From Snoop Dogg to Barry from EastEnders: The bizarre rise of the celeb video message

Mandy Moore, Natasha Bedingfield, Taylor Swift impersonator Christina Shaw, Snoop Dogg, Shaun Williamson and YouTuber Jesus Christ: Cameo/Celeb VM
Mandy Moore, Natasha Bedingfield, Taylor Swift impersonator Christina Shaw, Snoop Dogg, Shaun Williamson and YouTuber Jesus Christ: Cameo/Celeb VM

What’s the best way to say “I love you” to the most special people in your life? Get Barry from EastEnders to do it? Have Big Keith from The Office compose a poem? Maybe pay a fake Taylor Swift to sing “Shake It Off” to your nan? Celebrity video messaging sites have an A-lister – or a Z-lister – for every occasion and have been popular for a while but since lockdown began, their rise into everyday consciousness has been as meteoric as Barnard Castle-based attempts to insult the public’s intelligence.

Bookings at US site Cameo, whose roster varies from Snoop Dogg to Love Island’s Josh Kempton, have shot up sevenfold, piling on 63,000 extra customers a week since January. Ten times as many people want the services of Paul Chuckle, Winston from Ghostbusters and Rebecca Adlington, according to video messaging service Celeb VM. Another site, Studio 54 – home to ex-Holby City star Leslie Ash, Crabbe from Harry Potter plus the mother-in-law of Grindah from People Just Do Nothing – said, in an interview, that it had seen a 60 per cent rise in business. And the content that people are requesting is much more personal than you’d expect.

“A lot of people want to send a hug to people that they can’t go and see – their uncle, their granny, even their children,” says Boycie from Only Fools and Horses, real name John Challis. He’s Celeb VM’s most-booked celebrity, ahead of Danny John Jules and Lord of The Rings/Lost actor Dominic Monaghan. He’s been recording video messages for six years since being approached about it at Wales Comic Con and has seen a massive rise in requests, particularly motivational messages to keep people struggling through difficult times. “You get a lot of stories of people who’ve lost loved ones and are feeling very alone. You think: ‘I’m just a comedy actor, what am I doing?’ But people keep saying they’re cheered up by it.”

Even celebrity impersonators have found themselves asked to help people stay strong. “It always strikes me as odd,” laughs Mike Osman, who spends 70 per cent of his time recording messages as Donald Trump, replete with a puppet version of Kim Jong Un. He’s stained himself orange and informed parents that their child is having a baby. He’s used a whiny presidential accent to thank loved ones just for being themselves. And one of his more memorable recent requests for an inspirational video was to reassure a 14-year-old girl whose father was trapped abroad by coronavirus.

“And he chose Donald Trump!” laughs Osman. “When his daughter sees that video she will be filled with either horror or delight, but it’ll be a talking point for the rest of their lives: the day that dad was stuck in Dubai and he chose Donald Trump to deliver a message to a 14-year-old girl.”

There are virtual graduation celebrations available from Natasha Bedingfield, who will don a mortarboard and sing a couple of verses of her hit “Unwritten” for £249. There are porn stars, Instagram-famous chihuahuas and Anthony Scaramucci. One of the real breakout hits of Covid-19, though? On Cameo, it’s the videos being supplied by bit-part players in Netflix’s Tiger King. You can book messages from two of Joe Exotic’s husbands, the poor zookeeper whose forearm was bitten off by a tiger and the scary guy who most definitely did not head to Florida to murder Carol Baskin.

These types of videos have become increasingly popular in the Instagram age but Cameo CEO Steven Galanis thinks that the appetite for video messages from reality TV stars has been around since much, much earlier. “This is a trend that’s as old as humankind,” he says. “Look at the ancient Greeks: since they were doing the first Olympics, people have been leaving their mark on cuneiform tablets. People have always looked up to people and always wanted some memento of meeting them. This is just the next evolution.”

With the addition of a price list, it’s also the source of some brilliant celeb maths. If you trawl the human menus of various websites, where you can see how much it costs per video per celeb, you can conclude that:

1. Katie Hopkins is only as valuable as someone pretending to be Joe Exotic (£41.50);

2. Paul Danan thinks he’s worth twice as much as a two-time gold-medal-winning Olympic athlete (£67 v £30);

3. People will pay more money for Paul Chuckle than they will for Jesus Christ (£30 v £23.24).

While there’s something slightly strange about seeing the precise price tag put upon a celebrity appearance, some of the stars see this as one of the best things about the phenomenon.

“I think it’s encouraging for people to think: I’ve seen him on the telly and he’s in the same boat as me, he’s just trying to make a living as well,” says Challis. “Now that theatres are closed, my whole livelihood has just disappeared. We’re all in this together and I think this shows that.”

Some celebrity video message creators have gone even further to promote our national togetherness in the face of an unstoppable virus. Ex-model Linda Lusardi is waiving all fees for Celeb VM messages going to NHS staff and coronavirus sufferers and is ambassador for an online memorial site for victims called Rainbow Remembers, having nearly died of the disease in March. “I think it helps to hear from someone who’s been very close to losing their life to it,” she says of her video messages where she urges people on the brink to imagine themselves healing or returning home to their loved ones. “Although sometimes you get requests that say: ‘This person hasn’t got long left’. Those messages can be quite difficult to word.”

Celebrity video messaging bizarrely turns out to be a surprising force for good in the fight against an international pandemic. Cameo raised $725,000 (£586,000) to support Covid-19 relief efforts in a three-day livestream featuring the likes of Mike Tyson, Akon and Mandy Moore. Coronation Street’s Steve McDonald is also offering free Celeb VM messages to NHS workers and Covid-19 victims after going through the disease himself. Even Natasha Bedingfield’s graduation ceremonies are to raise money for charity.

“I did one recently for this poor mum whose son was in a coma after coming off a motorbike”, says Challis, who also does zero-fee videos to lift the spirits of NHS and care home staff. “He’s an Only Fools and Horses fan, so they asked me if I’d do a message to try to coax him out of it. They’re going to keep playing it to him over and over.”

Not all the requests are quite so inspirational, though. Comedians are often requested to do insults (“I get a lot of Trump bookings for people who hate Trump”, says Osman). Challis once had to turn down a divorcee’s request to taunt their ex-partner on the anniversary of their split (“I thought it was a bit much!”). And the customer that Cameo staff talk of most frequently is the foot fetishist who’d trawl their roster, asking for videos where they wiggle their toes. “S**t like that happens, but we bring people together and people are weird,” chuckles Galanis.

Eventually, though, lockdown will end. Does that mean celeb video messages will start to peter out? “Actually, I think you’ll see bigger and bigger names come on to the platform,” says Galanis. “Stars are increasingly turning to their fans for direct monetisation. And frankly, the talent really enjoy this. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, any time you can get closer to your fans, that’s great.” Whether the public will want to use these platforms as much is another matter. But so long as Barry from EastEnders is still on there, they’ve got a chance.

Read more

How lockdown has led to the creation of brilliant art

Natasha Bedingfield

will don a mortarboard and sing a couple of verses of her hit “Unwritten” for £249

Instagram-famous chihuahuas

Anthony Scaramucci


by bit-part players in Netflix’s Tiger King

Joe Exotic

the poor zookeeper whose forearm was bitten off by a tiger

the scary guy who most definitely did not head to Florida to murder Carol Baskin