You Don’t Need Deepfakes to Make Celebrities Say Anything, Just Some Money

For his forthcoming book, 'We Were Promised Flying Cars,' Kareem Rahma got celebrities to read a series of his haikus.
September 3, 2019, 12:00pm
A series of Cameo stills
Screenshots via Instagram

In a video posted to Instagram, Anthony Scaramucci leans into his selfie camera and holds his phone at a below-the-chin angle. "Nostalgia is banned. Hindsight is 20/20," he says. "What’s the use for truth?"

What is Scaramucci—the former Trump White House Director of Communications—doing reading a haiku about regret and the dissolution of truth on Twitter? Andy Dick recites a poem about a euphemism for suicide, and Gilbert Gottfried screams another about Burning Man.

They're part of a project by Kareem Rahma, author of the forthcoming collection of poetry, We Were Promised Flying Cars. Each video was made using Cameo, an app where users pay D-list celebrities to say whatever personalized messages they want: Reading birthday wishes, or memes, or in Rahma's case, excerpts from his book.

He calls them "DIY deepfakes," a commentary on how seeing is no longer believing and anyone's words and likeness can be twisted to say words that aren't their own. These Cameo creations aren't technically deepfakes—which are generated using an algorithm to swap faces in videos—but like deepfakes, put someone else's words in other people's mouths. For around $10-$100 each, he commissioned celebrities including Tara Reid, Heidi Montag, and Perez Hilton to read short science fiction, in the form of hakius. (Rahma worked at VICE several years ago.)

We Were Promised Flying Cars is a collection of haikus that contain tiny stories about a shitty future where humans make refugee rafts from recycled plastic and dogs are extinct. Getting publicity for the book called for an equally dystopian effort, Rahma told Motherboard. So he chose an app that sells personalized shoutouts from aging actors to fans, where they pretend to be friends with people they have never—and probably will never—meet or talk to directly.

In 2018, white supremacists used Cameo to trick a handful of celebrities into reading veiled anti-Semetic statements. Once you buy a Cameo, you own that content and can do whatever you want with it.

Rahma originally posted the videos online without captions explaining that they were from Cameo, and people thought he had some secret network of celebrity friends who wanted to plug his new book. "I have all these friends texting me being like, 'dude, how did you get Gilbert Gottfried? Like, are you friends with him? Do you know these people?'" Rahma said. "My intention was to actually create that confusion, and pretty much show that anyone can just manipulate. It's not hard."