Cameo Is Weirder Than Anyone Expected

Welcome to the dark, chaotic, utterly mesmerizing soul of modern celebrity.

Cameo / The Atlantic

Pretend for a moment that your lifelong dream is to pay $400 for a 16-second video of the Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil mispronouncing the name of your charitable organization while standing in front of a Gulfstream IV. Or to exchange $150 for blurry footage of the disgraced actor Tom Sizemore comparing his innumerable career failures to your close friend’s recent cancer diagnosis. Five years ago, this would have been an impossibility. Today, thanks to Cameo, your dream is finally within reach. Oh, by the way, three more people ordered Cameos from Sizemore while you were reading this, so his price went up to $175.

Cameo is a 4-year-old videogram service that was started by three friends who wanted a way to connect regular, everyday people (bad!) to famous people (good!). Fans pay anywhere from roughly $1 to $5,000 for a roughly one- to 5,000-second (the two amounts are not correlated) clip of their favorite celebrities offering a personalized message. These can be for the Cameo buyer or, often, a friend or family member, and in honor of any occasion imaginable: Scroll through the site’s offerings and you will see birthday wishes and promposals next to congratulatory messages on strong sales in Q1 and encouragement in the face of chemo.

The app uploads the celebrity’s content as soon as it’s made—no matter if there are mistakes, or the celebrity looks awful, or the camera is facing the wrong way, or the video was recorded on a Motorola Razr—and any performer’s six most recent Cameos are by default public, unless the requester marks them private. The only thing that demarcates the level of celebrity is the price said celebrity sets for his or her messages. YouTubers, Twitch streamers who joined Cameo strictly as a bit, and Snoop Dogg are all equal on the site, which, like many other businesses before it, appears happy to take anyone’s money for any reason. On Cameo, a “celebrity” is anyone you would potentially pay money to receive a shout-out from, and in the 21st century, that list grows ever longer.

The results are digressive, low-touch, strangely intimate, and utterly demented: a parade of distracted, famous strangers offering warmed-over aphorisms about life’s great milestones from parked cars and darkened bedrooms and, weirdly, lots of malls. Cameo is an almost painfully contemporary-feeling invention. It’s fan service taken to its most literal extreme, celebrity mania mediated by a front-facing camera and monetized with gig-economy efficiency, its product accessible to nearly anyone and clearly designed to be shared on social media. The company reported profits in the 8 figures for 2019, and its co-founder was recently named to the Forbes Top 30 Under 30.

Of course, it was also only a matter of time before online ne’er-do-wells figured out how to best exploit the service for the purposes of content—as they did with Twitter, and Facebook before that, and email before that, and, well, you get it. So long as celebrity culture thrives, and so long as things like Cameo exist to capitalize on it, Cameo will be twisted and manipulated by people into whatever they want it to be. Last year, the comedians Nick Ciarelli and Brad Evans used it to trick a series of bodybuilders into ordering a nonexistent child to stop stealing fudge, and if there's only one Cameo you’ve ever seen or heard of, it's probably the one where Sugar Ray lead singer Mark McGrath “break[s] up” with someone’s boyfriend for them. Hell, we managed to make the beloved comedy icon Pauly Shore record a rambling anti-circumcision PSA for our comedy podcast. (Cameo did not respond to a request for comment.)

But as delightful as all these joke Cameos are, they will never be as insane as the sincere ones. It is surely impossible, for instance, to request a Cameo as mind-bendingly awful as the one in which the NFL legend Terry Bradshaw spends the entire video mistakenly filming his unknowing wife with the wrong phone camera. Or the one in which Tommy Lee both offers his heartfelt condolences on the recent death of someone’s father and wishes them a happy birthday. (Look, Lee’s $300 a pop. You expected this guy to order two?) Or this brief glimpse into the life of the progenitor of the floss dance, Backpack Kid, in which BK feebly attempts the aforementioned floss from bed, barely lifting his fists out from under the covers while wishing someone a happy bat mitzvah. (The video is eight seconds long, and cost only $35 and the dignity of everyone involved.) Or this four-second Cameo that Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi ($300) clearly uploaded by mistake, in which a horrified look passes over her face as she realizes she’s botched basically the only thing she’s been asked to do—say the buyer’s name correctly—and then stops the video immediately.

Cameo offers discomfiting authenticity in the era of the professionally managed Twitter account and the 15-person celebrity social-media team. It is incontrovertible video proof that stars are Just Like Us—they have gross apartments and weird facial-hair phases and sometimes poor reading comprehension, and they are willing to humiliate themselves for some quick cash. With the simple click of a button, anyone can pay Richard Karn $80 to congratulate them on finally regaining custody of their son (“I don’t think so, Trimble County Family Court!”). That is not a real Cameo, but it could be. Sure, he would be walking through Glendale Galleria the entire time, but if anything, that would just makes it more authentic. Not only is it a personalized message from your favorite celeb, but it’s video proof that Al Borland shops at Hollister!

Before Cameo, if the average person wanted to interact with a celeb, the best they could hope for was an autograph, or perhaps a hastily taken selfie. For a time, Twitter also served this function: Reply to a famous person’s post and there was a nonzero chance they would have to read whatever you wrote to them, no matter how rude. However, thanks to the mute function, mass block lists, and a sharp increase in strict “no longer reading my replies” policies, those days are long gone.

Cameo blurs those lines again. The service gives you a 250-character limit in your request to the celebrity. Most people will use that to get the actor Michael Rapaport ($150) to clown on their college buddy for finishing last in fantasy football. But if you were so inclined, you could also use that text box to, say, tell the far-right internet troll Jacob Wohl ($45) that he’s going to prison. As long as you’re fine with the possibility of the celebrity in question just straight up bowling through your message and recording your Cameo regardless, thus charging you for a video you don’t want, you can say literally anything you want to anybody on the site and know with 100 percent certainty that they saw it. Last year, we asked the American Idol Season 1 runner-up, Justin Guarini, to record a Cameo for Mark McGrath, apologizing to him for something we had said to him earlier (long story). Guarini responded personally in less than a minute with a polite but firm “No. Happy Thanksgiving.” It was indeed Thanksgiving, so that was thoughtful of him, but most important, this provided us with proof that he saw, and then immediately rejected, our request. Sure, some of the bigger names on Cameo most likely have somebody else running their online affairs, but the risk is worth it. Cameo has not only given people unfettered access to celebrity inboxes—a perk that was surely unanticipated by both Cameo and the talent alike—but it’s inverted the power differential between stars and the public. Now fans are literally writing the script, and as odd as the results are, it’s a thrill to watch them.

You can see it in the reviews of these videos: People want a connection with a celebrity so badly that they’ll do anything to manufacture one, no matter how much distance actually exists between them. Surely Tommy Lee didn’t expect one man to write a dissertation on his lifelong relationship with Mötley Crüe after recording a 27-second Cameo as he’s walking in the desert, but it’s clear by the use of nicknames and the multiple paragraphs of the review that this exchange meant much more to the man than it did to Lee.

Unless stalking becomes legal, Cameo is the logical endpoint of celebrity interaction—it’s the perfect storm of convenience, access, and affordability. As a window into the deluded culture of celebrity obsession, Cameo is unparallelled. Its creators’ original intent was to connect regular folks with famous people, and it’s hard to argue that they didn’t succeed—the results are just way weirder than they ever imagined. Oh, and just a heads-up: Tom Sizemore is back down to $150.