When she’s not out hunting ghosts, Stormy Daniels shoots Cameos. Every few days, the adult film star, who spectacularly accused Donald Trump of paying her $130,000 to keep quiet about an affair, stands in front of a mirror, does her make-up and glues on a set of false eyelashes.
Usually, she’ll wait until her tour bus is parked up at the side of the highway to do this – Daniels spends most of her time on the road filming a paranormal investigation TV show called Spooky Babes – and once she’s satisfied with her appearance she’ll grab her phone, arrange her hair and hit record on the front-facing camera.
There’s usually a script to follow, but if not, she’ll improvise. “Hi, Gary,” Daniels might say, breathily. “I want to wish you a very, very happy birthday. Your buddy, Mitch, tells me you’re a bit of a political junkie – if any of that ever gets you too down, I invite you out to see one of my shows, where I’d be more than happy to help you relieve some of that stress.” Then she watches the video back to make sure her child hasn’t walked into frame or that she hasn’t mispronounced the recipient’s name, hits send and starts recording again, sometimes up to 20 times. Each video follows a slightly different script, but the premise is the same. Daniels sends some sort of greeting or acknowledgement to a dedicated fan, addressing them by name and mentioning something specific that the fan’s friend, colleague or family member – perhaps not their wife – has asked for in a pre-submitted request. Most are flirtatious, but otherwise innocuous. “I’m actually pleasantly surprised at how sexually clean my requests are,” says Daniels. Occasionally, she will mention Trump. “For the right price, I’ll even say, ‘You’re fired.’”
Daniels charges £187.50 per video and has almost 600 videos under her belt. Seventy-five per cent of the fee goes to her, while the rest is taken as commission by Cameo, the direct-to-fan video platform that hosts her messages. Daniels is just one of more than 30,000 celebrities and public figures who have signed up to Cameo since it was founded in 2017 – a third of them in the last year – each of whom is available to hire to send a personalised video message for a price and who between them span a vast and varied spectrum of fame.
At the upper end of the scale, global sports stars, singers and actors give you a ten-second shoutout for hundreds or, occasionally, thousands of pounds, while on the cheaper side, an army of aspiring TikTok personalities and D-list socialites will make you a birthday video for as low as 75 pence. An entire cross-section of the global celebrity ecosystem is represented on Cameo, which, in allowing its talent to set their own prices, has naturally organised itself into a sort of Darwinian hierarchy of fame. And since the beginning of the global coronavirus pandemic, as film and TV sets shut down, gigs have been cancelled and public appearances severely restricted, Cameo’s numbers have only swollen. The platform has offered celebrities an entirely new way to convert their fame or notoriety into cash, without ever having to leave their own homes. In some cases, it has allowed talent to bypass traditional industry gatekeepers such as record labels and film studios entirely.
If every start-up needs an answerable problem as its starting point (“How can people sell their old books once they’ve read them?”; “How can people watch films they don’t own on DVD from home at short notice?”) then Cameo’s is the disjoint between fame and income. “The great reckoning in entertainment that Cameo is solving,” the company’s CEO and cofounder Steven Galanis explains, “is that people today are more famous, because of social [media], than they are rich.” One of the knock-on effects of the rise of social media has been to elevate a huge number of individuals to prominence for all sorts of reasons, says Galanis, but with surprisingly few ways to cash in on that prominence. For someone such as Stormy Daniels, whose fame is widespread but quite difficult to monetise, Cameo is the perfect solution. Previously, she relied on in-person media appearances, stripping and comedy shows to make money and forfeiting these during the pandemic would have both restricted her means of making money and of engaging with her fanbase. On Cameo, she can continue to do both from home or the road.
The most expensive names on Cameo are people you might expect. Caitlyn Jenner tops the list of active talent, at £1,875 per video (all proceeds, according to her website bio, go to her charitable foundation). Boy George will sing happy birthday to your mother from his kitchen for £225, while Chaka Khan will do it for £450. Other prominent figures, from Jerry Springer, Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen to John Cleese and Michael Owen, are all on Cameo at various price points.
But one of the first things you realise as you scroll through the website’s listings is quite how many celebrities there are. More people are famous – or consider themselves so – now than ever before in history and most users won’t have heard of the vast majority of talent on Cameo. Pro wrestlers, YouTubers and reality TV stars abound. But the hinterland of fame is huge and the website is one of the few ways to turn it into profit. All you need is a cameraphone.
Michael Cohen films from house arrest after his conviction for perjury in front of Congress
Such is the sheer volume of talent, it’s not hard to spend all day scrolling through Cameo’s website and weighing up what a celebrity thinks they are worth. One popular tactic is to go for volume by pricing yourself relatively low, hoping to record ten videos at £40 each rather than waiting for the superfan who will shell out £400 for a few minutes’ work. And if you’re lucky enough to have played a cult sitcom character, Cameo could feasibly up your income streams by a whole order of magnitude.
James Buckley, who played teenage chauvinist Jay on The Inbetweeners from 2008 to 2010, charges £41.25 for a Cameo message. Buckley shoots many of his videos in character and in 2020 he was the ninth highest-earning talent on the site, the only Brit in the top ten (Brian Baumgartner, who played Kevin Malone in the US version of The Office, ranked number one). Buckley has more than 2,400 reviews on the website; even accounting for Cameo’s 25 per cent commission, that rate means he feasibly could have made more than £74,000 from the website alone (he is also a prolific Twitch streamer). Steffan Rhodri, best known as Dave Coaches from Gavin & Stacey, costs £35.25. Paul Chuckle, the remaining Chuckle Brother, offers a 24-hour turnaround on videos for £36.75.
Other talent prefers quality over quantity. Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter film franchise, charges £449.25 per Cameo, but he will write and perform a personalised song for you on his guitar. Occasionally, the pricing is inexplicable. The lingerie designer and heiress to the KFC fortune, Kaila Methven – surely a niche video request at the best of times – charges £750 per video, as does former Chelsea, Portsmouth and West Ham manager Avram Grant. That’s 75 pence more than undefeated heavyweight boxer Floyd Mayweather.
Perhaps most tellingly, there’s a high density of flash-in-the-pan American political figures on Cameo, including Sarah Palin (£186.75), Anthony Scaramucci, the man who was White House communications director for eleven days in 2017 (£41.25) and ex-White House press secretary Sean Spicer (£149.25, though, like Caitlyn Jenner, he donates his fee to charity). Donald Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen films his videos from house arrest after his conviction for perjury in front of Congress. Might Trump himself be found on Cameo in the next few months, shooting off charmingly abusive messages to fans and haters alike from the comfort of Mar-a-Lago? It’s hardly a leap to imagine.
Cameo was launched in March 2017 by three college friends: Galanis, Martin Blencowe and Devon Townsend. Since then, Silicon Valley has very much backed their proposition: Cameo has raised more than $65 million in funding over the past four years. Snoop Dogg numbered among the early investors, while Cameo’s Series B round included venture capital heavyweights such as Kleiner Perkins, The Chernin Group, Spark Ventures, Bain Capital and Lightspeed Venture Partners.
The original idea for Cameo was to focus on athletes alone. Fans would be able to pay them to do almost anything the fans asked – you might pay to play golf with Michael Jordan or invite Carmelo Anthony to your son’s bar mitzvah – but Townsend nixed that idea, arguing that it was too nebulous and too broad an offering, like “trying to boil the ocean”. Instead, they decided to focus in on video greetings and vacillated between various brand names: Starboard, Powermove, HeroHub, hypd.co, Thrillo. It was Galanis’ brother who eventually suggested Cameo.
Any good start-up has a good origin story and Cameo is no different. Galanis, Townsend and Blencowe all had significant careers prior to Cameo and each of the trio contributed a different essential skillset in the early days. Townsend, a former Microsoft engineer, had been a viral star on social network Vine, racking up hundreds of millions of loops on the platform. More importantly, he had the coding ability to build an early iteration of the site. Blencowe, meanwhile, was an NFL agent and movie producer, with the contacts to match – he dealt with the talent. Galanis quit a full-time job in sales at LinkedIn and had worked in finance before that; he describes himself as “an options trader by background”. The division of roles, with Blencowe overseeing talent, Townsend as chief technical officer and Galanis as CEO, was a natural three-way fit. “There was never a question of who was going to be the CEO,” says Galanis. “We all know each other. We trust each other.”
The first Cameo was sold in March 2017. The website URL, at that point, was powermove.io and there was only one celebrity on the platform: Cassius Marsh, the Herculean linebacker who then played for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Blencowe was his agent and had encouraged him to sign up.
It was a disaster. The payment processor broke, so, on launch, anyone who tried to buy a video via the link Marsh tweeted out to his fans ran into a brick wall of broken code. Other Seahawks fans berated him on social media for charging for something they believed he should have been doing free. But the Cameo team did get one breakthrough: a reaction video from the father of the recipient of a video from Marsh, who wished her a happy 16th birthday. “She was so excited that she was crying,” Galanis recalls. The video offered a visual example Blencowe could show talent to convince them of the genuine value and connection Cameo could offer and bookings and talent soon began to pick up.
To grow the site, the trio introduced a talent-to-talent referral scheme. Emphasis was placed on the fact that stars chose their own price; if they didn’t want the hassle of recording ten videos a day for $80 each, they could double their price and get half as many bookings. (This is how Stormy Daniels eventually signed up: after being pestered by her manager, she agreed to test the water with an ironic $666 (£485) fee per video, not expecting anyone to pay it. Within a day, she had three bookings.) That summer, Cameo hired a team of 15 college interns to directly message celebrities on Twitter and invite them to the platform, painstakingly building up talent numbers until they reached critical mass. Looking to poach engineers from tech businesses in the Valley, Townsend booked a plane to fly over Facebook headquarters trailing a banner that read, “Tell Mark you quit. Cameo.com/jobs.”
Today, Cameo has approximately 200 employees and Blencowe’s front room in Los Angeles is dominated by cabinets full of hundreds of collectible Funko Pop vinyl bobbleheads, each representing a celebrity he has delivered to the website since 2017. The company’s executive team is littered with alumni of household names in Big Tech and Cameo is positioning itself for a massive growth push (“We’re trying to fire ourselves from every job somebody else could do better,” says Galanis). Townsend is no longer CTO but works on new product features; Rob Post, the former CTO of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s failed white elephant Quibi, joined the company in that role in January this year. A former head of marketing at TikTok is now Cameo’s CMO. The company has also hired new chief financial, people and operating officers.
The app has been downloaded half a million times on the Google Play store and by May 2020 Cameo users had booked more than a million messages; last year, the company sold more than its previous four years of operation combined. Cameos have been sent in 178 countries and all seven continents, including ten in Antarctica. By the end of last year, more than 150 talent were earning at least $100,000 (£73,000) per year on the platform.
‘We believe we’re building an enduring internet treasure. We’re full steam ahead on making sure this becomes one of the most valuable companies on earth’
Cameo saw a huge increase in talent joining up in spring 2020, as the reality of the pandemic began to dawn on entertainers. They weren’t the only platform to benefit from this phenomenon. From March last year onwards, comedians began streaming stand-up routines over Instagram and Facebook Live and turning to voluntary subscription websites such as Patreon to make money. OnlyFans, the content subscription service used by sex workers, among others, quickly entered the mainstream after Beyoncé name-dropped it on a song. Cardi B and the actress Bella Thorne both opened high-profile (non-pornographic) accounts on the site. The celebrity ecosystem adapted to the new reality at warp speed; by November, when Dua Lipa streamed a concert online with a production cost of more than £1m, five million people bought tickets.
There’s no name for this new system of interaction, but it could loosely be called the “influence economy”. It’s a system in which name recognition is the only thing that matters and it has been massively accelerated by the pandemic. It has also empowered famous people to control their creative output more closely than ever before. Galanis summarises the influence economy as a move towards “talent as brands, versus studios as brands”.
Social media, combined with the new ability to monetise fame from home through platforms such as Cameo, Patreon, OnlyFans, Etsy, Fiverr or Kickstarter, is enough to sustain a successful career in the public eye without being beholden to a studio or a music label or having to rely on legacy media to communicate with fans. “When The Rock is in a movie,” says Galanis, “he’s got 200 million followers – distribution through his social channel is more important than the marketing budget that Marvel might put out, or Warner Brothers.” Talent might use a traditional form of entertainment – a prestige TV show or an album released through a major label – to become famous initially, but once they have a fanbase they can quickly outgrow brands and command far more loyalty among followers.
Take Lily Allen, for example. Allen signed up for Cameo in September with the express purpose of raising enough money to record her fifth album without the financial backing of a major label. Allen is no stranger to new expressive platforms, having built up her earliest following on Myspace in the early 2000s, when she was still a teenager. She has also been vocally critical of her label, Parlophone, and its parent, Warner Music, in their handling of a sexual harassment complaint she made against an industry executive. In her Cameo announcement video, posted to Instagram, she explained why she joined up: “It’s getting closer to the time that I want to start releasing music again and it’s the first time in my career that I’m going to be putting an album out not on a major label, so I’ll be using these funds to finance my musical output. Ask me to do some dumb shit. Your wish is my command!”
In all sorts of situations, then, Cameo is a blessing for artists who want to control their own image and monetise their fame in a new way. But it’s not without its own dangers. Last July, Tiger King star Carole Baskin caused a brief stir online after she was tricked into wishing “a happy birthday” to convicted paedophile Rolf Harris and “your best friend, Jimmy Savile” – almost definitely a situation where, traditionally, a vigilant agent or PR rep might have stepped in to save her embarrassment. Nonetheless, Baskin remained the fastest-growing talent on Cameo by number of bookings in 2020. In 2018, ex-NFL player Brett Favre was tricked into reading veiled hate speech in a Cameo in which he gave a shoutout to a group of anti-Semitic YouTubers. Cameo quickly formalised a set of company guidelines for avoiding hate speech, but it’s not difficult to imagine why agents and PR reps might be uneasy about the unfiltered mass access Cameo offers.
Stormy Daniels says she has done ‘a couple’ of break-ups and also fired someone via Cameo. ‘It was a housekeeper. They were caught stealing’
Less obviously, there’s also something undeniably undignified about the sight of an actor or singer having to jump at the command of their fans. Seeing a celebrity record a video message from their bedroom for a quick £50 quickly erodes any aura of mystique they might have. John Egan, the CEO of tech forecasting agency L’Atelier BNP Paribas and a one-time venture capitalist, is a close watcher of start-ups including Cameo. He sees many of the individuals on the website as performing the role of “court jesters”.
“A lot of famous people are very, very broke for various different reasons,” explains Egan. On this point, he agrees with Galanis. But the very act of signing up for Cameo, Egan continues, is an admission that a celebrity is willing to perform on command for a relatively small amount of money. And those who advise talent are acutely aware of this. One prominent industry professional, who works closely with blockbuster film stars, admits that being on Cameo could be “challenging” for the way clients are perceived. “If a casting director is looking at you for a role, and you’re also on Cameo for a £45 personalised video, does that have an impact on their view of you?”
Egan suggests there’s something “quite cruel” about Cameo. For one, birthdays, anniversaries and retirements aren’t the only reasons people buy video messages on the site. “Want a divorce?” enquired a New York Times headline in January. “Try Cameo to break the news.” Stormy Daniels says she has done “a couple” of break-ups. “I got one [for which] this girl had obviously caught her boyfriend cheating on her and had me call him out. I was like, ‘This is really shitty,’ but he did something really shitty to her.” Daniels has also fired someone via Cameo. “It was a housekeeper or something. They were caught stealing.” In one video shared on Cameo’s own YouTube channel, Bruce Buffer, the veteran MMA ring announcer, puts on his game voice and bombastically declares, “It’s time… for Kayleigh to move on!” Like all popular things on the internet, it’s hilarious and cruel in equal parts.
And on YouTube, an entire subgenre of videos plays up to Egan’s “court jester” accusation. These videos all follow a similar format: teenage and twentysomething vloggers guffaw as they pay older Cameo talent to recite nonsensical scripts. What’s more, these videos can make the younger talent on YouTube considerably more money via ad revenue than most Cameo talent earns for recording a video. “People are now actually being subcontracted to create content,” explains Egan, “that somebody else is monetising at a higher level. And that’s fascinating.”
Jack Massey Welsh, a YouTuber from Bishop Auckland who has made three videos about Cameo under the username JackSucksAtLife, agrees that he would be reticent to sign up to Cameo if his career relied on being taken seriously. “It would be seen as perhaps a bit of a step down,” he says. “But obviously it’s their decision whether or not to go on.” Welsh is 24 and has been making YouTube videos for almost eight years. Originally, he produced Minecraft content, but when he realised his personal content was popular with viewers, he gradually branched out into comedy and commentary videos. Welsh now has three million subscribers across five main channels. Many of his videos are about YouTube itself or other internet phenomena, though he also has a channel on which he tests out features on his Tesla Model 3.
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – JANUARY 26: Adult film actress/director Stormy Daniels attends the 2019 Adult Video News Awards at The Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on January 26, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images)
© Gabe Ginsberg
For a twentysomething making videos in his bedroom, Welsh is hugely digitally savvy and data-driven, explaining that he saw other creators making Cameo videos and decided to try his own version. When YouTube analytics told him how popular the video was, he kept going. Many of the cheapest stars on Cameo are TikTok wannabes and Welsh decided to focus on them, both to save money and to drive search interest. “It was 2019,” says Welsh, “so TikTok was still up and coming. I knew that if I involved TikTok somewhere in the thumbnail it would still generate a lot of interest.” He began sending out Cameo requests, testing the limits of what he thought Cameo talent would do for money.
‘You don’t want to go from pro to comedic relief and then not be able to make your way back’
The resultant 17-minute video is irreverent and very funny. It is also occasionally uncomfortable to watch. Many of the aspiring TikTok stars who became the butt of Welsh’s jokes are alarmingly young teenagers, including one whose Cameo bio said he was 15 years old. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that you’re witnessing half a million people laughing at children who are considerably more vulnerable than the middle-aged, long-established talent on Cameo. Welsh, for his part, accepts that some of the talent in his video might have been too young to offer video shoutouts, but says it’s up to Cameo to enforce the age restrictions (the company does not recommend anyone under 16 uses the website and under-18 talent needs parental permission).
The question of agency and dignity is key to understanding why some celebrities sign up to Cameo and others don’t. When someone such as Stormy Daniels records a video message, she’s in on the joke. Daniels has been in the self-promotion industry for years and is no stranger to media attention – she’s just leveraging her brand. James Buckley and Brian Baumgartner are adults who understand the implications for their personal brands and careers. Did Buckley and Baumgartner dream of repeating catchphrases over the internet for money when they chose a career in acting? Perhaps not. But they can absolutely make that decision as professionals, whereas a 15-year-old who joins Cameo to imitate his favourite TikTok influencers and sports stars cannot.
Wary of ridicule, most celebrities discriminate carefully on Cameo. Kristian Nairn, the DJ and actor who played Hodor in Game Of Thrones, says he was initially reticent to sign up after being approached by Cameo reps at fan conventions pre-Covid. “In the most respectful way possible,” he explains, “I do plan to work again.” But, during the pandemic, Cameo became a way to connect with fans he used to meet face to face. Nairn joined up after seeing other Thrones alumni, such as Lena Headey, on the platform and confesses he was pleasantly surprised by the heartfelt reactions his videos got.
“I started to realise that, actually, it really gave people a bit of a lift,” Nairn says. “Seventy per cent of the messages I do, I get a reply like, ‘It made my week.’ I don’t feel worthy that me staring into my iPhone can conjure that reaction, but it does.” Like Stormy Daniels, Nairn has strict rules about what requests he accepts and turns down on Cameo. He won’t record a video where he only says “Hodor”, before you ask. Nor will he do brand endorsements. “You have to be careful. But 99 per cent are just genuine people who love each other.”
Nairn’s experience on Cameo is echoed by none other than Welsh, the YouTuber. Welsh joined Cameo himself after making his videos and raised “a few hundred pounds for charity” doing shoutouts to fans at $20 (£14) per video. He, too, was surprised by the heartfelt reviews he got. “People will generally say how much their son or daughter absolutely loved the Cameo. It is quite rewarding to see that something that isn’t a lot of effort on your end has actually made a big difference in somebody’s day.” And given that his whole public persona is based on pointing out the absurdities of internet celebrity, Welsh is happy to laugh at himself. “When I’m doing Cameos, I’m not taking it seriously. I’m expecting to be asked if I can say something ridiculous. You just go along with it, with no context, and hope that you’ve not said something really offensive.”
‘You just go along with it and hope that you’ve not said something really offensive’
As a possible end to the pandemic draws nearer, Cameo is forging ahead with new features to keep users and talent engaged. A new one-on-one system of video chats called Cameo Calls is in beta testing and, in December, demand to video chat with the Phelps twins, who played Fred and George Weasley in the Harry Potter films, caused Cameo’s entire app to crash as tens of thousands of fans tried to join the virtual queue at once. James Phelps now estimates he’s spent 1,000 minutes in Calls, on top of the 2,000 traditional videos he has sent fans for around £90 each.
Plans are also afoot for something called Cameo For Business. Typically, says Galanis, five per cent of Cameo requests are turned down by talent and the team realised that requests for product endorsements were the cause of more than half of the refusals. The idea, then, is that Cameo For Business accounts will connect talent willing to do endorsements to the small and medium-sized businesses who generally request them – albeit for a higher fee than the average fan would pay.
All of this raises one question: do Galanis, Blencowe and Townsend have a route out? Egan, the tech forecaster, suggests a sale to a Silicon Valley giant would be the sensible option. Cameo would certainly slot easily into the massive arsenals of features at Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat. And Cameo, unique among major tech companies, is already running a fully distributed office, with no single physical space from which employees are expected to work. Instead, employees work from home, spread around the world and in 26 different US states. Does this suggest a potential sale and an attempt to keep overheads low?
Not if you ask Galanis, who is openly set on emulating Facebook and Google by going public. “It is the next mountain for this company to climb,” he explains. “We believe we are building an enduring internet treasure.” He also wants Cameo to go international, pointing out that it costs next to nothing to host talent anywhere around the world. There’s no reason, he says, that Cameo shouldn’t ultimately be as important an entertainment company as Disney. “From our perspective, we’re full steam ahead on making sure that this becomes one of the most valuable companies on earth.”
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