Cameo is the “Being John Malkovich” of apps.
Remember Nikki Blonsky? She was the unknown Long Island teen plucked from a Cold Stone Creamery and cast as the star of the 2007 movie musical “Hairspray.” Now, a decade after that big splash, her acting career has slowed to a drip. Recently she lent her voice to “Pup Star,” a direct-to-digital entry in the “Air Bud” extended universe. Soon she’ll appear in a horror movie opposite Gary Busey’s son. But lately Ms. Blonsky has found a new performance platform: Cameo, a service that allows fans to pay low- to midrange celebrities to send them short, personalized video messages.
Ms. Blonsky is the bard of Cameo. She excels at the projection of intimacy. She takes a few spare details about her subject — an upcoming birthday, a career milestone — and spins them into a sugar-voiced pep talk filmed as a dim, shaky selfie. The heady mix of heartfelt emoting and janky video quality creates the illusion of a bridged gap between celebrity and fan. The experience costs $20. I bought one for myself:
Cameo is an intriguing new development in celebrity-fan relations. Commoners have always had a tenuous relationship with the stars. Their images and life stories exert a strong gravitational pull over our own, and the internet has provided the opportunity for the masses to yank back. Attempting to assert control in the confines of celebrity culture can take the form of fanatical image monitoring (as is the case with celebrity Photoshop-obsessed communities like Pretty Ugly Little Liar); creepy body fixations (indexing and cataloging celebrity parts on sites like WikiFeet and CelebHeights.com); erotic fan fiction (where you can write your favorite star into any scenario you choose); and criminal invasions (hacking and trading nude images).
Cameo offers something new. It’s a kind of celebrity ventriloquism — the opportunity to project your voice through a famous host. It’s the “Being John Malkovich” of apps.
Here’s how it works: Browse an array of available Cameo “talent” — the list includes “The O.C.” star Mischa Barton (current rate: $75), the N.F.L. Hall-of-Famer Terrell Owens ($350), the former boybander Lance Bass ($125) and a raft of “Real Housewives” socialites — and choose your favorite player. Then type in some credit card information and a set of instructions.
The dummy copy reads: “My buddy Shia (pronounced SHY-UH) is graduating from college on Saturday (my name is Jason). Played football with him for three years, loves all your content. Our favorite saying is ‘okay pal?’. Please wish him a happy graduation.”
If the celebrity accepts the request, a video will materialize in your inbox within a week. If he or she doesn’t, you’ll receive a sad GIF and won’t be charged. Cameo “talent” is free to reject any request found “confusing, difficult, or not in line with an athlete’s or influencer’s image,” so the potential thrill of being recognized by a B-list celebrity always comes with the risk of being rebuffed by one.
Steven Galanis, a former LinkedIn account executive who is C.E.O. of Cameo, realized a couple years ago that “the celebrity selfie is the new autograph” and set out to democratize the experience with the help of co-founders Devon Townsend, a former Microsoft engineer, and Martin Blencowe, a producer and N.F.L. agent. Now, you no longer need to hope for a random celebrity run-in to secure such an image; you can pay Cameo to engineer it for you.
But Mr. Galanis’s even-more-valuable intuition was this: Famous people are willing to do a lot more for money than was previously assumed. Mr. Galanis recalled asking the New York Knicks player Lance Thomas, a friend of his from college, how much it would cost for him to make an appearance at a Long Island bar mitzvah, and he replied, “Bro, I’ll go anywhere for $2,000.”
Mr. Galanis did the math: Maybe three hours at the event, plus one hour of travel each way, amounted to about six dollars a minute. But boil an “appearance” down to just the few minutes is takes to shoot a video, and such experiences could be made available on a wide scale — “the greatest gift ever, and cheaper than a ticket to a Knicks game,” Mr. Galanis said. Mr. Thomas is now a Cameo investor and on its talent roster.
Along the way, Cameo has unwittingly created a new style of performance. Some practitioners are more skilled than others. Occasionally, requested messages enter the celebrity’s brain and come out garbled. Others just seem insincere.
Even a “bad” Cameo offers something of value, which is a totally new way of analyzing a celebrity persona. Dina Lohan, best known for giving birth to Lindsay, has struggled to adapt to the form. In her Cameos, she regularly appears perched in a striped armchair next to an enormous silk curtain contraption, filmed from across the room by an unseen handler. Her messages come off as scripted and rote, which, of course, they are. She has received such feedback from users as “She said 31st birthday instead of 35th” and “She doesn’t seem to be having fun.” But there’s also something wonderful about receiving a text message containing an artifact like this. It’s like a direct injection of her arid momager essence.
A few celebrities appear to be using Cameo as a one-on-one image rehabilitation service. When I requested a Cameo from Jon Gosselin of “Jon & Kate Plus Eight,” he made sure to casually drop this: “I’m so busy I had to do it from my car.” $40.
Rebecca Black, who rose to infamy as an awkward teenager in 2011, when a low-budget music video for her puzzling and atonal single, “Friday” went viral, has re-emerged on Cameo, where she seems to have found her calling. Now 21, she is suddenly gorgeous and self-assured. In her videos, she appears winkingly gracious to her “fans” for listening to “Friday,” then performs a twee ukulele version. Her voice sounds amazing. $30.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Cameo is not the videos but the site itself, where famous people from every corner of modern celebrity — music, sports, YouTube, reality TV, viral infamy — assign a dollar amount to their self-worth. Celebrities set their own rates; Cameo takes a 25 percent cut. The real-life “Wolf of Wall Street” Jordan Belfort has offered himself up for $1,000. Mr. Owens once charged $500 but has since dropped his rate to $350. The model Adriana Lima (who has the same name as a Victoria's Secret model) costs $40. Lee Garrett, a former “Bachelorette” contestant perhaps best known for his racist comments, goes for $5.
In addition to soliciting Cameos from Ms. Blonsky and Mr. Gosselin, I bought videos from the celebrity gossip Perez Hilton, the youth culture queen Bella Thorne and Ms. Lohan. Because I am a sadist, I asked them to say “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” They mostly did, and now I feel strangely tender toward them all.
Except for Ms. Lohan. Instead of repeating the tongue twister, she sat in her chair, told “me,” I guess, that she had just returned from opening Lohan Beach Clubs in Greece, and wished my family “love, laughter, and great health.” She didn’t say my name. $75.Correction:
An earlier version of this article misidentified a model who is listed on Cameo. She is not Adriana Lima the Victoria's Secret model, but another model who has the same name.
Amanda Hess is a critic-at-large. She writes about internet culture for the Arts section and contributes regularly to The New York Times Magazine. She has written for such publications as Slate, ESPN the Magazine, Elle and Pacific Standard. @ amandahess • Facebook
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Dear Star, Here’s $40, So Repeat After Me