How Cameo is booming in the pandemic era

When it comes to relevant 21st-century comedians, Gilbert Gottfried wouldn’t be the first name to come to mind. The loudmouth, who last made national headlines in 2011 when he was fired from his gig as the Aflac duck, wouldn’t even crack the top 100. But Gottfried doesn’t need a Netflix special or a credit-card commercial to be considered one of the most sought-after funnymen in America today. He has Cameo. 

Since 2018, the 65-year-old comedian has earned more than $1 million by recording birthday wishes, holiday greetings, and other messages on the video-sharing website. “It’s insane that anybody wants me,” admits the comedian, who charges $150 a pop for the chance to hear his nails-in-a-blender voice. Gottfried is a little embarrassed and mystified by his good fortune. (The day before this interview, he shot 40 Cameos.) “It doesn’t make sense. You look at some of the people [on the site] and go, ‘Wow, they’re a big name.’ Other people I look at and go, ‘Okay… tell me who you are?'” 

Once dismissed as the place where celebrity dignity goes to die, Cameo is now a robust business in the middle of a pandemic boom. Revenue for the three-year-old Chicago-based operation — which allows fans to pay for personalized videos from more than 35,000 actors, athletes, and celebrities — spiked 400 percent in the first half of 2020 versus the same period in 2019. (Can’t get together with your bestie for her birthday? Send well-wishes from her favorite Real Housewife instead!) “That first week in March was pretty scary when the market crashed and the NBA shut down,” says CEO Steven Galanis. “We weren’t sure what was going to happen. Then a lot of talent who had told us they didn’t have time to join the platform [suddenly] weren’t making any money. They had all the time in the world and were really missing their fans, so they started turning to Cameo in droves.” Adds one top agent, who has clients using the site: “It has become a financial lifeline for so many celebs, musicians, and athletes during this pandemic. I know firsthand that many are making money that helps cover mortgages, housekeepers, and school bills when many wouldn’t be making any money.”

Galanis, a former LinkedIn exec, conceived the idea for Cameo at his grandmother’s funeral, of all places. He got to chatting with fellow attendee/NFL agent Martin Blencowe, who bragged about persuading linebacker Cassius Marsh of the Seattle Seahawks to shoot a video for a friend who’d just become a first-time father. “This eureka moment went off,” recalls Galanis, 33. “I was like, ‘We need to figure out how to sell this. This is the new autograph.'” After enlisting fellow Duke University pal Devon Spinnler Townsend to design the site, Galanis and Blencowe built their clientele by recruiting talent with social media followings of 25,000 or more. Stars who meet that threshold charge anywhere from $1 (actor Thon Vaultron) to $2,500 (Caitlyn Jenner). Videos can run from less than a minute to an hour, and some stars will even chat live via Zoom — for an extra fee. Talent has up to seven days to respond to requests, and they can turn down offers for any reason. As for pricing, Cameo does offer guidance, and the company takes a 25 percent cut for each completed video. Jokes Gottfried, “It depends what mood I’m in, where I feel like I should either be getting $10,000 for each one, or I should be paying them.”

To keep the site on a growth trajectory, Cameo actively recruits the latest zeitgeist crackers, like those crazy cats from Netflix’s Tiger King. “Within a week of [the docuseries] dropping, we had all the main characters on the platform,” says Galanis proudly. “By the time Carole Baskin joined, she set the record for most bookings in a month, and made over $300,000 her first month on Cameo.” The site’s search engine also helps the team figure out who next to approach. Though users will always look for Dwayne Johnson, Justin Bieber, and Beyoncé (the company has approached them all, to no avail), it’s the B- and C-level folks who seem to have the biggest appeal for the site’s target audience of fans ages 25 to 54. Larry Thomas, who played the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld, now pulls in an impressive six figures on Cameo. And Brian Baumgartner, a.k.a. Kevin from NBC’s The Office, made more than $1 million this year alone. “The world has changed in the last five years, in that the monolithic, A-list celebrity is becoming less important and people are more drawn to niche people,” says Galanis. “Sometimes just being an iconic bit player in an iconic TV show or film is enough to be on Cameo, even if you don’t have a ton of fame yourself.” 

Take Jeffrey Voorhees. You probably don’t recognize the name, but you’ve definitely heard of his character: Alex Kintner, the little boy who was gobbled up by a killer shark in the Steven Spielberg classic Jaws. Now 58, Voorhees still lives on Martha’s Vineyard where the movie was filmed, and he routinely shoots Cameo videos (at $35 a pop) on the very beach where he and Pipit the black Lab were devoured. “I recently got a strange request from someone who said, ‘My father was a big fan and he died watching Jaws on the couch.’ It’s like, what? So I said, ‘Well, I hate to say it — your father was a big Jaws fan and we have a lot in common. He died watching me die!’ Then I explained, ‘Here is where I was eaten.'” 

Why, yes, that does sound totally nuts — but the more creative people get with Cameo, the more noise it makes. Earlier this year, assistant professor Ryan Briggs from Canada’s University of Guelph solicited donations on Twitter so he could pay Snoop Dogg to shoot a video for students about the importance of reading the syllabus. The PSA went viral on social media, especially after it was used by a chemistry professor in Woodland Hills, Calif. “The whole fun was in making something that all professors could freely use,” says Briggs. Moments like that make up for the, ahem, less respectable viral videos — like Vince Neil’s drunken birthday greeting to a guy named Derek last year, or Smokey Robinson’s mispronunciation of “Chanukah” in December. With more celebs joining the site every day — welcome to the circus, Debra Messing and Kenny G! — Galanis is feeling hopeful that he might have a shot at landing his Cameo white whale. “My cofounder Martin is obsessed with Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he says with a laugh. “So that would be the ultimate for Cameo.”