This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Cast members of TLC's 90 Day Fiancé earn an abysmal $500-$1,500 per episode. There are no royalties, no massive checks for a record deal, no upcoming film roles. The only way to really profit off this kind of stardom is to take notoriety and monetize it. That's why many of them turn to Cameo, the place all your favorite celebrities, reality stars, and semi-famous influencers are available to be your best friends or life coaches.They’ll wish you a happy birthday or give you advice. They’ll review a book they've never read, deliver horrible news, or generally debase themselves, as long as you pay the ticket and tell them what to say.
“We thought we were building the new autograph for professional athletes,” Cameo CEO Steven Galanis told VICE. “That’s how this all started.”
In essence, the platform is a digital and universal version of a fan convention, but the leverage has shifted: instead of setting the parameters on their own—$10 for an autograph, $25 for a picture, keep the line moving, no touching—celebrities are the ones at the whims of the masses. If Anthony Scaramucci wants your $100, he needs to say that you’re his best friend on video. Otherwise, it’s back to begging for appearances on Fox Business so that nobody will forget that he exists, and relevance is the true currency at stake for some.
“It’s like the gig economy for celebrities,” said Nick Ciarelli, a comedian in Los Angeles. “Like for regular people, they’ll drive Grubhub or something like that. Instead, it’s $50 and someone from The Office congratulating you on the opening of your pool cleaning business.” Ciarelli and his writing partner, Brad Evans, have a keen eye for the way we communicate in modern culture and satirize it, often on Twitter or during their live show, Atlantic City, that they perform at UCB Franklin in Los Angeles. The two used Cameo previously for their comedy, soliciting unwitting bodybuilders to threaten their “son” who kept stealing fudge out of his mother’s fudge drawer.
“We were just looking for the weirdest corners of this thing,” Ciarelli said. Evans chimed in “Like, these guys with huge muscles basically threatening to beat up a child was very funny to us.” The underlying joke, beyond the obvious absurdity of the scenario, is the heart of what drives commerce for Cameo: put a dollar amount on it and they’ll say it, no matter how utterly ridiculous it is.
“Most of the people are on there for money,” said Evans. Revenue projections for major television conglomerates continue to shrink, and the push to streaming has impacted the bottom line for performers. “[Streaming platforms] don’t do royalties. The guilds haven’t figured that out yet,” Evans and Ciarelli said.
Talent pages, where you can see previews of your chosen celebrity’s previous Cameo videos, seem to support this thesis. Video preview thumbnails are arranged and usually look nearly identical before pushing play, indicating that each celeb is likely knocking off multiple in assembly-line style. For $50, Cara Maria of MTV’s The Challenge will spend anywhere from four to eight minutes talking to a complete stranger. For the low price of $999, Shark Tank's Kevin O’Leary will spend an average of 35 seconds telling you that he’s in an airport lounge somewhere hoping you have a great life.
The modern landscape of “celebrity” has changed significantly, and fame doesn't guarantee enough money to coast. Take the earlier example of Cara Maria from MTV's The Challenge: the top “veterans” on the popular reality show take home about $80,000 per season. If the contestant doesn’t win the massive prize at the end of the competition, they’ve earned a solid salary, but certainly nothing to prevent them from having to work again.
This dystopian pathway to direct access can be fodder for brilliant meta-jokes. For example, someone might want to make Robert Wuhl, star of HBO's Arli$$, comfort a 10-year-old boy who is getting bullied at school for liking Arli$$ too much. On its face, the premise makes absolutely no sense, but, if you pay the fee, there’s Robert Wuhl on video quite sincerely offering up his condolences and support. (This was another Ciarelli and Evans creation.)
You could also get Mark McGrath to break up with your long-distance boyfriend, in perhaps the most viral recent example of a Cameo gone wrong. McGrath spends a couple of minutes in clear discomfort telling Braydn that Cheyanne has decided it’s time to call it quits, but he muscles through it for the $75 cut of his $100 commission fee.
“Ever since his sales are through the roof,” said Galanis. “He’s kind of become the unofficial go-to for bad news and breakups on the site.”
Fortunately for McGrath, there was no Braydn or Cheyanne. It was a joke paid for by Hunter Shabazz, who also got Scaramucci to do the same thing, which Scaramucci decided to record at his kitchen table after apparently sleeping in a wind tunnel.
“I just thought it would be funny,” Shabazz said of the genesis of the McGrath video. “This seemed to go viral because it was taken out of context and assumed to be a hoax on the public,” he added, noting that he figured people would see the farce in it immediately and wouldn’t take it seriously.
McGrath indirectly indicated that he was aware this was a joke, tweeting he would also be doing “real ones” for the holidays. However, Shabazz did not feel as though McGrath treated the video as a joke, and there was no indication in the instructions or communications that the video was a prank based on what Shabazz provided as verification. If history is any indicator, McGrath is not exactly great at detecting pranks.
There’s no harm done in these types of stunts, save for a potential bruised (albeit compensated) ego of a celebrity who may unwittingly become the butt of a joke. However, the McGrath and Scaramucci videos, while jokes to those who commissioned them, highlight a more niche use of the platform overall: social dirty work. The talent is willing to help you unburden yourself of conflicts you’d rather not have, and people are taking advantage of it.
“We don’t want to be the birthday wishes and congratulations platform, to be honest,” Galanis said. “When people find these new use cases for Cameo, that’s music to our ears.”
According to self-reported polling data by Pittsburgh market intelligence firm CivicScience, one in four Cameo users indicate that they used the platform to deliver bad news. The vast majority are using it for positive fan interactions (birthday wishes, congratulations, etc.), but it’s not like breakups and bad news are a small piece of what is commissioned. It’s common enough that many performers (Wade Cota of American Idol, multiple people from 90 Day Fiancé, Kortni Gilson from Jersey Shore’s twangy spinoff Floribama Shore, the perennially divorced Kevin Clancy of Barstool Sports, and at least a few dozen others) directly advertise that they will provide that service in their bios.
Breakups aren’t the only conflict Cameo helps users avoid. Last year, Detroit-area native Ethan Watkins hired Bam Margera to call his electronics retailer boss an asshole and tell him he quit.
“I grew up watching Jackass and his CKY videos and thought of him as someone who lets people know what he’s thinking,” said Ethan Watkins, who commissioned the video. “I thought my plea would resonate and he would enjoy sticking it to someone like that.”
Watkins felt that his boss deserved the public humiliation for stripping him of something he loved: a positive work environment. Watkins had worked at the retailer for five years and felt that his pleas to corporate about new store management had fallen on deaf ears, so he took matters into his own hands.
“I just needed to find a way to get someone’s attention,” Watkins told VICE. “I’m always someone who isn’t afraid to speak my mind,” he said about the message Margera delivered.
On more nefarious fronts, professional athletes on Cameo have also been used as pawns in cruel games. In 2018, Brett Favre made headlines when he (and Soulja Boy!) were commissioned to record coded anti-semitic propaganda on behalf of a small and worthless white supremacist organization.
The platform increased its safety standards and screening protocol after the incident, but that didn’t stop a December issue with Pat Connaughton of the Milwaukee Bucks, who recorded a Cameo with modest anti-police rhetoric. Connaughton issued an apology, and according to a tweet by user @Zarathak23, the whole thing appears to have been a setup by a local Blue Lives Matter group who has been trying to harm the reputation of the Bucks, who have had a thorny relationship with local law enforcement since Sterling Brown filed suit stemming from an unlawful use of force against him in 2018.
“Brett didn’t leave the platform after it happened,” said Galanis. “I think people get that there’s bad people out there, but it’s such a small part of it. At the time we’d done over 100,000 videos and that was the first one we’d ever had to pull.” Compared to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, where radicalization and white supremacist propaganda has become enough of an issue to require congressional testimony, Cameo comes out ahead. “If you take our record against Facebook, or Twitter, or Instagram, we’ll easily take ours,” Galanis said.
Joey Greco, former host of reality show Cheaters for 10 seasons is available on Cameo, but indicated that he’s only done “a handful” of them since joining (“I honestly forgot I had an account before you got in touch,” he said.) He described a time that he helped a fan of Cheaters propose to his then-girlfriend via pre-recorded DVD.
“For me, though, I’ve never been one to just try and stay relevant on a platform. I’m good with where I’m at,” he said.
His position is one that appears rare, based on the evidence at hand. For the reality show and YouTube celebrities on Cameo, the participation and willingness to say and do anything is at least somewhat understandable: they’re famous, but they’re not rich and famous. Celebrities like Favre and McGrath, whose net worths are estimated at $100 million and $6 million respectively, seem motivated by the insidious nature of fame itself. There’s a need for attention and love that doesn’t disappear once the lights have dimmed. It’s evident in McGrath’s catchphrase that starts every Cameo he does: “Off the charts, but still in your hearts.”
Within 24 hours of the first viral Mark McGrath breakup video, another disturbing Cameo was posted to his talent page. McGrath spends two minutes telling someone that they’ve been let go from their job at a startup, and their belongings are in the mail. For whatever it’s worth, there are times during the video when McGrath appears “in on” what seems a likely prank, given the timing.
“Obviously you were a valuable contributor while you were useful,” McGrath said, seemingly off the cuff. “But that may have run out. Some things just run their course, bro.”
Casey Taylor is a writer based in Pittsburgh. You can follow him on Twitter.