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The Most American Startup Ever

How Cameo reinvented the monetization of fame for the social-media era.

Above:Top row: Caitlyn Jenner, Bethenny Frankel, Matt Forte, Pat Hughes. Bottom row: Tara Reid, Brian Urlacher, Teresa Giudice, CeeLo Green. Photos: Courtesy of Cameo

The headquarters of the wildly successful Chicago internet startup Cameo used to be outfitted with a gong, so whenever a celebrity would join the service, the cavernous West Loop office would resound with a loud bang. Each new signing was worth celebrating, after all, because it meant that one more famous person would be making custom video messages for fans and promoting the young platform. But soon Cameo was catching on more quickly than anyone anticipated, signing on as many as 80 to 100 celebrities a day.

Gonnnngggg! Gonnnngggg! Gonnnngggg!

It got to be a bit much, so they eventually retired the gong. Now when an A-list celeb such as Sarah Jessica Parker joins the ever-swelling Cameo roster, there’s just a lot of screaming.

If you don’t already know about Cameo, the idea behind it is seductively simple: For a fee, you can hire a prominent person to make a customized video message for yourself or someone else. You provide the talking points. Is your wife a devotee of The Real Housewives of New York City? Bethenny Frankel or Dorinda Medley will send a birthday greeting for $275 or $150, respectively. Is your dad a Bears fan? One of the team’s Hall of Fame linebackers — Brian Urlacher ($540), Mike Singletary ($200), or Dick Butkus ($151) — can record a video selfie just for him. (Current linebacker Roquan Smith also is available for $100.) Does your roommate have a thing for Stormy Daniels? That’ll be $250. Does your daughter like the devilishly handsome Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies? The actor who played him, Tom Felton, will reach out for $444. Not feeling so spendy? Cameo is largely populated by B-, C-, and D-list celebrities, and they are priced accordingly. But, hey, you can get Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen for a mere 100 bucks, viral-video comedian Nick Colletti for $69, and Laugh-In star Ruth Buzzi — Ruth Buzzi! — for $225.

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The fees, of which Cameo takes 25 percent, are set by the talent and can change from day to day, depending on the celebrity’s estimation of his or her own market value and availability. Considering how easy it is to knock off a string of 30-second or minute-long messages on a cellphone, the money can add up in a hurry, for both sides. CEO Steven Galanis, a broad-shouldered 32-year-old with a trim beard who favors black T-shirts emblazoned with his company’s name, says the platform has produced more than 350,000 videos as of late 2019. Galanis won’t reveal revenue figures but says the current average Cameo video costs about $60, a number that has been on the rise. If you spitballed a $45 average and did the math, that means Cameo has raked in about $4 million. (To put things in perspective, that’s less than what Smith, the Bears linebacker, makes at his day job in a single season.)

At this point you may be whacking your forehead that you didn’t have this idea first. Cameo made Time’s list of Genius Companies in 2018, and that was when a mere 3,500 celebrities were signed on to the platform. Now there are 20,000 and counting. Cameo has zoomed into the zeitgeist, the company name having become synonymous with the product. When Chrissy Teigen ordered a Cameo for herself in October from 90 Day Fiancé star Zied Hakimi, she tweeted about it to her almost 12 million followers. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury comic strip on Super Bowl Sunday showed Boopsie recording custom videos and explaining to husband B.D., “It’s a video shout-out. I just made $50!”

“Incredible,” B.D. says. “What a racket. Keep it up!”

The last panel shows her saying into her laptop: “Hi, Kevin! Sorry, I can’t take my shirt off, but congrats on your bar mitzvah! You go!”

The sheer scope and speed of Cameo’s growth can be nicely summed up by the experience of Abbie Sheppard, who came to Chicago from London in August 2017 to begin a college internship with the company. At the time, the just-launched service was operating from a small desk in 1871, a business incubator in the Merchandise Mart. A mere two years later, Sheppard was back in London, running Cameo’s operations in Europe. “I started as an intern, I moved into a customer service role, I moved into running our social media, I moved into running our marketing, then created the talent relations department, ran that, ran our interns over the summer, and then moved back to London to do UK-Europe,” she says breathlessly. She is 23 and the second-longest-tenured full-time employee at Cameo, which now also has offices in Los Angeles and Melbourne, Australia, employing 125 in all. A little over a year ago, when Galanis moved the company from the 1871 space to the West Loop, his team numbered 17.

An arguably more meaningful number is the $50 million that Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins plowed into Cameo in June as the Series B lead investor after previous rounds had yielded $15.5 million. “Galanis raised a similar amount of money, if not more, in two years than it took us in five,” says Mark Lawrence, founder and CEO of another successful Chicago startup, the parking app SpotHero. Says Howard Tullman, the former CEO of 1871: “To have closed the financing that they did in mid-2019 is insane.”

It’s gotten to the point where Cameo is actually turning away funding. “Every firm that invested in us would have invested more money,” Galanis says. “If I had $20 million more right now, it wouldn’t change the day-to-day of the company.”

With a market value estimated in May by Axios’s Dan Primack to be about $300 million, Cameo has defied the long-held assumption that in order to reach their potential, Chicago-incubated companies ultimately must move to the coasts because not enough deep-pocketed investors are based here — and that an enterprise driven entirely by celebrity can’t possibly succeed outside Los Angeles and New York.

 
Devine Ozigbo Cameo

Not too long ago, Galanis’s career was in a much different place. While the Glenview native was at Duke University, he “revolutionized nightlife in the Bull City with the introduction of Wednesday Night Beer Pong at Shooters II,” as he felt compelled to note in his self-penned bio on the Internet Movie Database. Galanis became a trader in Chicago before forming a Los Angeles–based film production company with future Cameo partner Martin Blencowe. They became involved in projects produced by Galanis’s uncle George Furla, an industry veteran. Galanis received producer credits on the 2014 syndicated action-drama series SAF3 (starring Dolph Lundgren) as well as the little-seen 2015 movies Vice (Bruce Willis) and Heist (Robert De Niro).

This was not the stuff of his Hollywood dreams, so Galanis returned to Chicago to work as a senior account executive at LinkedIn, while the British-born Blencowe became a sports agent, starting out with just one client: Cassius Marsh, a linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks at the time. When Blencowe was in Chicago for Galanis’s grandmother’s funeral in October 2016, the agent showed Galanis a video on his phone. It was a congratulatory message that Blencowe had enlisted Marsh to record for a Nike executive and Seahawks fan who’d just had a baby boy.

The video shows Marsh in tight close-up in a moving car, chest tats exposed, a Seahawks cap atop his head, as he talks into his phone camera: “Hey, Brandon, it’s Cassius Marsh from the Seahawks, man. I just wanted to say congratulations on Maverick, and I’m sure if he gets your athletic ability, he’ll be playing for the Seahawks one day, man. Go Hawks.”

The friend, Blencowe told Galanis, “went nuts” over the video and showed it to everyone at his office. “When I saw that,” says Galanis, a sports memorabilia collector who owns, among other things, a pair of Shaquille O’Neal’s size 22 shoes, “I said, ‘This is the new autograph.’ ”

The two men pondered the possibilities. Perhaps they could create a business in which “for X amount of money you could pay to do Y activity with Z person,” Galanis says. “For one price you could go fishing with them or FaceTime or get a phone call or tweet or anything you could imagine.” But they kept returning to the simplicity of Marsh’s video and the friend’s over-the-top reaction. Maybe short, personalized videos were all they needed. They decided to launch their business starting with just Marsh but expanding to other celebrities once the concept proved viable. They chose a temporary name, Powermove, and Galanis quit his LinkedIn job to commit to the venture.

This new platform seemed a perfect way to capitalize on our peculiar cultural moment. The internet and streamed entertainment have lowered the barriers to becoming a celebrity, expanding the ranks of people who can reasonably be considered famous, while social media has made it easier for regular people to feel closer to that fame. Even megastars, be they Taylor Swift or Snoop Dogg, seek to create an illusion of intimacy online.

In the olden days, you’d ask your favorite player to sign a baseball card, your favorite actor to sign a poster, your favorite musician to sign an album — these were the proof that you’d shared a moment. But aside from the obvious difficulty of getting in the same room as a celebrity, autographs have become tainted in our increasingly transactional world. Are you asking a celebrity to sign something because that person’s work is important to you or because you intend to resell the item on eBay?

Galanis and Blencowe’s idea didn’t strip away the transactional aspect; it made it two-sided and upfront. Fans aren’t awkwardly requesting a favor, as they are with an autograph or selfie; they’re agreeing to terms set by the celebrity and buying something that can’t be resold but can be shared online. The celebrity, meanwhile, can interact with fans from a comfortable, virtual distance — and get paid for the effort.

So it’s a win-win — except for when things get creepy or someone is trying to promote hate speech in the guise of a happy celebrity shout-out. More on that later.

First, though, the company’s founders had to get the damn thing to work.

 

On the launch evening, March 15, 2017, Galanis had traveled to Scottsdale, Arizona, for Major League Baseball spring training to land another celebrity: Jason Kipnis, the Cleveland Indians’ All-Star second baseman, who grew up in Northbrook. Blencowe and the company’s third founder, a software engineer named Devon Townsend, were gathered at Townsend’s apartment in Los Angeles’s Venice Beach area, along with the Seahawks’ Marsh. Galanis had set up a Google Analytics map to show how many people were on their site. The moment before the launch, there was one dot in Scottsdale and one in Venice Beach.

At 8:30 p.m. Pacific time, Marsh announced on his Twitter account that he was “doing some @bookcameo shoutouts right now,” included a link to the site, and posted the congratulatory video that he’d made months earlier. The Cameo folks announced the service on their nascent Twitter account as well.

The founders watched their computer screens.

One dot in Scottsdale. One dot in Venice Beach.

They kept watching.

One dot in Scottsdale. One dot in Venice Beach.

“We’re thinking like, Man, is Google not working?” Galanis says.

He signed off the website, and the Scottsdale dot disappeared. “Then I came back on, and the dot went back on.”

So the problem wasn’t Google.

Meanwhile, Marsh’s tweet began to generate some reaction on Twitter, but it wasn’t what the Cameo team had in mind. People started “talking shit,” as Galanis puts it.

“Is it really worth $25 to you to do these?” asked one tweet.

“He’s like, ‘Fuck this, I’m out,’ ” Galanis recalls of Marsh’s reaction, “and then Martin was freaking out because that’s his only NFL player. So Martin runs after him to try to save his one relationship.”

In Arizona, Galanis saw a dot pop up on the screen in Seattle. “I’m just sitting there like, Are they going to buy? Are they going to buy?” he remembers.

The site featured no sample videos at that point, so there was little to do there but request a message. Is that what this person in Seattle was doing?

A couple of minutes passed. The dot was still there.

“Then all of a sudden the dot just goes away,” Galanis says. “It’s like, Everybody hates this, this thing that I left LinkedIn for, this thing we’ve gotten our friends and family to put money into. Nobody’s buying what we’re selling, and we were so down.”

Then came the lifeline: One person who saw the Cameo tweet about Marsh’s availability wrote, “OMG how? My daughter is his biggest fan!!!”

“Check out this link here,” the Cameo Twitter account responded.

Hours later the father replied again, “I tried but it doesn’t appear to have worked. Any thoughts??”

That’s right. The tech didn’t work. So Galanis reached out, apologized for the glitch, learned that the daughter’s 16th birthday was two days away, and promised to send the video for free. Then he tried to reach Marsh, who “wasn’t returning our calls.”

They missed the birthday, but a couple of days later Galanis persuaded Marsh to tape a message for the girl. About two hours after it was sent, Galanis says, he received a video from the father: “The daughter’s wearing a Seahawks jersey, and she’s got half her hair blue and half green like Seahawks colors, and she watches this video, and she literally starts crying she’s so happy. And at that moment we really knew we had something.”

 
Steven Galanis
The company is worth an estimated $300 million, but that’s all on paper. “I had tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt until a couple months ago,” says CEO Steven Galanis. Photo: Brittany Sowacke

Birthday, anniversary, and other congratulatory messages are Cameo’s bread and butter, but users often steer the talent into less familiar areas. Venerable Cubs radio broadcaster Pat Hughes, encouraged by his daughter to join Cameo, receives the type of Cubs-related requests you’d expect, as well as some curveballs. “Last week this lady sent me one and said, ‘Can you please send a message to my husband and let him know that we are pregnant with our second child?’ ” Hughes says. He obliged.

Dan Bernstein has a suffer-no-fools reputation on the show he cohosts on 670 The Score (WSCR-AM), so he gets asked to razz people about their terrible fantasy football choices. Customers have even had him haul out his impressions of Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski or former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. Bernstein has also been known to wax poetic about his culinary pleasures, so during a recent Bears game, he received a request from a guy complaining that his buddy had smoked a brisket and hadn’t responded to his texts asking how it had turned out. At halftime Bernstein recorded a message for the meat-smoking friend.

“Hey, Brendan,” Bernstein says into the camera. “Dan Bernstein here. Matthew wants to know how the brisket turned out. You’ve been friends for 20 years. You make a brisket, he wants to know how it turned out, and you’re not even telling him? … The world needs to know, but mostly Matthew needs to know. We’re doing this during a Bears game. That’s how important it is. Tell him how the brisket turned out. Thank you.”

The one thing Bernstein won’t do — and this is a common refrain among Cameo talent — is plug people’s products or companies, a common request.

Sportscaster Kelly Crull, best known for her TV reports during Cubs games, says she has been pleasantly surprised by the range of requests she has received since joining the service late last summer. She expected the birthday messages and enjoyed being asked to pull fantasy football participants’ names out of a hat, but she also has been asked to discuss her Christian faith. “I’m really glad I can share that with them because it’s not something I can do day to day talking about sports,” she says.

Then there are the less appropriate requests. Someone asked her to record a video from inside the Cubs’ clubhouse, which team management wouldn’t allow, so she declined. A group of friends tried to arrange a date between her and one of their buddies; she instead sent the pal a message saying he has “a really good group of wingmen.” And one guy asked Crull to record a message in her bedroom because “I want to see what your style is.” Crull declined. “I thought, No, no, no, no. That’s too much in my personal space right there.”

Galanis says he doesn’t have a gender breakdown of Cameo talent, though the sheer volume of sports figures on the platform skews the roster male, even as the numerous Real Housewives make up some of the difference. The customers, Galanis says, lean slightly more toward women, and Cameo has a pronounced popularity in the LGBTQ community.

About half the celebrities — including Crull, whose Instagram following exceeds the 20,000 that Cameo generally considers to be a qualifying threshold — join after being approached by someone on Cameo’s talent team. The others come by way of referrals or sign up on the platform’s website, as Bernstein did after reading a 2018 Tribune story about the company.

Often they set their prices in consultation with Cameo. Crull started at $20 and raised it to $25 after receiving many requests. Former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen decided to put a $50 price tag on his videos because, he says, “you can be charging $200, but I don’t want people to pay that much money to talk to Ozzie Guillen.”

Hughes decided on $40 because, he says, “I didn’t want it to be too high, but I wanted it to be high enough to be worth my time.” He usually waits until a few requests have accumulated, then records the videos at home, doing little in the way of prep beyond making sure the lighting is OK. “You spend 20 minutes or 30 minutes to do four or five of them. Sometimes you mess up and want to do it over again. Sometimes you get several in a day. Sometimes you have nothing for two days. I’ll probably knock out two or three later today.”

Bernstein estimates that he has taped about 120 messages at $20 apiece, netting $15 for each one. On a recent afternoon, he sat in his car in a supermarket parking lot and recorded three messages before going inside and spending $45 on groceries. “This is much more personalized than a greeting card, and they can save it as long as they want,” Bernstein says. “It doesn’t take up space on their counter.”

Guillen sees Cameo as a way to keep in touch with fans, particularly during the off-season, when he’s not providing baseball analysis on TV. “You sign a baseball card, and if I don’t know you, I just put your name on it,” he says. “This is a different thing. You try to have fun with them. I put in more extra stuff to make sure they love it and appreciate my message.”

Cameo instructs the talent to make the videos appear as authentic as possible, discouraging them from fussing too much. “The other day I do a Cameo, I was lying in my bed,” Guillen says. “I can be on the beach. I can be in my office. I can be in my kids’ office. I can be in a field in Mexico and say, ‘Hey, happy birthday.’ The more natural I am, the better, because with people that’s their connection.”

Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted about a week as President Trump’s communications director in July 2017, joined the site in August and charges $100 a video. When we spoke in early October, he said he had done 215 messages, earning $16,125 for himself. He says he is donating his earnings to the Brain Tumor Foundation in honor of his father, who survived a benign brain tumor. “I don’t really need it to run my household, but it’s fun to do,” Scaramucci says.

He estimates that about 85 percent of his requests are for greetings such as birthday and anniversary wishes, with the rest asking for political opinions and statements. He had to reject a few early on, like the one that said, “Please say hello to my friend Jim and say, ‘I’m a sycophant of Trump.’ ” But the lion’s share since then have been respectful. “I probably unsolicitedly tell people Trump is an idiot.”

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Raspy-voiced comedian Gilbert Gottfried, a Saturday Night Live alumnus who voiced the parrot Iago in Disney’s Aladdin as well as the Aflac duck, is a Cameo all-star. He doesn’t talk numbers, but a September article in Vice estimated that he had earned almost $250,000 from the 1,600 or so videos he had recorded at $150 a pop in the nine months he had been on the platform. “Right before you called, I did seven of them,” Gottfried says on the phone from his New York home. “Sometimes I’ll get like one request in a day, and I’ll think, OK, it’s all over with, and the next day I’ll get 30 or something. And it’s all different stuff.”

He may be asked to send a funny message to someone suffering from depression or a recently diagnosed disease. “Sometimes I’ll get a message back that says that person was cheered up, and I’ll say, ‘Oh, wow.’ ” A few people have requested that he tell the filthy joke he recited in the comedy documentary The Aristocrats. “I’ll do abbreviated versions, or I’ll give them enough obscenities to appease them.” Sometimes, he says, “it’s just a matter of ‘Can you tell my brother Jake that he’s an asshole?’ And it’s like, ‘OK.’ ”

Gottfried rarely says no — though he turned down one woman’s request that he deemed too creepy. “It was in crazy-person language. I thought, Uh-oh, these sentences don’t match, the words don’t match, and it sounds threatening. Is she planning on killing someone?”

He taped another message that sounded innocuous, but then someone online “deciphered it and said I’m planning on blowing up the Golden Gate Bridge.” He laughs at this crazy interpretation, but the notion of Cameo celebrities unknowingly delivering coded messages is no joke. In fact, one such instance almost brought down the company.

 
Garrett Yrigoyen Cameo

Galanis deemed it “Armageddon.” Blencowe was “terrified.” In November 2018, a group of customers booked Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre, comedian Andy Dick, and rapper Soulja Boy to make Cameo videos. It turns out the customers were from a white supremacist group called the Goyim Defense League, and the talking points they gave the celebrities contained scripted, coded anti-Semitic messages. The group then shared the clips on YouTube and alt-right sites.

Upon realizing what had happened, the celebrities denounced the videos and asked for them to be pulled from Cameo and other sites. Favre also posted a Facebook message declaring himself “sickened” by such groups, pledging his $500 fee to anti-hate charities and concluding: “I thought I was creating a message to support the brave men and women of our military forces. Had I understood the source of the request, I never would have fulfilled it.”

At the time, Galanis saw the controversy as a possible game-ender. “Talent has to feel safe on the platform,” he says. What if Favre lost endorsement deals? What if he left Cameo? “Then everyone would have been like, ‘Well, look what happened to Brett Favre. I’m not going to do that.’ ”

The story exploded just as Cameo was making its move into its new West Loop offices, and Galanis suddenly found himself doing interviews with TV networks and newspapers to do damage control. “At the time, we’d done 100,000 of those videos, and that was the first one we ever had to pull. CBS and NBC and Fox, all their camera crews are out here. I was literally moving boxes, and I remember saying, ‘Look, I would put our safety record up against any platform that’s ever existed, certainly before the first 100,000 tweets or 100,000 Instagram posts or 100,000 Facebook posts. This is not a platform for hate. This is a platform to make people smile, laugh, and cry.’ ”

The day after the story broke, Galanis says he drove to Milwaukee, where Favre was conducting an autograph session. “I got in front of him, I introduced myself, I shook his hand, I looked him in the eye, and I said, ‘Brett, we’re doing everything we can to get through this.’ ”

Galanis also sent Favre a reminder of his messages’ positive impact: a reaction video showing a young woman, immediately before her wedding, watching a Cameo the former Packers star had recorded for her. Her father had died, and in his message Favre talked about his own father’s death and how he felt his dad’s presence as he played the best game of his life. In the reaction video, the woman is crying and saying, “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

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Favre not only stuck with the platform but, Galanis says, became an investor. Andy Dick also remains on Cameo. Soulja Boy is listed as “temporarily unavailable.” Galanis says the only celebrity who exited the platform after the incident was comedian T.J. Miller, formerly of HBO’s Silicon Valley, who about a year earlier had faced and denied a sexual assault allegation stemming from his college days. In a text to Galanis, Miller wrote: “I got CAA [Creative Artists Agency] asking me to get off Cameo for now. I love it. It’s fun as hell and people love it, but I don’t need any negative press even remotely near me. Once things cool down, I’ll get back on.”

Galanis now calls the ordeal “a wake-up for us” and says the company instituted new filters and other security measures to flag hate speech and symbols. If anything, the media coverage boosted the company’s visibility as the holiday season approached. “It certainly gave people the idea of what they should buy for Christmas,” Galanis says.

As for whether Cameo can actually bulletproof itself from another such situation, Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, suggests that it may be a losing battle: “You do the best you can, but you’re dealing with the internet.”

So where does Galanis draw the line? Would he let a far-right conspiracy theorist such as Alex Jones, who has been barred from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, onto Cameo?

“We would let Alex join the platform,” Galanis says. “But if he’s making hate speech in the videos, we would take them off.”

Pressed to explain this distinction, Galanis adds, “I believe that anybody should have the opportunity to interact with their fans.” Cameo, for instance, also features porn stars but won’t let them appear naked. “I don’t worry about why people are famous. I just worry about, Are they doing the right things when they’re on the platform?”

 

SpotHero’s Mark Lawrence has become a mentor and friend to Galanis since the two met at a 2017 event for Chicago Ventures, an investment firm that seeds startups. A self-described student of marketplaces, Lawrence is fascinated by the similarities and differences between SpotHero and Cameo. The initial challenge for each company was supply: SpotHero needed garages and parking spaces to offer; Cameo needed celebrities.

But the number of available parking spaces in any city, and the demand for them, tops out at some point. Cameo, as Lawrence notes, is “simply a digital marketplace” with almost no ceiling. How many prominent people have meaning to someone else? How many people around the globe would be willing to buy or be paid for a message? “The scalability I found exciting,” says Lawrence, who made what he calls a small investment in Cameo.

Cameo has another advantage over other startups: a baked-in marketing plan. Each time someone finds a parking place, that person isn’t likely to discuss it on social media, and garages don’t tweet. But Cameo users, from everyday folks to Chrissy Teigen, are inclined to share videos made for them, and on the other side, if you’re the celebrity wishing to drum up business, you promote your messages — and thus Cameo — as well. No wonder former Bulls center and current radio commentator Bill Wennington includes this on his Twitter bio: “Check out my Cameo profile.”

That’s why Cameo initially considered each new celebrity to be gong-worthy — and why so much of the company is devoted to landing new talent, in the United States and overseas. Sheppard, the intern-turned-manager, recalls the excitement of signing up singer Lance Bass, calling it “a really pinnacle time for the company” — and not just because she’s a huge ’NSync fan. Ice-T was another big get, and he delivered Snoop Dogg after telling him he had made $80,000 on the platform, Galanis says. “Ice-T FaceTimed this girl on my team, and she picks it up, and Snoop Dogg was there, and he’s like, ‘I need to get on this.’ ”

Snoop Dogg joined on April 20, 2019, (yes, 4/20) and charged $420 (I mean, this guy stays on brand) a message, and he promoted his availability on Instagram, where he has close to 37 million followers. The rapper drew about $50,000 on his first day, Galanis says, “and then he jacked his price up to $1,000, wasn’t getting booked there, and he settled in at $500. His first month he did more in bookings than any talent had done in the history of Cameo.”

With Charlie Sheen joining the same week as Snoop Dogg, the ceiling for the level of celebrity on Cameo had been raised, with more to follow. When I visited Cameo in late September, the office was abuzz with the news that Sarah Jessica Parker had signed on the previous day. No one there had even reached out to her; the Sex and the City star, with her 6 million Instagram followers, had created a profile on her own. Still, her actual intentions weren’t confirmed until Cameo talent relations representative Sara Weber emerged from a meeting to see that Parker had uploaded an introductory video to her new Cameo page to let fans know that she was taking requests. Hence the screaming.

“The second we saw it was her, the entire company came and just surrounded one computer, and we turned the volume all the way up,” Weber says. “That’s when we knew it was real, and we knew it was a huge game-changer.”

Parker had a specific mission: The New York City Ballet’s fall fashion gala was three days later, and she wanted to raise money for it. “I spoke with her team and asked what their initial fundraising goal was, and she said they just wanted to do a couple thousand dollars to push them over the edge,” Weber says. With Weber’s input, Parker set her price at $300, and in her first hour, she was booked 22 times, Weber says. The Cameo team sent emails announcing Parker’s presence, and five minutes later her bookings had reached 38. At that point, Weber and Parker’s assistant agreed that the star should more than triple her price, to $1,000. Still, another 16 people booked her that night. The next day, they raised the price again, to $2,000, in part to slow demand so that Parker would have time to make all those videos. “She right now has over $34,000 sitting in active Cameo requests, and she’s completing those today,” Weber said two days before the gala, noting that the total number of orders was up to 60, including some at $2,000 apiece.

Parker’s price would rise again, to $2,500 (equaling what is to date the highest Cameo price, charged by Caitlyn Jenner, not counting the $50,000 jokingly charged by comedian Chris D’Elia), in the lead-up to the gala. Parker’s user reviews were mixed, with some folks expressing glee but others saying things like “The message was very sweet despite forgetting to wish her a happy birthday” and “Surprised she didn’t mention my name at the very least in cameo to my wife” and “I love SJP (and so does my friend the video is for) and I know she was doing a ton of these for charity but I was hoping for just a little more personalization.” Sometimes the illusion of intimacy is tough to pull off, especially when you’re charging a lot for it.

After the gala, Parker became marked as “temporarily unavailable” on the site, the same notice you currently find for Wesley Snipes, Charlie Sheen, and Mike Ditka. Galanis says it’s not unusual for celebrities to take breaks from the platform depending on their schedules. Ice-T was unavailable a month ago, but as of this writing, he’s back, for $450. Given that the platform generates the most business during the holiday season, the Cameo folks hope those big stars return to take advantage. In the meantime, you can book Sheen’s ex-wife, Real Housewife of Beverly Hills Denise Richards, for a mere $200.

To Tullman, the former 1871 head, the Sarah Jessica Parker experience could prove to be a bellwether. How much money could, say, Bono raise to battle HIV/AIDS in Africa with a half hour’s worth of messages recorded on his cellphone? “Think about doing this backstage at the Grammys or setting up a Cameo booth at the Oscars,” Tullman says. “[Galanis has] got some real opportunities. Let’s see if he can exploit those.”

Those aren’t the only opportunities that Tullman envisions for Cameo. “The agencies out of the West Coast should be scared shitless,” he says. “He could have 50,000 performers. You have to imagine how easy it would be for him to say, ‘Do you want four of the Beverly Hills Housewives? I could sign them up, and they could come to your shower or bachelor party.’ He’s an enabler connecting all kinds of diverse talents to all kinds of newly discovered demand.”

Galanis and his team are already thinking along these lines. “Like you want to meet someone in person, you want to go learn to box with Mike Tyson, you want to go throw a football with Brett Favre,” he says. “Those are all things that in the future we’d love to do.”

He also envisions Cameo’s roster expanding exponentially. “We believe there’s over 5 million people in the world that could qualify to use Cameo,” he says. “Imagine Bollywood. Imagine K-pop. Imagine telenovela stars. Every single culture has their own idols, their own heroes.” So does every community. “Coaches, teachers, priests, rabbis, these people are super important and influential too, and we want them all on Cameo.”

Part of the reason Galanis feels he has to grow Cameo so fast is to ward off competitors that could try to knock them off. He says Grubhub CEO Matt Maloney once told him: “You need to wake up every day with the mindset that you’re running an underperforming global business, because every day that you’re not in China, that you’re not in Japan, that you’re not in South Korea, that you’re not in Brazil, another team somewhere in the world is working on this and trying to clone you and build the localized version of this. There needs to be one Cameo, and that should be you.”

Meanwhile, Galanis lives in the same downtown high-rise condo he says he bought in 2011 for $309,000. “My money’s all on paper,” he says, noting that his lifestyle hasn’t changed much, aside from his averaging one plane flight every 1.3 days in 2019. “Look, I had tens of thousands of dollars of credit card debt until a couple months ago. I was just trying to get out from way, way, way below zero.”

So even though his company may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, he and his fellow founders, vested employees, and investors won’t reap the benefits until the company cashes in. “Ultimately we win when we have an IPO or when we sell.”

He’ll stay busy in the meantime. So will Gilbert Gottfried.

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