Celebs on demand: shoutout app Cameo hopes to expand in UK

Elle Hunt

It has raised $65m in funding, it features thousands of stars including the actors Billy Zane, Nigel Havers, Tom Felton and Dick Van Dyke – and now its creators have their sights set on Britain.

But Cameo is not seeking British talent for movies and TV shows, or even to endorse brands. Instead, it is asking them to hold their phones at arm’s length, smile and wish you a happy birthday.

The concept is simple enough: you can pay a famous face – a genuine megastar such as Snoop Dogg or a cult figure from a favourite reality show – to send a message to you, or a friend, and be as surreal or personal as you want (within reason). And now that Cameo has mastered the US market, it is looking further afield.

“Awareness is growing … it won’t be long before Cameo is everywhere in the UK,” says Martin Blencowe, Cameo’s co-founder, who often works (with two others) from the platform’s Soho office and signs up many stars to the platform himself.

At the top of his British wishlist are Daniel Craig, Lennox Lewis, John Cleese, Jay from The Inbetweeners and David Jason of Only Fools and Horses. “If you got a message from Del Boy, everyone would want that: ‘Rodney, you plonker’, ‘This time next year we’ll be millionaires!’”

It works like this: the fan chooses a celebrity from Cameo’s “marketplace” – which can be ordered by price or category, just like on Asos – then fills out a form, briefing them on what to say. Some celebrities, such as Jackass’s Bam Margera, typically respond within hours.

They set their price and terms, with the average across the platform $50, of which Cameo takes a 25% cut. Caitlyn Jenner is the most expensive, asking $2,500 for a 30-second clip (though just seven customer reviews on her profile suggests she is being overly optimistic).

Dick Van Dyke, the 94-year-old Mary Poppins star, says on his profile he has been unable to fulfil all orders “due to overwhelming demand”, despite charging $500 a go.

Plugs for businesses typically cost more. Larry Thomas, who played the Soup Nazi on Seinfield, charges more than double his standard rate to appear wearing a chef’s coat.

Any request is accepted at the talent’s discretion – though that is not always exercised. The rapper Flavor Flav was last year tricked into recording a video wishing Cardinal George Pell, convicted of child sex abuse, a “happy retirement”.

Flav told media: “I just do the shoutouts … I didn’t know I was shouting out paedophiles!”

For better or worse – more often better, says Blencowe – Cameo presents people with a way to connect with their favourite public figures: “We make superfans.”

Among the messages that stand out in his memory are the powerlifter CT Fletcher’s pep talk for an aspiring actor and The Goonies star Sean Astin encouraging a fan to stay sober.

Blencowe moved from Brighton to LA as a promising track runner 14 years ago, before his athletics career was ended by injury. He says he had the idea for Cameo in 2016 while working as an agent in the NFL.

His friend had just had a child and he asked the Seattle Seahawks player Cassius Marsh to record a message of congratulations. “It was a way for me to compensate for not calling for two days,” says Blencowe, “but my buddy went nuts over it.”

Since then, Cameo has raised more than $65m in funding and sold more than half a million videos, most in the last year.

But another Briton has laid claim to the original idea. Angus Lancaster founded CelebVM in 2013 after he saw how difficult it was for bands to interact with their fans while working on a One Direction music video.

Most of the hundreds of celebrities on his books are British, including John Challis from Only Fools and Horse, Big Keith (Ewen Macintosh) from the UK Office, Paul Cattermole from S Club 7 and stars from Towie, The Real Housewives of Cheshire and Right Said Fred. Each ask about £20-30 for a video.

Lancaster says Cameo “did just copy the idea” – but its press, plus the crossover between its books, has helped CelebVM grow. “It’s only affected us beneficially, really.”

Plus, adds Lancaster, both are dependent on their stars’ networks for success. “It’s not the platforms that have got the power, it’s the celebrities and their social media. We just facilitate it.”

For Cameo’s bigger stars, it is an easy way to monetise what they are often asked to do for free, and on their terms. “They can pick and choose when they work – it’s almost like the gig economy for celebrities,” says Will Hobson of the Sheffield-based digital marketing agency Rise at Seven.

Depending on demand, it is possible for them to earn sums in the “mid-six figures” annually from Cameo, says Blencowe – including on commission, by signing up their famous friends.

Iain McCallum, a communications consultant with 30 years’ experience of television, says it is “inevitable” that Cameo will grow in the UK – but added that brand-savvy stars with careers that sustain them would probably avoid it.

His advice to his own clients would be to “think very carefully about the profile that you’ve worked so hard to build”.

But, adds McCallum, “I would never say to anybody that they are wrong to do it … It’s tough out there.” For those who have been “bitten by the TV bug” but are struggling to stay afloat in the industry, Cameo is a viable source of income.

At least one name on Blencowe’s list may elude him. David Jason’s manager said she could not say whether Jason would ever join Cameo – but he would “certainly” never appear as Del Boy. “He is part of David’s past.”