This article originally appeared on VICE US.
On March 20, Steven Galanis, the CEO and co-founder of Cameo, took a call from Akon, the R&B singer behind the 2006 hit “Smack That." Akon wanted to join Cameo, the celebrity “shoutout" service that lets you pay a smorgasbord of actors, influencers, and reality TV layabouts to say whatever you want in a bite-sized video. A birthday message? Marriage proposal? Inside joke? Anything is fair game on Cameo.
Akon's team had first reached out about having him join Cameo last spring, but the conversations didn't go very far. Now it was urgent: Akon was under quarantine, and he wanted to keep busy. "Need to get him set up on Cameo ASAP," a member of Akon's digital team messaged Galanis.
The CEO arranged to speak with Akon directly. "He was in good spirits, but said he'd never had this much free time in his life," Galanis said. "He was very pumped to get on Cameo." (Akon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Within two days, Akon had set up his account and advertised the link to his 6.3 million Twitter followers. In his "intro video"—the default clip that pops up when you visit his Cameo page—the singer sits in a parked car, wearing a seatbelt. "It's your boy, Akon!" he says. "As you can see, I'm in my car under quarantine right now, and I need to make some new friends. I'm so lonely right now, you have no idea. So I'm shouting out everybody!" In truth, according to his Cameo page, he'll shout you out if you pay his asking price ($444 a pop).
It's no surprise that Akon has time to kill. In recent weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has largely put the entertainment industry on hold, halting dozens of major tours, suspending film and television production indefinitely, and leaving influencers confused and adrift as advertising budgets dry up. And Akon is just one of many celebrities who've flocked to Cameo over the past month after finding themselves stuck on the couch.
Comedian Chris Gethard? He just joined. Actor Jaime Camil? He's there. Country singer Lee Brice? Why not. The list goes on: Mandy Moore, Troy Baker, Frozen star Patti Murin, Scarface actor Steven Bauer, Xena actress Adrienne Wilkinson—all recent Cameo recruits, some for charity and some for profit. Even Mike Tyson came aboard last month, banking $20,000 in his first day.
In the quarantine age, Cameo is the gig economy for niche celebs. "Last week was the best week we've ever had for talent acquisition at the company," Galanis said during our interview, on March 24. Throughout the entire month of March, Cameo added 1,031 new talent, which represents a 77.8% month-over-month increase, Galanis said. And the site generated 65,000 Cameo videos that month, a 30% increase.
The reason is obvious: While many entertainers—like the rest of us—are grappling with a loss of income, never in the modern history of the United States has the celebrity class been so collectively and desperately bored.
Even during World War II, celebrities were busy going to war and selling war bonds and filming Casablanca. Now they're trapped at home, just like you. And when celebrities are housebound, they get starved for attention and like to make videos. That's why we have Arnold Schwarzenegger filming bizarre PSAs in his jacuzzi, Madonna addressing fans nude from her bathtub, and a cavalcade of hokey celebs singing "Imagine." Cameo just ads another degree of personalization to celebrity-fan interaction—and the opportunity to put a price tag on it.
Cameo was a lucrative playground for B-list celebrities well before coronavirus. Since its launch in 2017, according to Marker, it has sold more than 560,000 videos from over 20,000 celebrities; according to Galanis, that's about 3,000 personalized video transactions a day. Its appeal hinges on making low-stakes celebrity interaction available without having to attend a fan convention or run into, say, Lance Bass on the street. The format also lends itself to attention-grabbing headlines: In 2019, Cameo hit the viral jackpot when a user supposedly (and dubiously) hired Mark McGrath to break up with her boyfriend.
But that was a fleeting media splash. Now that the pandemic has made virtual interaction an urgent necessity, it could substantially raise Cameo's profile and make celebs regard it as less a novelty and more a lifeline—particularly performers for whom Internet name recognition doesn't necessarily equate to financial security.
Consider the case of BenDeLaCreme, a drag queen known for appearing on RuPaul's Drag Race. In mid-March, as California was lurching towards a statewide lockdown, she was in San Francisco to rehearse for a show. It was canceled. She quickly realized other scheduled shows would also be canceled. "It was this moment where it was like, 'Oh, everything is going away. What can we do instead in this time?'" BenDeLaCreme said.
"Pretty much immediately," BenDeLaCreme said, “it was clear that Cameo was the most obvious option" for staying connected with fans and maintaining an income. On March 17, she joined. In her intro video, she declared herself "so excited to be joining the legions of bored, quarantined, niche celebrities who are now making personalized videos for you and your friends!"
BenDeLaCreme's own niche—drag—has been hit especially hard, since drag performers often rely on revenue from live performances, where tips hinge on direct interaction with fans. "Certainly there's been a [Cameo] boom within the drag community," BenDeLaCreme said. "So many of us are in the same position, where we're suddenly out of work indefinitely, but also there's so much of this individual fan connection—it's unique to performance niches like drag."
Galanis was careful not to seem too giddy about the pandemic effect. "Obviously, we wish people were flocking to the platform under better circumstances, but I think this is giving a lot of joy to people right now," he said. Cameo is even hosting its first virtual convention this month, "Cameo Cares," with virtual panels and keynote speakers ranging from Juicy J to Paula Deen. All proceeds on those days (April 16-18) will be going towards coronavirus-related charities.
The recent situation has been dizzying for Cameo's 30-person talent team, which spends its days phoning celebrities and their representatives, trying to convince them to join. "We've had people that have been telling us no for two or three years suddenly saying yes," Galanis said.
Some of those people caved because they noticed Cameo's potential as an engine for altruism during the crisis. That's true of Jaime Camil, a Mexican-Brazilian actor known for roles on La fea más bella and Jane the Virgin. "I was never inclined to join," Camil said. "Whenever my fans ask me for a shout-out or something, I just do them [for free]."
After seeing Cougar Town actor Busy Philipps post a PSA on the platform, though, he had a change of heart. “I saw a video she did, saying, 'Hey guys, I'm joining Cameo to tell you to stay the fuck home, and all my profits will be donated for charity,'" he said. “I was like, 'Ah ha! Now I have a purpose to join Cameo! Now I understand.'"
Camil is donating 100% of the proceeds to GlobalGiving's Coronavirus Relief Fund—not counting the 25% cut that Cameo keeps for itself. (He said he asked Cameo if they would donate their share but Cameo declined. Reached for comment, Galanis explained that the company “has overhead involved with keeping the platform up and running," but noted that the site has plans to donate all profits to charity for three days later this month.)
As of this writing, Camil has already raised $4,500. He said that if the world returns to normal and TV production resumes, he'll put his account on pause—at least until the next time he decides to step in to raise money for charity. "God forbid, if something happens tomorrow with an earthquake or a natural disaster, I will activate my Cameo account again."
Dancing with the Stars host Tom Bergeron similarly shrugged off Cameo when they approached him in 2019. "Nothing against them," he said. "It's just not something that is in my bailiwick."
In recent weeks, however, boredom set in. He's self-quarantining with his wife in Los Angeles, occasionally venturing out for brief drives to see the tumbleweeds on the 101. "I just thought, well, I'll give it a try and see how it feels," Bergeron said, adding that he plans to donate any proceeds to the SAG-AFTRA COVID-19 fund, which provides emergency assistance to members of the entertainment-industry union who have been affected by the crisis. He said he credits the decision to "altruism and boredom in almost equal measure."
So far, Bergeron's favorite request came from a fan who asked him to recite a monologue from Waiting for Godot. (He obliged.) He puts aside a bit of time each morning to go through his video requests. "It doesn't take that long," Bergeron said. "About a half-hour, an hour to do the messages. And then I have time for Spider Solitaire and binge-watching."
It's not just celebrities who are jumping on the Cameo bandwagon during the pandemic. Customer demand is also spiking, Galanis explained. "Last week, we saw demand up over 83 percent in the worst week for the stock market since 2008," he said. "When you think about why that's happening—people are still having birthdays. Suddenly their parties are getting canceled and friends and loved ones can't be with them." Instead, friends gift each other Cameo videos from afar.
Galanis says the average price of a Cameo video has dropped from around $63 to $46, with some talent reducing prices to appeal to out-of-work fans. But the pandemic has altered how customers use the platform, too. In mid-March, for instance, New York Times columnist Ben Smith paid retired football player Leonard Marshall to urge his dad to stay safe and wash his hands.
That's been a trend lately, Galanis said, citing the tagline at the top of Busy Philipps' Cameo page: "I'm happy to tell your Boomer parents… to take COVID-19 seriously and stay the fuck home." Other requests are more like morale boosts. "Dolph Lundgren—you remember Drago from Rocky?—he joined Cameo on Tuesday and almost all of his requests have been cheering up coronavirus patients," Galanis said.
As millions of Americans file for unemployment and people adjust to life indoors, other users have turned to Cameo to cheer themselves up. Kaitlyn Mueller, a college student in Michigan, knew about Cameo for months but never used it. "And then the world kind of went to shit," Mueller said. Her campus got shut down, and she lost her job. "I had to move back home for the next several months, and I was feeling not too good."
Mueller is a devoted Frozen fan, so she paid $25 for a pep talk from Broadway actress Patti Murin. "It definitely made me genuinely smile for the first time in a few days," Mueller said. (Murin, who tweeted that she's donating the proceeds to The Actors Fund, did not respond to an interview request.)
BenDeLaCreme, whose price is $120 a video, has also been getting Cameo requests for pep talks. "It's mostly people saying, 'I'm alone and I'm going nuts. I'm really worried. I'm really scared. Can you just give me any messages of hope, something to keep me afloat, or something to distract me?'"
She has even received requests from parents to cheer up their kids who love Drag Race. "Which of course is amazing to me," BenDeLaCreme said. "Because as a young queer kid myself, I did not have access to adult queer or non-gender-conforming role models."
BenDeLaCreme said she responds to requests only every other day (getting into drag is a commitment, she explained). But when she does, she spends five hours in front of the camera, filming numerous takes. The connection with fans is nurturing, and the income flow is reassuring at a time of uncertainty.
"My partner and I—BenDeLaCreme Presents is our business," she said. "[Cameo] really helps to keep my family afloat and to keep both of us from feeling that sense of panic. It's something where we know, OK, there's something coming in."
For Cameo's CEO, the quarantine boom has brought personal benefits as well as professional. Last month, Galanis purchased a Cameo from Akon as an anniversary gift for his girlfriend. In the 47-second clip, Akon dispenses relationship advice, talks about his own female companion, and looks on the bright side of the pandemic: "I've never had this much time to spend with my baby, so I'm spending it!"
Galanis paid full price.