Last December, an audio clip of Tom Cruise going ballistic on Mission: Impossible 7 crew members leaked to The Sun. Enraged at an apparent violation of social-distancing protocols on set, Cruise sounded like he was reciting an overwrought monologue from an Aaron Sorkin script; you could almost hear the spit flying from his mouth as he bellowed and cursed.
For most people, this was a fleetingly diverting piece of celebrity drama. For Evan Ferrante—an actor and producer who credibly claims to be the “leading Tom Cruise impressionist in the world”—it was a chance to freshen up his material. Ferrante (better known as “Not Tom Cruise”) quickly memorized the finer points of Cruise’s profanity-laden outburst. Within days, he was delivering lines like “We are the gold standard! We are creating thousands of jobs, you motherfucker!” in his Cameo videos, sounding uncannily like Cruise.
“People asked me to do the rants,” said Ferrante, who has been doing Cruise impressions privately since 1997 and professionally since the mid-2000s. “And you’ve got to please the people.”
Indeed, Ferrante routinely brings in $3,000 a month on Cameo by playing the hits: He not only captures Cruise’s vocal inflections (the breathy laugh; the manic-paced delivery; the EMPHASIS! on random words) but weaves together mile-a-minute references to Top Gun, Jerry Maguire, and Mission: Impossible in his birthday messages. (Sunglasses and a Cruise-like wig complete the illusion.) Would the real Tom Cruise stay so unabashedly on-brand in Cameo shout-outs? Actually, scratch that: Would the real Tom Cruise ever use Cameo in the first place? And is it perverse to think a Cameo from a fake Cruise might be… well, more fun?
Since its launch in 2017, Cameo has become a virtual department store of B-list, C-list, and Z-list celebs ready to send you a personalized video message for $50, $200, or even $1,200 a pop (prices vary). Its popularity exploded during the early pandemic, when celebrities were bored beyond measure and Americans sought creative ways to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries from afar. Lately, though, skilled impressionists like Ferrante are bringing a curious service to Cameo that wasn’t baked into its original premise. They’re providing a stand-in for the celebrities too rich, too busy, or simply too elusive to bother joining the site. “That’s always been what I’ve built my career around: the accessible version of Tom Cruise,” said Ferrante.
In other words, you don’t have to be famous to join Cameo—you can just look like a famous person. And plenty of A-listers have Cameo doppelgangers standing in for them. Looking for Justin Timberlake? Try this moderately convincing JT impressionist instead ($80). Want a shout-out from Elizabeth Warren? Try Molly Erdman, the internet’s favorite Liz Warren impersonator ($30). Want Bernie Sanders? This man doesn’t really look like him, but he’s very enthusiastic ($15). You can also buy greetings from a Ricky Gervais impressionist, a Ron Burgundy imitator, and a depressing smorgasbord of Donald Trump impressionists (including a Trump puppet).
Or take Robert De Niro, for example. The 77-year-old actor is unlikely to spend his time mugging for Cameo customers, spitting out soundbites from Goodfellas and Meet the Parents. (He’s busy shooting movies to pay off his divorce.)
But Robert Nash will. Nash, a.k.a. “Robert DeNiroGuy,” is a longtime De Niro impersonator who’s appeared on The Tonight Show and worked as De Niro’s photo double for long-distance shots in 2013’s Grudge Match. Nash joined Cameo a year ago and, judging from his 263 glowing reviews, business has been booming. In his Cameo messages, he’s so committed to embodying De Niro that he wears a fake mole and switches between a handful of mobster-themed backdrops.
Nash’s videos typically begin with the “You talkin’ to me?” bit from Taxi Driver, then cycle through a succession of De Niro tough-guy lines. He’ll playfully threaten to “whack” his recipients while hamming it up in front of a fake Manhattan Bridge backdrop. But he also takes requests. “Someone will say, ‘Oh, he’s a big fan of Meet the Fockers, do lines from that movie,’ and that’s what I’ll do,” Nash said. “Because they're paying for it, give ’em what they want.”
All of which is fair game for Cameo. (“We're proud to enable talent of all backgrounds and industries to build personal relationships with their fans,” a company spokesperson told VICE. “While we encourage creativity and personal expression through Cameo, our Terms of Service expressly prohibit false, deceitful, or misleading content.”)
It should be noted that these impersonators aren’t looking to fool anyone. They’re not scammers. (And no, Ferrante wasn’t involved with those Tom Cruise deepfakes, though he was falsely blamed: Instagram temporarily disabled his account.) Their Cameo display names make it obvious that they’re not the real celebrity, and the site categorizes them as “Impressionists.” “I like to think my impression is fairly good, but I think people become aware fairly quickly that it's not really her,” said Erdman, the actress and comedian who impersonates Elizabeth Warren.
Yet people do occasionally get confused. Erdman has received the rare request that addresses her as “Senator Warren,” making her wonder if the customer was aware.
“Typically, it’s foreigners,” said Nash. He’s gotten requests from people as far away as India or Nicaragua. “And they'll leave a five-star review going: ‘You're the best, Mr. De Niro! We'll continue to watch your films!’” If they’re pleased with the Cameo, Nash doesn’t correct them. “What are you gonna do?” he said. “It's a video, they're happy, I just let it go.”
Still, he’s amazed. “I mean, if you look close enough, you can see I’m not the guy,” he laughed. “He’s 22 years older than me! But it’s him in his prime. They’re getting De Niro back 20 years ago.”
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Nobody plans to become a professional celebrity impersonator. Ferrante and Nash stumbled on this path more or less by accident.
Ferrante, a producer and former child actor, started doing Cruise impressions in college, during the mid-1990s. Jerry Maguire had just come out, and Ferrante’s friend did Jean-Claude Van Damme impressions for fun. “He recognized that I had the vocal cords and mannerisms of Cruise,” Ferrante said, “and that we should team up and do a Jean-Claude Van Damme/Tom Cruise mash-up and try to meet women that way.” They would knock on doors and use this routine to get dates.
About a decade later, Ferrante started posting videos to YouTube, embodying a persona he calls “a heightened version of Cruise.” One video blew up and caught the attention of director Richie Keen, who hired him for a video series called “Tom Cruise Is a Cock-Block.” Pretty soon, Ferrante was getting paid to shoot Cruise parody videos for Funny or Die and Maker Studios. “That's when I started making a living,” Ferrante said. He has since met the real Cruise (who called his voice “uncanny”), and has been hired by Paramount to serve as Cruise’s voice match in early cuts of movie trailers.
For years, he regularly appeared as Cruise at corporate events and sales conferences, but when COVID hit, live events dried up. “I had an exponential growth in Cameos after that,” Ferrante said. He charges $115 a video, and it’s been his most consistent income source for the past year.
Ferrante said imitating Cruise has gone from a side hustle to comprising 95 percent of his income. “Whenever he's in the news, I end up getting a lot of work,” he said. “So when Tom Cruise is being propositioned by Justin Bieber to fight in the Octagon, I jump in, because Tom Cruise will never jump in and respond. So I do it. That's my job.”
Nash’s journey to De Niro impersonator also involves some fortuity. He grew up as an actor, comedian, impressionist, magician—you name it. “I did a bunch of impressions, but someone said, ‘You really look like De Niro.’ I didn't really see that when I was younger, but as I started to get older, I was like, ‘You know what, I think I do,’” Nash said. He began honing the De Niro impression and going to celebrity look-alike conventions.
By 2010, Nash was struggling to find work. The recession had hit him hard, and his unemployment benefits were about to end. While living in Las Vegas, he spotted an ad for the Las Vegas Mob Experience, a mafia-themed interactive tour at the Tropicana Hotel. There was a party for investors before the grand opening. Nash purchased a garish ’70s suit that looked like something De Niro would have worn in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, and crashed the party in character as Ace Rothstein. He was a huge hit.
“They hired me as the ambassador for this Mob Experience on the spot,” he said. “And then, all of a sudden, boom! As this guy who looked like De Niro welcoming people in, I was getting hit left and right with publicity. And it took off from there! So I've been doing it since 2010 professionally, full-time.”
Nash started doing weddings, retirement parties, mob-themed parties, commercial work, television work—his De Niro shtick was a hit all over. “I was on the fair tour circuit for years, doing state and county fairs,” he said. In April 2020, after the pandemic shut down live appearances, a friend told him about Cameo.
“He says, ‘You gotta do this, man,’” Nash recalled. “So I start doing it and it takes off like wildfire. I started last April. And now—well, put it this way, I’ve done a year’s wages and salary. I’ve survived—like a regular salary of any job, well above minimum wage—on Cameo for a year.”
Other celebrity impressionists flocked to CelebrityGramz, a similar venture launched last year by the producer of the Sunburst Convention and Showcase of Celebrity Impersonators. But Cameo centralizes the action: real celebs and impersonators in one place.
If the real De Niro ever joins Cameo, Nash is in trouble. But that’s unlikely. “If he's not on camera, he's not a real talker. He's not gonna come out and do his lines from his movies,” Nash said. “I bring out all the good things people like about him.”
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The celebrities are fake, but the Cameo requests they receive are real. Amy Phillips, a comedian who does impressions of many different Real Housewives stars, gets surprisingly poignant asks. “Some of the ones that come through are like, ‘My wife really needs a pick-me-up because she’s going through cancer treatment right now. Can you just make them smile?’” she said.
Perhaps fittingly, video requests for celebrity impersonators often reflect the sensibilities of the actual celebrity. For instance, Ferrante said he’s sometimes asked to roast recipients in character as Cruise. “They want me to rip their friend apart,” he said. “They want me to abuse them, so I've done some abusive Tom Cruise ones.” In such cases, he harnesses the energy of the foul-mouthed Les Grossman character from Tropic Thunder.
Rarely does he refuse a Cameo request, but he did decline a request to break up with someone.
Erdman, meanwhile, said her customers often ask for pep talks, reflecting Elizabeth Warren’s upbeat communication style. “One of the things I love about the real Elizabeth Warren is how encouraging she is,” Erdman said. “It's nice to play someone who's always encouraging people and telling them that we're gonna keep fighting and things are gonna get better.”
She does occasionally receive requests from Warren haters, and has had to decline requests to make racist Pocahontas jokes. The first request she ever turned down, however, was much weirder: “The instructions were, ‘Pull the back of your shirt over your head and flap your arms around and say somethin Cornholio.’ And I was like, ‘Is this a Beavis and Butt-Head thing?’” She refused—even when the person offered to double her price.
Yet despite the occasional “Thanks but no thanks,” the Cameo money keeps flowing. The various impersonators all seemed shocked and delighted to be able to make a living this way.
“I would’ve never seen this coming that this would actually be a way to have income doing what I do,” said Phillips, the Real Housewives specialist. “I mean, I'm a clown! It’s ridiculous.”