Cameo is a website where fans can pay for their favourite movie, television, sports or social media star to send them personalised video messages. In the throes of a full-face rash, I paid two of the country’s top sportspeople to send some positive vibes my way.
For a while I’ve been obsessed with the idea that I could pay a small amount to get a Wildcats pep talk from the actor who played Troy Bolton’s dad in High School Musical. I could pay for a video of American Idol judge Randy Jackson telling me to follow my dreams, or anyone who has been on Survivor to tell my boyfriend that they appreciate his support. It’s 2020 and finally the opportunities are endless, and so on Monday when I got a rash all over my face and had to take time off work, I paid NZ$60 for this wonderful motivational pep talk from Black Cap batsman Colin Munro.
Gone are the days when you could only get a birthday shoutout video from your fav celeb if your friend’s mum’s old boss was the celeb’s sister-in-law. Now putting to use the six degrees of separation between us and our favourite stars is no longer necessary. Last year someone paid the lead singer of Sugar Ray NZ$200 to break up with their boyfriend, and a NZ$640 drunken happy birthday ramble from Vince Neil of Mötley Crüe has racked up over 300,000 views on YouTube. But what exactly is Cameo, the video-sharing platform that facilitates these celeb-normie interactions, and is it exploiting fan culture?
Kiwi journalist David Farrier thinks so. He has been approached a number of times by a representative from Cameo asking him to sign up to the website.
“Our talent are getting paid $10k-$30k a month!” reads one email he was sent. It’s a tempting promise, but while Cameo celebs can set their own prices, that sort of money seems a bit of a stretch for a homegrown star. New Zealand celebrities on the platform include ex-All Black Cory Jane, Silver Fern Katrina Rore, and reality TV star Samuel Levi.
Levi says he never expected many requests through the app – and at NZ$12 per video he certainly isn’t making tens of thousands from it – but it’s an easy way for people to connect with him if they don’t have another way of contacting him.
In just three years, Cameo has managed to sign up some of the world’s biggest names, from Caitlyn Jenner to Snoop Dogg to the cockney prince himself, Dick Van Dyke. A video from Caitlyn Jenner will set you back US$2,500 (approx. NZ$4,000), and she’s not even the most expensive purchase. Levi thinks charging exorbitant amounts is unfair to dedicated fans.
“I don’t understand why some of the world’s biggest stars are on there and charging a crap load… Don’t you get paid enough?”
Kiwi celebs on the platform, for the most part, charge very little. Veteran Silver Fern Katrina Rore was just NZ$24, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear one of my long-time sporting idols give me some advice.
While mostly harmless actors and sportspeople dominate Cameo, a few more controversial names stick out. For US$80 you can pay for a personal message from far right activist and Fox host Tomi Lahren, and for US$199, former Trump White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
Farrier says he doesn’t want to join a site that’s “giving a platform to Sean Spicer, like he’s some loveable rogue”.
A quarter of the profit from each video goes to Cameo, and the other 75% to the celebrity. Spicer has chosen to make his profile a “charity-based” one. Profits from the videos he makes go towards The Independence Fund, a charity for American war veterans. But click on the “politics” section of the site and there are hordes of “political commentators” making profit for themselves off the site. They include people like Jacob Wohl, a conspiracy theorist and far-right troll who has been caught trying to falsely frame a number of high-profile Democratic politicians for sexual misconduct. Wohl has been permanently banned from Twitter for violating its rules on creating and operating fake accounts.
Controversial users aren’t the the only issue that’s rocked the Cameo brand over its three years in operation. Earlier this month, VICE uncovered bugs in the website that let them watch videos that were selected as private by the user. They even managed to uncover users’ email addresses and messages through a flaw in Cameo’s backend (including the private email address of rapper and actor Ice-T). In a statement, Cameo said the issue had since been fixed and they would be investing more money into data security measures.
I’m neither an expert in cybersecurity nor one to resist a celeb shoutout, so I’m not here to tell you whether Cameo is good or not. I have tried it and am definitely keeping it in the back of my mind if I need to buy a gift for a friend, especially one who lives overseas because there’s no shipping costs on a video. If you can’t decide who to choose, you can watch some of the videos each celeb has made in the past by clicking on their profile.
Most fans will never be able to meet their heroes in the flesh, or have a friend of a friend who can get them a personalised shoutout. But it’s also unreasonable to expect people to shell out $500+ on a one minute-long birthday video. It’s probable that a lot of the more famous celebrities on Cameo are only servicing the richest and most privileged members of their fanbases. And to me, that’s a sad way to engage with the people who love you.