What Cameo knows about celebrities (2023)

a fan discoveredBen Fogle. I'm talking to the British TV presenter on Hungerford Bridge, halfway across the Thames, when I'm interrupted by a friendly, middle-aged woman in thick glasses and a long black coat.

She watches all of Fogle's shows, she tells him, and she just celebrated her birthday. "Happy birthday," he says warmly, before giving her a cheeky look. "Twenty-nine, I think?"

She laughs, a little shocked. Fogle is just like his TV character, smart and cheerful in a gray woolen vest, green scarf and sturdy boots. The fan asks if she can take a picture with him, so we interrupt our interview to have them pose together in the bright sunlight, smiling at the smartphone her husband is holding to his face.

Fogle is used to this. Although not much of a movie star, his career hosting nature shows on TV has earned him a fan base who consider him a friend, a teatime favorite, a part of their everyday lives. You can rarely walk around London without someone stopping you to take your picture. Most of the time he is happy to oblige. After all, these are the people who watch your shows, buy your books, and ultimately pay your bills. But today he has a new way of engaging with his fans using the Cameo app, which allows anyone to order a personalized two-minute video of him for £73.

You currently have three outstanding requests in Cameo. Sometimes, he tells me, when one of his shows has just gone on the air, he can watch as many as 20 a day. One is from a man named Ben ("Good name!" roars Fogle), who wants to get a video as a birthday present for his wife Chloe, who he says is a little shy and could use some encouragement . . Fogle sets the record straight and jumps right into the daytime TV hype. Hi Chloe, this is Ben Fogle. I hear you're turning 24, which makes you exactly half my age. That makes me a little depressed."

Throughout the recording he deftly manages humor and honesty. After a heartwarming rendition of "Happy Birthday," sung to the jaunty tune of a seaside song, she pauses before looking at the camera. "Never give up Chloe, the world is in your hands." Despite the surreal nature of the situation, seeing Fogle project genuine emotion to an unknown and absent fan, I can't help but be pleased. If I were a die-hard Ben Fogle fan, the video would make my day.

Fogle is one of more than 50,000 celebrities on Cameo, a number that grows rapidly every year. Like many apps that enable new forms of digital communication, Cameo's popularityexploded during the pandemic. However, unlike the technological successes of Covid-19, such as the video chat room,party in Parliamentor just soundclub, which failed when contact with the real world was restored, Cameo has doubled down on its success and continues to expand. Today it is valued at over a billion dollars.

Cameo may seem like a celebrity-filled gimmick, a novelty, but its founders learned something new about what it means to be both a celebrity and a fan in the 21st century. And now they are determined to occupy every inch of space between the two of them.

I know two of the founders of Cameoin his suite at the Rosewood London Hotel in Holborn. Steven Galanis, 34, worked as an options trader and then at LinkedIn before founding Cameo, where he is now the business end of the business, focused on "building the brand and scaling the engine." He sits on a couch, dressed in gray sweatpants and a chunky silver watch, next to Martin Blencow, a 35-year-old Brit living in Los Angeles who has a golden tan, muscles from long gym sessions and sneakers so dazzling white. which may never have been on the road.

Blencowe's job is to convince celebrities to join the app. that same morning he had seen a movie star.Jason Momoain the lobby and tried to tempt him into a cameo (Momoa has yet to join).

Absent is the third co-founder, Devon Townsend, 31, a former star of the defunct video platform Vine, who oversees product and design.

What Cameo knows about celebrities (1)

Galanis recounts the great success of Cameo during the pandemic as Blencowe flips through her phone. As Covid-19 shut down concerts, theaters and conventions, artists were left without work or without a way to interact with their fans. Many have adapted by embracing the technology: Musicians have put on impromptu concerts on Instagram Live, comedians have performed live on Twitch, and stars like Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish and BTS have staged ambitious ticketed shows.virtual concerts. As celebrities faced the sudden loss of income and connection with their fans, the public was isolated at home and desperately sought ways to communicate with each other, trying to lighten up their existence at home. It was perfect timing for Cameo.

Galanis wouldn't disclose revenue figures, saying the company currently "doesn't want to be profitable," focusing instead on "investing for growth." In the first year of the pandemic, the company more than quadrupled in size and the workforce doubled to more than 200 employees. In 2019, 30,000 celebrities on the platform recorded 350,000 videos. In 2020, 40,000 recorded more than a million videos. In 2021 the number of celebrities exceeded 50,000.

"Celebrity" is a word thrown around here.

Cameo prefers the term "talent" and there are few megastars on the list. There is no Brad Pitt, Adele or Lil Nas H. The most recognizable names (Sarah Jessica Parker, Floyd Mayweather, Jerry Springer, Dick Van Dyke, Snoop Dogg, John Cleese, Lindsay Lohan, David Hasselhoff) are no longer at the top. of their game, the careers. .

The cynical view of Cameo is that it's a platform for decadent celebrities to capitalize on nostalgia.

Galanis says having the biggest stars isn't really the point. Your pledge isn't a personalized video from the most famous person in the world, but rather a message from the niche celebrity who means a lot to the recipient: the drummer in your favorite indie band, an 80s detective actor. they see about Unwind, a dancer they follow on TikTok. The Ben Fogles of the world. Eighty percent of Cameos are sent as gifts, and videos become tokens of friendship, a way to show someone you really know them.

To get on the platform, Cameo must consider you a "featured person," which usually means you have around 25,000 Instagram followers. The app's categories include actors likeSuccessionBrian Cox, along with musicians, athletes, comedians and more wacky offerings. At the time of writing, there are 100 celebrity impressionists, five astrologers, 381 animals, 19 venture capitalists, 55 magicians, 13 Santa Clauses and one astronaut.

The "politics" category offers far more Republicans than Democrats, including Rudy Giuliani, Anthony Scaramucci and Sarah Palin. "When you have a reality star as president for four years," Galanis says, "the whole administration becomes famous because everything was like one big, bad TV show."

James Buckley, British comedy starthe intermediate ones, is the most prolific video creator on Cameo, having fulfilled 10,000 video requests in 2020. Comedians like him undoubtedly create the best content. "On Instagram you have to be attractive, on Cameo you have to be funny," says Galanis. Through Cameo, celebrities have become a strangely postmodern medium of communication between people they've never met: One man even proposed to his girlfriend using a video of Matthew Perry, aka Chandler fromThe friends.

As I was writing this article, the company provided me with credits to test the service for myself. First, I requested a birthday message for my brother fromtiger kingIt's Carol Baskin. He happily wished my brother a "happy birthday" and, as prompted, checked the name of every cat he's ever owned.

Better was the video of the former Speaker of the House of CommonsJohn Bercow, who I asked to criticize my roommate for putting his feet up on the couch and collecting cups in his room. Bercow's performance, born after a decade of rallying MPs, was brilliant, delivering his message "in terms beyond contradiction" and threatening "decent punishment" if my roommate misbehaved, ending, of course, by shouting " Order Order!" in his characteristic growl. Although both videos made me cringe when I first watched them (perhaps due to the disturbing absence of television and my personal life), their recipients greeted them with unreserved joy.

Despite the success of these giveaways,I was wondering why people are willing to pay hundreds of pounds for a short video of a celebrity wishing them a happy birthday. "When it comes to celebrity culture and the evolution of media, the constant has been our desire for access," says Hannah Yelin, Senior Lecturer in Media and Culture at Oxford Brookes University and author ofCelebrity Memoirs: From Ghostwriting to Gender Politics. "If we look back in history, where there are celebrities, there are audiences who want access to the 'real person' behind the public image, and the media of the time tries to convey that."

Throughout the history of celebrity, which historian Greg Jenner traces to an early 18th-century Anglican clergyman, Henry Sacheverell, who was so popular his face appeared in plaques, technological advances have allowed celebrities to gain greater reach and greater intimacy with their fans. .

in his bookDead Famous: An unexpected story of Bronze Age celebrities on the big screenJenner explains how the possibilities of celebrity were enhanced by the advent of newspapers and mass production, revolutions in transportation and photography, recorded sound, film, television and, of course, the Internet. Cameo now allows celebrities to talk to their fans in person. "The distance between the fan and the celebrity is reduced with Cameo," Jenner tells me, "because the technology is so thin it's almost imperceptible."

Recent technologies have created a huge new audience that Cameo clearly has in its sights. These are the super fans who organize online to follow their chosen celebrity's every move and buy all their merchandise. While there is some historical precedent for these types of groups, the Internet has allowed them to grow exponentially, bringing together Taylor Swift's "Swifties," Beyoncé's "Beyhive," and Lady Gaga's "Little Monsters."

These groups are also known as "stans", referring to theeminem songwhich tells the story of an obsessive fan named Stan who ends up killing himself and his pregnant girlfriend when his idol never replies to his messages. Toxic attitudes characterize some layers of superfandom today, as fan groups can savagely bully perceived threats against their chosen celebrity.

However, it has now become a key component of every star's PR strategy to cultivate a following, build buzz ahead of new releases and offer exclusive access to exclusives. Galanis noted that this was a profitable space, but questioned why monetizing superfans was only an option for the super famous. Why not extend this opportunity by moving down the celebrity food chain and putting Cameo in the middle of every transaction? “At Cameo we want to build better tools to help talent, at scale, manage their fans and turn casual fans into rabid super fans,” he says.

There is a growing number of people who are famous but not rich. Cameo's promise is that they will be able to earn money while becoming more famous and loved.

It wasn't immediately clear how Cameo's founders would attract the first celebrities to join the platform. At first they only had one, football player Cassius Marsh, who they encouraged to tweet by offering personalized videos for $20 each. The plan backfired when Marsh received negative feedback online and his rudimentary order-taking website crashed. In the end they only received one request, from a father to his daughter, a huge fan of Team Marsh.

The father filmed the moment his daughter received his message. "She watches the video and literally starts crying, she's so happy," Galanis says. "He ends up saying, 'Oh my God, how did you do that?' And he says, "Daddy's awesome, isn't he." If we were doing a Super Bowl ad, we couldn't have come up with better content."

This moment not only proved that there was a market for their idea, but also understood how they could attract celebrities to their unknown platform. “By the time we had itreaction video, it wasn't about money or talent," says Galanis. "It was, don't you want people to feel that way?"

Every celebrity I spoke to who uses Cameo said fan responses are the main reason they use the app. When I was with Ben Fogle from Thames he showed me a positive review he had just received which read: “Best birthday present ever. This made us laugh a lot. We haven't been laughing enough lately. Five stars."

"That's the essence of why I do it," Fogle said.

"Of course there is the reason for the money and the fact that I provide a service, but above all it is to put smiles on people's faces and stimulate their steps."

Cameo's promise to celebrities is that they will be able to earn money while becoming more famous and loved. Galanis argues that financial motivation is critical because today there is a growing number of people who are famous but not rich. Digital media has created more avenues for celebrity than ever before, but the opportunities to monetize entertainment haven't grown at a commensurate pace.

For many of the talents, Cameo becomes a useful source of supplemental income. For others, it's more than that: By the end of 2020, more than 150 Cameo talents had been built.more than $100,000 a yearfrom the platform. A fan is two things to a celebrity: a market for their products and emotional support, a source of validation, affection and respect. Cameo is successful because it provides a platform to access both.

The other celebrity needs Cameo fillsit is more complex and distinctly modern. Today, famous people, especially those of the social media generation, are expected to share their lives online. Every Cameo talent I interviewed manages their own social media presence and sees it as an important part of building their brand. However, this brings problems: they feel the pressure to always be available, to share everything, to navigate the blurred lines between their public and private lives. Worse are the wild incidents of trolling and abuse that happen regularly in comment sections and can be really hurtful.

"It's pretty scary," says Fogle. “99 percent of the comments are really great, but 1 percent leave a dark shadow. They can be really bad and really ruin your day." Oliver Phelps, who plays George Weasley in theHarry Pottermovies and is one of Cameo's biggest stars, says people have created fake social media profiles posing as his family members to access his personal photos, calling it "this massive hacking that I hate". It is now considered an occupational hazard for actresses to receive harsh comments about their bodies and for footballers to receive racial abuse or even death threats for losing an important match.

"You're just not ready for it," Jenner says. "No one understands that when they become famous, they make a deal with the devil. It's a Faustian pact, but you can't read the terms and conditions until you've already signed it."

I wouldn't charge people if they came and wanted a video on the street. Feeling bad about earning money? I still don't know where I am

Cameo argues that it doesn't have to be that way. Thanks to its paywall, the app filters out most of the abuse. While trolls can send nasty messages on Instagram or Twitter for free, few are willing to give up their anonymity and pay $100 to say something horrible to a celebrity on Cameo. Celebrities can also decline any request they don't feel comfortable fulfilling. about 5 percent of all Cameo applications are rejected or allowed to lapse. Several celebrities have told me that, compared to their social media accounts, Cameo is a safe and manageable space where they have more control, pointing to a way for celebrities to have healthier relationships with their fans. “Cameo is great because there are limits,” says Phelps.

That doesn't mean some bad requests won't slip through the net. One of the worst rock cameo feuds was in 2018 when NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre, along with actor/comedian Andy Dick and rapper Soulja Boy,Cameo videos were inadvertently recorded with messages containing coded anti-Semitic language..

More recently,Carol Baskintricked into recording a birthday message named for convicted child sex offender Rolf Harris, saying: "The kids wanted to come together and tell you that you've really touched them" andNigel Faragehe was tricked and he said the Irish republican slogan"Upon 'Ra'in a video. In any case, the controversy made headlines, but the celebrities stayed on the platform and the Cameo went ahead anyway.

Apart from the sensational stories of these pranks, there is a deeper criticism that some users have of how Cameo works. When I first heard about the app, my response was that there was something disturbing about celebrities selling themselves so openly that the grid of celebrities, each accompanied by a price, was off-putting. Wasn't it dehumanizing for these people to throw up their hands and admit that they are mere economic units in an entertainment machine that anyone can buy or control?

The famous users I spoke to also expressed doubts about whether it was okay to sell videos to their fans. They each admitted they were reluctant to join Cameo at first. "I couldn't decide if it was something I wanted to do or not," Fogle told me. “I would never charge people if they came and wanted a street video or an autograph. So you think it's wrong to monetize videos for people? I don't know where I stand on that yet."

Others, like actors Sophie Skelton and Oliver Phelps, told me they reconciled their upset when they saw how happy their fans were when they received videos. This convinced them to stay.

It wasn't until I spent time on the app that I got to the heart of what was troubling me. Cameo strips away the glamour, however faded, and exposes celebrity culture for what it really is and always has been: a product. This transparency can be uncomfortable, but it's preferable to the muddled ethics surrounding branded posts on celebrity Instagram accounts, where the constant display of authenticity means it can be hard to tell where real life ends and reality begins. advertising. Hearing fans and celebrities explain how perfectly Cameo fits the needs of the 21st century fandom machine helped me realize that the app fills a uniquely current need.

What Cameo knows about celebrities (2)

By allowing celebrities to monetize their fans directly without traditional intermediaries (record labels, publishers or agents), Cameo aligns with a broader trend: the rise of the so-called creator economy. Platforms like Patreon, Substack, Bandcamp, and Onlyfans, for example, allow creators to sell directly to the public. "I think we're part of this larger movement," Galanis says. "We deeply believe that fan monetization is the future of the sports, music and entertainment industries."

While celebrities can take more direct control of their finances and their fans by using these services, they would do well to treat Galani's argument that the gatekeepers have been turned away with a healthy dose of skepticism. Middlemen may be left out of the equation, but now there is a technology platform that could change its rules at any moment.

We saw the threat of this last year when OnlyFans announced it would ban all adult content, leaving many sex workers who found the platform safe and profitable to seek alternatives.reverse courseafter public protest. The incident was a reminder that any technology platform that has the potential to empower also has the potential to disempower.

Meanwhile, Cameo is creating new products. Their VIP Fan Clubs are a knockoff of Onlyfans and allow users to pay a subscription to receive exclusive content from specific stars. The recent acquisition of celebrity merchandise company Represent brings Cameo into the realm of physical products. Cameo Calls lets users pay a premium to have a one-on-one live video call with a celebrity: Cameo arranged a two-minute call between me and saxophonist Kenny G, just enough time to ask him about his hair regimen of and receive a short serenade

Normally this would cost around £256. "At this point, we've laid the foundations to compete in all the important spaces where talent is being acquired today," says Galanis.

The company is also testing more experimental products. It enters the lucrative children's market by partnering with Disney and Universal to offer videos featuring cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse and Boss Baby. Meanwhile, Blencow films a travel show with Phelps and his brother James (Fred Weasley inHarry Pottermovies), building on its success in Cameo to expand into other types of content. It's currently being tested off-brand, but could be rolled out internally if successful.

The talent I spoke with felt confident about continuing to use Cameo in the future. "With how much it's going to grow in three years, I think in the next three years Cameo will become a new kind of Instagram, the new norm," Skelton says. The app succeeded because it identified and fulfilled a desire that celebrities had (to monetize their fan bases in a safe and manageable space) and one that fans had: to continue their quest for ever-increasing access to the celebrities they love . . While some may take issue with the sheer commercialism of it all, if fans or celebrities aren't happy with the Cameo, they can simply decide not to wear it.

Although Galanis prioritizes the success of his business, he seems sincere in his belief that helping people connect with the stars they love is meaningful. When I tell him about the time the fan approached Fogle on the bridge to ask for a selfie, he smiles. “This woman ran into him on the streets of London,” he says, “what are the chances of walking down the street and seeing the person you love? It's so random it's almost impossible. The good thing is that here, through the paywall, the access, everything we facilitate, we let people pay for serendipity."

Tom Faber writes a weekly gaming column for FT Arts

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