You expect to have your toes curled so violently that you fear you may never walk unaided. But they’re professionals. They’ve got this. In a way, Cameo gives them some agency over the monster that made them. Some stars, like Inbetweeners actor James “Jay” Buckley – who is estimated to have made 10,000 videos – have transcended their original raison d’Cameo and turned video messaging into a sweaty and profitable artform.
As I got deeper and deeper into it, I couldn’t deny how charmingly most celebs came across; how… down to earth? It’s exciting to glimpse their backyards, bedposts and walls of slightly dusty gold discs. James Van Der Beek has a lovely ranch in Texas and talks with the warm sincerity of your new best friend. Miriam Margolyes is 79, wise, and deftly funny as she dispenses wisdom while sitting in front of a portrait of Queen Victoria. One review of hers reads: “Your words were exactly the words our LGBT family needs to hear. I cannot thank you enough!” Even Sir Mix-A-Lot, of “I Like Big Butts” fame, is able to be endearing and sincere as he tells one recipient that she has a “fine-as-hell ass for a 50-year-old”.
The conventional wisdom is that Cameo is populated by celebrities who are past their prime. But what’s surprising is how many young, current talents are there too. Take Masego, the incredibly hip 27-year-old smooth soul icon, who is headlining Cross The Tracks festival in London later this year. He’s on Cameo for an impressively high £749.25. Queer 28-year-old pop star Dorian Electra is also there, as is UK grime rapper Lady Leshurr. Proving that nostalgia never sleeps, “Friday” singer Rebecca Black is 23 years old and on Cameo, ready to take you back to the hazy internet summer of 2011 for £375 (sometimes including a curveball cover of The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love”).
People are often snide about it, but these examples – plus the enormous weight of TikTok stars on there too – show that Cameo could very quickly become something that any star does at any stage of their career. It’s a readily available revenue stream from day one, rather than a supply of loose change so that boomers can reupholster their private jets.
Notably, too, Cameo is not just a liberal jacuzzi of famous playthings. It’s fair to describe Cameo as having quite the eye-popping array from the American right. The rump of Trump’s clownish political entourage is on Cameo: former press secretary Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, Kimberly Guilfoyle, Roger Stone and Corey Lewandowski are all available for hire, as is former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, who promises 24-hour delivery on her page – which is more of a wait than it takes to buy firearms in Alaska. On the British side, we have the aforementioned Farage (tagline: “They call me Mr Brexit… some people say I’m controversial, and I couldn’t care less”). Last month, dressed in a neatly pressed shirt and a smart blue tie, Farage gave a shout-out to one “Hugh Janus”. Takes one to know one, perhaps.
And there are Cameos for obscure tastes. The bassist from OK Go? Perez Hilton? Political polling guru Frank Luntz? The guy who sang “I Like To Move It”? Justin Bieber’s drummer? Who on earth is hiring these people? While some lack name status due to – let’s be frank – their astronomically low levels of notoriety, others have no name at all. Meme stars such as The Most Interesting Man In The World and Hide the Pain Harold (he of the inscrutably awkward smile framed by tight white beard meme fame) also have a chance to monetise their much-hijacked likenesses. Even if The Most Interesting Man is probably spending a fortune on cigars.
I used to think that being on Cameo was a sign of intense failure, but having completed it – the way one might complete Mario Kart – I’ve come to re-evaluate that slightly snooty position. Yes, it’s odd to see your teenage hip-hop idols congratulating a sales team on a great Q3. But just because some RADA-educated thespians are now, in the reinterpreted words of Withnail and I, reduced to the status of a content provider, doesn’t mean they’ve failed. I urge everyone to watch just a few Cameo videos, just to see the genuine professionalism and cheery disposition most people bring to every video. Is it so bad that celebrities can be given a star rating, just like an Uber driver? Or be told what to do in 250 characters or less? Or be badged with “24-hour delivery”, as though they’re a piping-hot pizza?
I think not: the more I watched, the more I stopped putting celebrities on a pedestal. I could relate to these people for the first time, because in many ways, I could see them doing a slightly crappy, slightly demeaning job. Just like the crappy demeaning jobs we all do, day in, day out. Fame is fleeting. Nothing makes that clearer than Cameo.