A few weeks ago, my sister and I wanted to do something special for our parents’ wedding anniversary. It wasn’t a “big year” for them — or maybe every year is big for married people and I’m just misunderstanding how marriage works — but we were desperate to try giving a shit after missing their anniversary last year. My mom reminded us with a sullen, weirdly poetic text days after, and I’ve felt guilty ever since. And given that even their Adult Child living in the same city as them couldn’t celebrate in person, it felt imperative to do something Big.
After I fucked up our initial present — a personalized puzzle of family photos that I delayed the shipment of by captioning it “The Grasso’s” — I was left to come up with something they might enjoy while waiting for their real gift. I was reminded of Cameo after doing some unrelated googling on “contactless gift giving.”
I suspect most people of sound mind and body have never used Cameo. If you are among those people, this is how it works: a celebrity (or anyone of vague YouTube fame) signs up to do paid requests for short video messages. They set their rate, you provide a 200-word description of what you want, and the rest is up to them. Caitlyn Jenner was initially the most expensive (and boring!) person I found on Cameo, charging $2,500 for about half a minute, until Chris D’Elia joined with a $50,000 fee. Then you’ve got other similarly famous actors, athletes, and musicians charging several to a couple hundred — as of this writing, Ice T and Nene Leakes are both charging $350 for a minute or more. And then there are the Netflix reality TV stars and “washed up” crowd, charging from tens of dollars to under $200.
The point of Cameo is that you can ask these people to share a message about literally anything. Brett Favre, Andy Dick, and Soulja Boy were told to share a message endorsing a white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory veiled as a “go troops who died for us” thing, and they shared it! They said they didn’t know what they were doing, but that’s the danger of this service. (Dick and Favre are still on Cameo, for $99 and $400 respectively.)
It’s also the heart of what makes Cameo so fucked up, but easy to indulge in — everyday people are paying good money to hire out influential stars to say things for them like they’re party tricks. For a (not so) nominal fee, you, too, can figuratively tell celebrities to dance and shoot at their feet. My parents might have enjoyed a video call with me and my sister on their anniversary, but who wouldn’t love personalized wishes from Gilbert Gottfried ($150) or Orlando Brown ($100) or John Finlay, Joe Exotic’s ex-husband, featured on the Netflix hit docuseries Tiger King ($80)?
I ordered a Cameo from none of those people. Instead, we ordered one from Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron. He was charging $100 for his videos and donating all profits to the SAG-AFTRA Foundation (sure, fine!) so we booked him, and less than a day later our Cameo video was ready.
My parents loved it, my dad especially — we had told Tom Bergeron to say that our dad was “kind enough” to watch DWTS with our mom, and Tom scolded him in a way that was charming and fun! I’m not even sure if their un-fucked up puzzle has arrived yet, because the video was so good. Unfortunately, I will not be sharing my parents’ Cameo video with you all — partially because I insist on keeping a modicum of privacy, but also because my quest for a gift led to my discovery of a truly sinister new trend: celebrity coronavirus Cameo videos. There are tons of them, and they are chilling.
Celebrities, desperate for the attention that keeps their noteworthiness alive, have flocked to Cameo, signing up in droves, begging to sing “Happy Birthday” for dollars on the second. Some, like Tom, seem to have joined the service to raise money for pandemic-related causes, but many have not. They are starved for attention, and they will give you attention in return.
What’s perhaps worse about Cameo is that not all of these videos are private. Yes, you can make your Cameo shareable via link only, but you can also choose to leave the video public and accessible from the celebrity’s Cameo page. Only a few of them are available at a time, but they’re always the most recent. Cameo suggests you watch these videos for inspiration, but it feels voyeuristic watching videos made for other people, celebrating their birthdays or accomplishments or saying hello, sometimes with small inside jokes.
So during a pandemic, watching personalized videos made by not-so-well-meaning celebrities acknowledging how someone’s life is on pause, and that things aren’t going so well, and that we’re all in this together, feels aaaalllll the way fucked up. Think of the Imagine video but like 12 times worse. Most unfortunately, Cameo’s video links don’t auto-populate nicely on any social media post or content editor, so you have no choice but to click through the link and suffer these videos on your own, without the surroundings of Discourse Blog to comfort you. My god, I cannot look away, and despite my strongest instincts I implore you to look with me.
An inclusive but not exhaustive list of cursed pandemic Cameo videos
Dr. Oz ($500) — Fox News’ favorite fake-ass doctor endorsing antimalarial drugs to cure the novel coronavirus — cheering on Domino’s delivery drivers and essentially doing a paid ad for a West Michigan physical therapy center.
A far-older Simple Plan lead singer Pierre Bouvier ($55) consoling someone for being unable to go to Disney for their 25th birthday with “I’d Do Anything.”
Bob Saget ($249) promoting the upcoming episodes of Netflix’s Fuller House on a birthday video.
Debra Messing ($300) complimenting the bosses of a law firm for being so kind as to get their staff a Cameo after seven weeks of working from home.
John C. McGinley ($200) saluting a nurse… or a grocery store worker… it’s unclear, and telling her to look in the mirror because she’s a hero.
For the love of god please get Chuck Norris ($225) off of Cameo he’s clearly too fucking old for this shit.
Chet Hanks ($295) clearly talking to someone he used to know who booked a Cameo just to reach out to him?? And then revealing that his leg is in a cast??? I guess his parents’ COVID-19 diagnosis overshadowed his motorcycle accident??
Azealia Banks ($119) telling someone his dirty dick is gonna fall off (!!!!) for seemingly cheating on his girlfriend during the pandemic (!!!!!)
Tiger King’s Jeff Lowe ($175) inviting a group of graduating college students to their l’il tiger farm so that they can get peed on.
Oh my gOD why is Caroline Calloway ($100) making 7-minute long drunk birthday cameos jesus fucking christ (and why is she listed as a “Comedian”!)
Cameo is by far one of the best and worst services to flourish during the pandemic, and this new slew of stars surely wouldn’t be on it if it wasn’t for the entertainment industry shutting down, and many famous people suddenly coming to terms with their mortality. At least, that is my suspicion.
And these aren’t even the worst of the worst people on this service — Tomi Lahren and Gun Girl and a number of racist retired professional athletes are on there, too, but they joined long before the pandemic, when they were already desperate enough to send regular people video messages. Perhaps the pandemic has been an equalizer — of rich, famous people, folks insulated enough that they never have to worry about getting less than top-tier medical care if they get sick, but also so insulated that they think the world would benefit from their quarantine musings. And yet, I’m still watching, in awe and horror.