In 2019, the celebrity autograph has had an upgrade. A scribble on a bit of paper might be good – and might fetch a few quid on eBay. But why get an autograph when you can get your own, personalised, video message?
In the last few years, a raft of sites has emerged offering just that – celebrity video messages. For a small (or sometimes slightly more hefty) price, you can get your favourite celebrity to record a personalised message: a happy birthday for a mate, fun bit of banter for a stag or hen do, or simply a memento of your ardent fandom. Prices are varied and (seemingly) arbitrary – you can pay as little as a fiver or as much as a few thousand pounds.
It’s a simple premise, but there’s big money in it. One U.S. site, Cameo, recently raised $50million in funding and has reportedly been valued at $300million. “People use Cameo as often as they used to go to Hallmark to buy a card,” founder Steven Galanis told TechCrunch just after the funding round. “We have power users that have literally bought hundreds of these.” The platform now has over 20,000 celebrities on its site – some legitimately famous, some obviously less so.
In the UK, things are somewhat less glitzy. Where on Cameo you might be paying $2500 for Caitlyn Jenner or $600 for Charlie Sheen to wish you happy birthday or send good luck to soon to be married friends, UK celebrities are a little more affordable. £20 will get you a minute or so from Ewan Macintosh, who you probably know (and is advertised) as “Keith from The Office”. £25 will get you Christopher Biggins, Derek Acorah or Nikki Grahame; a tenner, and you’ll receive a message from BBC sports presenter Mike Bushell (though one wonders whether his current stint on Strictly Come Dancing might get him to the giddy heights of the low twenties).
There’s another (slightly weirder) subsection, too: celebrity lookalikes. £50 is a lot of money – and it’s certainly a lot of money to spend on getting a not-that-convincing fake Gordon Ramsay to mug to the camera as he reels off a list of interests provided by the friend or loved one who had the video made. Nonetheless, there are numerous glowing reviews of the star, so someone must be getting something out of it.
Dave Benson-Phillips, veteran children’s TV presenter, is one of the celebrities on CelebrityVM, one of the more prominent UK agencies. He was approached by the company several years ago after they told him their customers would “get a real kick” out of him delivering messages; he’d also heard about the site from a friend, Pat Sharp, who’s on the agency’s books too.
“It’s funny with people like me – I think people think ‘oh yeah, this will be quite fun’,” Benson-Phillips tells me. He records four or five messages a month: on the quieter end of things, he says, which means he can put more into it. Generally his videos feature a title sequence, a theme song, the personalised message, and an end card – quite a step up from the normal style of message, which sees a celebrity record something generic and lifeless without much thought.
Other celebrities are somewhat busier, he says – working with TOWIE’s Arg, Benson-Phillips says, was eye-opening. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says. “I did panto with him a few years ago, and even before he got on the stage he had about 30 or 40 messages he would do, message after message for fans of his. This is before he would start any form of work going on the stage.”
As for who’s requesting videos, it’s a real mix. As a children’s TV presenter, Benson-Phillips gets a lot of requests from nostalgic adults, often for birthdays, weddings or stag dos. Some requests he ignores: “I get some that seem a bit odd, so I give them a swerve,” he says. “Sometimes they are taking the piss, yeah. At the price of twenty or thirty odd pounds, to have a celebrity you’re not too keen on to say something you might find funny… you do have to guard yourself.” He continues, sarcastic. “Of course when you work in children’s television, you’re simple-minded, aren’t you?”. Most of the message requests come from a good place, he says, but “you have to discern.”
Benson-Phillips says the messages would be a “nice side hustle – if it happened more regularly.” If he’s on TV, he’ll get a rash of message requests; otherwise, he doesn’t get too many through. “I don’t wake up in the morning and have thirty messages to go through,” he says. “It’s a nice little thing I get to do now and again.” Instead, he makes most of his money through festival appearances, pantomime, retro music events and a children’s music show he performs at Butlins.
While Benson-Phillips and his friend Pat Sharp may fall firmly in the “nostalgia” end of the phenomenon, many others on the platforms, particularly Cameo, are celebrities who still regularly appear on TV, who have still successful sports careers or are considered to be icons. So is the popularity of the sites, and celebrity willingness to be listed on them, something to do with the changing nature of celebrity? With the rise of influencers, from Instagrammers to YouTubers, and with the line between celebrity and civilian ever thinner due to social media, has the way we think about fame changed completely?
Mary, 19, seems to think so. She’s bought various videos as gifts and for herself, largely from YouTubers and other influencers, though she’s purchased a few videos she categorises as “novelty”, too.
When she watches YouTube, she explains, she feels like she’s watching friends – some channels she’s subscribed to for years, since she was in school. “It sounds quite cheesy but I feel like I’ve grown up with some of them,” she says. Unlike the more “traditional” celebrities she’s a fan of – Jennifer Lawrence, say – influencers feel accessible; they feel more like her. “They’re not untouchable, they’re not living in some weird Hollywood world,” she says. “They’re much more like me.”
“I already feel like I know them, so getting a message from them is sort of an extension of that,” she says. The fact you can personalise them is even better – going beyond the generic “hi guys” you normally get from a YouTuber, video messages (superficially) engage with the life and interests of the recipient. “Obviously I know that a YouTuber isn’t actually my friend,” Mary concludes. “They don’t know I exist, let alone anything about me. But I do feel differently about them than I do other celebrities. This is just a nice way of adding to that feeling.”
The idea that YouTubers or online influencers are “just like us”, of course, is not quite true. Though some YouTubers really are just normal people making videos in their bedroom to small audiences, others are more akin to traditional celebrities than they might care to admit. But the way they present themselves is different – the point is not that they’re untouchable but that they’re accessible; not that they’re carefully, consciously planning their image and “brand”, but that they’re “authentic” – being an unfiltered version of themselves in every meaning of the word.
The debate around what it actually means to be authentic online was recently reignited in an essay by Rookie founder Tavi Gevinson in The Cut: understanding how to control and manage the way she was seen, Gevinson says, became an instinct, something she started to do without thought. “Somewhere along the line, I think I came to see my shareable self as the authentic one,” she writes. “And buried any tendencies that might threaten her likability so deep down I forgot they even existed.”
Instagram is the most obvious example of a platform on which we mould and manage this authenticity. But celebrity video message sites are the other side of the coin: literal performances of intimacy and authenticity, provided at a small cost.
It’s why the lookalike videos don’t quite hit the spot, why they feel so uncomfortable and uncanny. Lookalikes are by definition unable to go through the rigmarole of performing intimacy or authenticity – they’re explicitly playing a part, not just implicitly. If you paid Gordon Ramsay fifty quid to wish you a happy birthday, what you’re getting isn’t authentic or intimate: it’s a performance. But the performance itself is sometimes enough – if it feels authentic or intimate, it’s sometimes enough. With a lookalike, this is impossible – thus exactingly revealing the inner machinations of the whole industry.
Are we looking for true authenticity when we pay a celebrity we like to send us a message? Probably not. Are they particularly entertaining? Only sometimes. But in a world in which the influencer has become the ultimate celebrity, there’s something refreshing about them, too.
Influencers want our time, our attention, our clicks, our likes; sometimes our money. What we get back is less clear. A sense of intimacy or connection? A fantasy life on which to project? A sense of aspiration? It’s not always obvious, in this very modern equation, what’s in it for us. Celebrity video messages are often tacky, sometimes even a little bleak. But they do have one thing going for them – the transaction, on both sides, is far more clear.