A strange, sad video emblematic of our celebrity-obsessed helltimes recently went viral on Twitter. “Sup, Bradyn! It’s Mark McGrath from the band Sugar Ray — off the charts, but always in your hearts,” he trills in a forced, jovial manner. “This cameo was booked by Cheyanne, and she wants you to know a few things.” After weaving around the point for a torturous few sentences, McGrath explains how Cheyanne is having “difficulty staying in this long-distance relationship,” that “she still wants to be friends with you” and “obviously she cares about you very, very much.” It’s clear, without McGrath ever saying so completely unambiguously, that Cheyanne is breaking up with Bradyn via a celebrity cameo. “I wish I was delivering you good news,” McGrath cringes.
If your heart is bleeding for Bradyn, don’t worry: McGrath later revealed that the video was “a pretty obvious joke.” Not every celebrity cameo is such a painful exercise, either. Sometimes they involve stars like NSYNC’s Lance Bass wishing newlyweds well at their ceremony, or Bella Thorne smoking a joint and telling two male fans that they’re “fucking awesome.” It seems no birthday, prom, wedding, graduation, birth or even breakup is complete without the beaming face of a celebrity sending well wishes, or at least softening the blow of (fake?) bad news.
Celebrity cameos are having a moment, with dedicated websites and apps like Cameo, CelebVM, Greetzly and Starsona springing up to cater to consumers who might spend anywhere from less than $5 (TikTok star Sam Jose won’t break the bank) to $2,500 (Caitlyn Jenner territory) to have the star of their choice send them, their friends or their family a short, personalized message (on Cameo, users have 250 characters to explain the nature of their requests). Do you want Jerry from Parks and Recreation to wish your mother a happy birthday? That’ll be $135. Need a prom invitation that will stand out? “NFL legend” Brett Favre can do the job for a cool $500. Only have $50? Get D-Roc from the Ying Yang Twins for this bargain price!
If there’s a waft of C-List coming off that range of examples, that’s more or less accurate. Jenners and Snoop Doggs aside, the bulk of Cameo’s talent comprises Vine stars, mid-tier influencers and has-been actors, musicians and comedians. “The running joke against Cameo is that it’s something of a respirator for C-List celebrities gasping for their last bit of relevancy and revenue,” Fast Company says. CEO Steven Galanis is unfazed by this, going as far as to claim it’s by design. He told Wired he prefers celebrities who are “less famous [and] more willing” and told Fast Company that Cameo’s “No. 1 [Key Performance Indicator] is the amount of Cameos created,” meaning he prefers a hungry, semi-famous YouTuber who will make 150 cameos a day over the likes of Drake or Beyonce, who few users could afford (talent sets their own rates).
C-List or not, cameos are fast becoming big business. The company made LinkedIn’s 2019 top start-ups list, a ranking based on employee growth, job seeker interest and member engagement (it has grown to employ 150 people, with plans to expand throughout Europe, Australia and Asia as it’s garnered multimillion-dollar injections from its investors). It’s not difficult to get celebrities on board because, as Galanis told Chicago’s CBS affiliate, “the fans are paying to make them more popular” — and according to Cameo’s head of talent relations, Abbie Sheppard, the service is an “efficient way to monetize their downtime.”
Very little is required in the way of advertising either, since both stars and fans promote the service on social media, where stars promote their availability and fans share the cameos they’ve booked. “The secret sauce of our platform is that we have an unlimited amount of influencer marketing,” Galanis has said.
It’s a business model Galanis gloats about whenever he has the chance. “Every Cameo video — pretty much inevitably shared throughout a happy customer’s social network — is effectively an advertisement for both the talent featured therein and the company itself,” he told Cosmopolitan. “Every Cameo is the commercial for the next one — that’s how we’ve been able to scale up without really spending any money on marketing.”
Of course, that’s the PR spin, and the customers aren’t always as happy as Galanis suggests. Ten percent don’t have their cameo requests fulfilled, Cosmopolitan reports, and some users resent Cameo’s new tipping feature, in which they’re emailed to ask if they’d like to tip the celebrity whose cameo they purchased. It’s one thing to tip a broke Vine star, of course, but being pestered to give a gratuity to someone like Caitlyn Jenner strikes users as a galling upward transfer of wealth. “I obviously want to pay her for her services [and] tweet at her that I loved it,” one user told Cosmopolitan, “but the idea of tipping these people who are so wildly wealthier than you are just seemed crazy to me.”
The content of the cameos, too, doesn’t always leave the customer smiling. Aside from the infamous anti-Semitism incident, in which celebrities including Brett Favre and Soulja Boy were duped into recording messages that contained bigoted dog whistles, the cameos are often either cringeworthy attempts at authenticity and humor — such as comedian Gilbert Gottfried’s weird, unrequested tirade about gay men and “their ass fucking” — or robotic and scripted, like Caitlyn Jenner’s generic birthday script in which only the person’s name is changed.
For those reasons, cameos may eventually lose their appeal. Paul Hardart, director of the entertainment, media and technology program at NYU’s Stern School of Business, told Fast Company that cameos have “the hallmarks of something that could be kind of a passing trend.” Nick Miaritis, executive vice president at VaynerMedia, adds, “It’ll be interesting to see how big this could get and how long it goes before it becomes something that feels almost spammy.” In other words, the novelty of having Sugar Ray’s frontman wishing your wife happy birthday might wear off fast.
Still, in the meantime, there’s probably no better gift for your bro who has everything than a personal motivational speech from Ice-T or a disheveled Bam Margera telling your boss that you quit — or for your fanboy father, as John, a 26-year-old videographer from San Francisco, discovered. He purchased a $180 cameo for his dad’s birthday from Jonathan Frakes (he’s now gone up to $200), who complimented his dad’s mustache, sang him happy birthday and threw in the Vulcan salutation. “My dad is a huge Trekkie, and he loved it so much,” he tells me. “He was very shocked — he thought I ran into Jonathan on the street. I explained how Cameo works, and he was very bewildered that it exists.”
“He told me recently that the video is very spiritual for him and my mom, and that he’s been playing the video every morning,” John continues. “It seriously couldn’t have gone better.”