Just nine days after President Donald Trump pardoned former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, halfway through his 14-year prison sentence for corruption, the former Celebrity Apprentice contestant donned a navy suit, set up a camera in his home library, and began recording birthday messages for strangers. Blago had joined Cameo, the video-sharing platform where users can commission video messages from their favorite “celebrities”—that is, anyone from a 600 lb influencer pig ($40) to right-wing huckster Jacob Wohl ($45). Over 300 people chose Rod ($100). “I hope you have a special time on your special day,” Blagojevich told a customer named “Aunt Judy,” later identified as former Illinois State Rep. Judy Erwin. “There’s nothing more excellent than the excellence of love.”
When Blago posted that Cameo on Feb. 28, the platform had about 25,000 celebrities offering their home video services. One month later, after over half the country entered an unprecedented virtual lockdown over the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, that number has grown to more than 30,000. “Last week was the best week for talent acquisition week ever,” Cameo Founder and CEO Steven Galanis said. “It’s not just that 5,000 people have joined though—it’s that some of the biggest names we’ve had on the platform joined in the last week. People that said ‘No’ for a while because they were too busy are suddenly calling us.”
The biggest new additions to Cameo’s talent roster are singer Akon ($444) and heavyweight champ Mike Tyson ($300), who did $20,000 worth of videos when he joined on March 16. But other recent joiners include: soccer legend Mia Hamm ($125), cooking show host and N-word enthusiast Paula Deen ($100), comedian Pee-wee Herman ($250), and Lawrence Krauss, the Jeffrey Epstein-funded theoretical physicist forced to resign over sexual-misconduct allegations ($25).
In the past month, mounting closures have paralyzed the entertainment industry. Sports franchises suspended their seasons. Television postponed production. Concerts were canceled, live-streamed, or delayed. The movies fortunate enough to be finished went straight to streaming; others may be put on the back burner for years. The work void has pushed celebrities into other modes of making money—and reminding people they exist. “I was just thinking, man, these poor celebrities, what are they going to do without pretending they don’t like all the attention when they’re out in public?” The Hills star Spencer Pratt said of Gal Gadot and a slew of celebrities’ “Imagine” cover on the Yeah, But Still podcast. “That video is like a fame withdrawal. It’s Fame Anonymous. I think their agents all got together and were like, ‘What’s the best thing we can do for our talent right now, and not look like we’re still trying to be famous, but remind everyone that we’re famous?’”
Galanis had a more upbeat spin: “They really miss engaging with their fans—and they’re turning to Cameo.” But however you frame it, the paralysis of the entertainment industry has upended the very idea of a cameo. For better or mostly worse, online-sharing websites have become primary loci of entertainment-related production. Watching Chris Burney of the rock band Bowling for Soup chug Jim Beam and sing “All By Myself” for a girl named Michelle’s birthday ($18) isn’t some small part in the movie of American cultural output. It’s more like a supporting role.
As objects of pop-cultural analysis, Cameos represent the limit case in celebrity obsession. The short, amateurish recordings, often shot on self-facing cameras by subjects in various stages of undress, allow viewers to peer behind the curtain of the relentless celebrity PR machine (or at least, the illusion of it; talent can choose which requests they accept). Once finished, the videos upload automatically to the website, creating an accidental archive of celebrity bloopers. More significantly, they invert the star-fan dynamic. Where average Joes once had to parrot catch-phrases or lyrics, with Cameo, they could suddenly put words in celebrity’s mouths. “Our business probably looks similar to Hallmark,” Galanis said. “Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Christmas—those are our biggest days of the year.”
And because the barrier to entry of Cameo’s talent roster is low to non-existent, the platform epitomizes the ever-expanding definition of celebrity. “Even Nobodies Have Fans Now,” a New York Times Magazine headline read last year. “One person’s D-List,” Galanis told Marker, “is somebody else’s favorite person in the world.”
But Cameo in the time of COVID-19 has made for an increasingly uncanny viewing experience. One of the platform’s most peculiar qualities has always been its requirement that each celebrity determine their own numerical value. That Caitlin Jenner priced herself at $2,500—the highest on the site—while Bam Margera offered his services for $65, revealed something both about how they see themselves and the audience they court. In the past few weeks, however, Cameo prices have plunged across the board. “In the last two weeks, the average price of a Cameo has dropped from $63 to $46,” Galanis said. “That’s 27 percent cheaper than it was two weeks ago.” The decline might reflect, like the stock market and gas prices, a deeper uncertainty about celebrity value in the time of crisis. But it has been welcomed by Cameo users; for all of March, business increased by 80 percent each week. “Basically,” Galanis said of the COVID-19 outbreak, “it’s like we’re having another Valentine’s Day or Christmas.”
The videos’ tone has also changed. Cameo, with its proudly washed-up roster, has always benefited from its customers’ desire for kitsch. Even if the sender’s birthday or Christmas wishes are deeply felt, there is a persistent wryness in hearing them articulated by, say, Andy Dick ($99). It’s a wink at the camera, a quiet jibe at the celebrity’s expense. Take any of the most famous Cameos: when Mötley Crüe singer Vince Neil drunkenly slurred somebody’s birthday message, when Sugar Ray frontman Mark McGrath dumped someone’s boyfriend (it later proved to be a prank), or when trolls conned rapper Soulja Boy and NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre into recording anti-Semitic messages.
But in the latest crop of videos, there’s a stronger note of sincerity. Concern over the novel coronavirus is omnipresent. Some manifestations are more explicit than others: Busy Philipps ($100) and Mandy Moore ($275), both recent additions to the roster, turned their pages into fundraising campaigns for No Kid Hungry, a Los Angeles non-profit that funds meals for low-income children in America. But even those who haven’t dedicated their platform to activism have unwittingly been drawn into addressing the outbreak. Some are absent-minded, as when Akon briefly mentions the “corona situation”; others abstract, like Lindsay Lohan pacing serenely in place for several videos, imploring fans to stay home. A few are genuinely moving: Former NFL defensive lineman Leonard Marshall recorded a video for New York Times media critic Ben Smith’s father, warmly advising him to “play defense” and protect himself (“No handshakes, Bob!”). Most fall somewhere in between—like Dolph Lundgren, the imposing actor who played Ivan Drago in the Rocky movies, delivering stoic messages to doctors on the front lines. “If I can beat Rocky Balboa,” he says in his thick Swedish accent, “then you can beat the coronavirus.”
It’s an odd pairing. The silliness is still there, but the gravity of the content makes for a blunter contrast. These are public figures more insulated from the ravages of the pandemic and its ensuing economic crisis than the vast majority of the country—a group who, generally speaking, has not responded well to it. And yet, because the public writes the scripts—because Cameo allows for what critic Amanda Hess called “celebrity ventriloquism”—the same performers who use concierge doctors, who get special tests, have been posting videos peppered with virus-related talking points, like some commissioned echo of our collective anxiety. “We are quarantined right now,” rapper G Herbo says in one video, “so that means me and you got nothing to do.”
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