A fan has spotted Ben Fogle. I’m talking to the British TV presenter on Hungerford Bridge, midway across the Thames, when we’re interrupted by a kindly, late-middle-aged woman in thick glasses and a long black puffer coat.

She watches all Fogle’s shows, she tells him, and has just celebrated her birthday. “Happy birthday,” he says warmly, before giving her a cheeky look. “Twenty-nine, I presume?”

She giggles, slightly overcome. Fogle is exactly like his TV persona, posh and cheerful in a grey woollen vest, green neckerchief and sturdy boots. The fan asks if she can take a photo with him, so we pause our interview for them to pose together in the bright sunlight, beaming at the smartphone held by her wispy-haired husband.

Fogle is used to this. Though he’s not a big movie star, a career presenting cosy nature shows on television has earned him a fan base who think of him as a friend, a teatime favourite, part of their everyday lives. He can rarely walk anywhere in London without someone stopping him for a photograph. Most of the time he’s happy to oblige. After all, these are the people who watch his shows, buy his books and ultimately pay his bills. But these days he has a new way to interact with fans using the Cameo app, which allows anyone to commission a personalised two-minute video of him for £73.

He currently has three unfulfilled requests on Cameo. At times, he tells me, when one of his shows has just aired, he can get up to 20 a day. One is from a man named Ben (“Good name, that!” Fogle roars), who wants to get a video as a birthday gift for his wife Chloe, who he says is a little shy and could use some encouragement. Fogle hits record and switches instantly into the exaggerated enthusiasm of daytime television. “Hello Chloe, Ben Fogle here. I hear you’re turning 24, which makes you exactly half my age. That makes me a little bit depressed.”

Throughout the recording, he modulates deftly between humour and sincerity. After a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday”, sung with the brisk tunefulness of a sea shanty, he pauses before staring earnestly into the camera. “Never give up, Chloe, the world is your oyster.” Despite the surreal nature of the situation, watching Fogle project genuine emotion to an absent, unknown fan, I can’t help but feel charmed. If I were a diehard Ben Fogle fan, the video would make my day.

Fogle is one of more than 50,000 celebrities on Cameo, a number growing swiftly each year. Like a lot of apps that allow novel forms of digital communication, Cameo’s popularity exploded during the pandemic. However, unlike flash-in-the-pan Covid-19 tech successes such as the video chatroom Houseparty or audio-only Clubhouse, which floundered when real-world contact resumed, Cameo has doubled down on its success and continues to expand. It is today valued at more than $1bn.

Cameo may look like a celebrity-soaked gimmick, a novelty, but its founders have gleaned something new about what it means to be both a celebrity and a fan in the 21st century. And now they’re determined to occupy every inch of the space between the two.

I meet two of Cameo’s founders in their suite at the Rosewood London hotel in Holborn. Steven Galanis, 34, worked as an options trader and then at LinkedIn before starting Cameo, where he is now the business end of the operation, focused on “building the brand and scaling the machine”. He sits on a sofa wearing grey sweatpants and a chunky silver watch beside Martin Blencowe, a 35-year-old Brit based in Los Angeles, who has a golden tan, muscles born of long stretches in the gym and fashionable trainers so blindingly white they may never have touched the street.

It’s Blencowe’s job to wrangle celebrities into joining the app — just that morning he had spotted film star Jason Momoa in the lobby and tried to tempt him on to Cameo (Momoa has yet to join).

Not present is the third co-founder, 31-year-old Devon Townsend, a former star of defunct video platform Vine, who oversees product and design.

Top: Cameo’s most prolific video-maker James Buckley, star of the British sitcom ‘The Inbetweeners’, and (above) Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska; there are many more Republicans offering their services on Cameo than Democrats © Sam Taylor

Galanis narrates Cameo’s soaring success during the pandemic while Blencowe flicks through his phone. When Covid-19 shut down concerts, cinemas and conventions, entertainers were left without work or a way to interact with their fans. Many adapted by embracing technology: musicians performed impromptu gigs on Instagram Live, comedians did live sets on Twitch and stars like Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish and BTS staged ambitious ticketed virtual concerts. While celebrities faced the sudden loss of income and connection to their fans, audiences were isolated at home and desperate for ways to communicate with each other, seeking to brighten up their housebound existence. It was perfect timing for Cameo.

Galanis doesn’t disclose revenue figures and claims the company currently “has no desire to be profitable”, focusing instead on “investing in growth”. The first year of the pandemic saw the business grow more than fourfold and staff double to more than 200 employees. In 2019, 30,000 celebrities on the platform recorded 350,000 videos. In 2020, 40,000 recorded more than a million videos. In 2021 the number of celebrities surpassed 50,000.

“Celebrity” is a word used lightly here.

Cameo prefers the term “talent”, and there are few megastars on the roster. No Brad Pitt, Adele or Lil Nas X. The most recognisable names — Sarah Jessica Parker, Floyd Mayweather, Jerry Springer, Dick Van Dyke, Snoop Dogg, John Cleese, Lindsay Lohan, David Hasselhoff — are no longer at the height of their careers.

The cynical take on Cameo is that it’s a platform for washed-up celebs to cash in on nostalgia.

Galanis says that having the biggest stars is not really the point. Their promise is not a personalised video from the most famous person in the world, but rather a message from the niche celebrity that means the world to the recipient — the drummer from their favourite indie band, an actor from the 1980s detective show they watch to unwind, a dancer they follow on TikTok. The Ben Fogles of the world. Eighty per cent of Cameos are sent as gifts, and the videos become a token of friendship, a way to show someone that you really know them.

In order to get on the platform you must be deemed a “person of note” by Cameo, usually meaning you have about 25,000 followers on Instagram. Categories on the app include actors like Succession’s Brian Cox, alongside musicians, athletes, comedians and more eccentric offerings. At the time of writing there are 100 celebrity impressionists, five astrologers, 381 animals, 19 venture capitalists, 55 magicians, 13 Santas and one astronaut.

The “politics” category has many more Republicans on offer than Democrats, including Rudy Giuliani, Anthony Scaramucci and Sarah Palin. “When you have a reality star as president for four years,” says Galanis, “the entire administration becomes famous because it was all like one big, bad TV show.”

James Buckley, star of British sitcom The Inbetweeners, is the most prolific video-maker on Cameo, fulfilling 10,000 video requests in 2020. Comedians like him arguably create the best content. “On Instagram you have to be hot, on Cameo you have to be funny,” Galanis says. Through Cameo, celebrities have become a curiously postmodern unit of communication between people they’ve never met: one man even proposed to his girlfriend using a video from Matthew Perry, aka Chandler from Friends.

While writing this piece, the company provided me with credits to try out the service for myself. First, I requested a birthday message for my brother from Tiger King’s Carole Baskin. She merrily wished my brother a “happy catty birthday” and, as requested, name-checked all the cats he has ever owned.

Better was the video from former Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, who I asked to lambast my housemate for putting his feet on the sofa and hoarding mugs in his bedroom. Bercow’s performance, born of a decade corralling MPs, was superb, as he delivered his message “in terms which brook of no contradiction” and threatened “condign punishment” if my housemate didn’t get his act together, finishing, naturally, by bellowing “Order, order!” in his trademark growl. Although both videos made me squirm when I first saw them — perhaps at the unsettling elision of my television and my personal life — they were received by their intended recipients with unreserved glee.

Despite the success of these gifts, I wondered why it is that people are willing to pay hundreds of pounds for a brief video of a celebrity wishing them happy birthday. “When it comes to celebrity culture and the evolution of the media, the constant has been our desire for access,” says Hannah Yelin, senior lecturer in media and culture at Oxford Brookes University and author of Celebrity Memoir: from Ghostwriting to Gender Politics. “Look back in history and where there are famous people, there are audiences wanting access to the ‘real person’ behind the public image, and the media of the day trying to deliver that.”

Throughout the history of celebrity — which historian Greg Jenner traces back to an early-18th-century Anglican clergyman called Henry Sacheverell who was so popular his face appeared on plates — technological advances have enabled famous people to achieve a greater reach and increased intimacy with fans.

In his book Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen, Jenner explains how the potential of celebrity was amplified by the advent of daily newspapers and mass production, transport revolutions and photography, recorded sound, film, television and, of course, the internet. Cameo allows celebrities to now speak to individual fans personally. “The distance between the fan and celebrity is collapsed with Cameo,” Jenner tells me, “because the technology is so slimline that it’s almost imperceptible.”

Recent technologies have given birth to a massive new audience that Cameo sets squarely in its sights. These are the superfans who organise online to follow their chosen celebrity’s every move and buy their every product. While there is some historical precedent for such groups, the internet has permitted them to grow exponentially, uniting as Taylor Swift’s “Swifties”, Beyoncé’s “Beyhive” and Lady Gaga’s “Little Monsters”.

Such groups are also known as “stans”, a reference to the Eminem song that tells the story of an obsessive fan named Stan who ultimately kills himself and his pregnant girlfriend when his idol never replies to his messages. Toxic behaviours characterise some strata of superfandom today, as fan groups can savagely bully perceived threats to their chosen celebrity.

Nevertheless, it has now become an essential component of every star’s PR strategy to cultivate stans, building hype before new releases and offering exclusive access to the dedicated. Galanis noticed that this was a profitable space but wondered why monetising superfans was only an option for the ultra-famous. Why not extend this opportunity lower down the celebrity food chain and place Cameo in the middle of every transaction? “At Cameo we want to build better tools to help talent, at scale, manage their fans and turn casual fans into rabid superfans,” he says.

It was not immediately obvious how Cameo’s founders would tempt the first celebrities to join the platform. At first they had just one, the American football player Cassius Marsh, whom they convinced to Tweet offering personalised videos for $20 each. The plan backfired when Marsh received negative feedback online and their rudimentary website for taking orders broke down. They ultimately received just one request, from a father for his daughter, a massive fan of Marsh’s team.

The father filmed the moment that his daughter received her message. “She’s watching the video and she literally starts crying she’s so happy,” says Galanis. “It ends with her saying: ‘Oh my god, how did you do this?’ And he goes: ‘Daddy’s awesome, that’s how.’ If we made a Super Bowl commercial, we could not have come up with a better piece of content.”

This moment not only showed that there was a market for their idea, but also unlocked how they could entice celebrities on to their unknown platform. “The second we had that reaction video, it wasn’t about the money or talent,” says Galanis. “It was, don’t you want to make people feel like this?”

Every celebrity I spoke to who uses Cameo said the fan responses are the main reason they use the app. When I was standing with Ben Fogle by the Thames, he showed me a positive review he had just received, which read: “Best birthday gift ever. This made us laugh so much — we haven’t laughed enough lately. Five stars.”

“This is the essence of why I do it,” Fogle said.

“Of course there’s the money reason, and the fact I’m providing a service, but mostly it’s putting a smile on people’s faces and a spring in their step.”

Cameo’s promise to celebrities is that they can make money while becoming more famous and beloved. Galanis argues that the financial incentive is crucial because today there are an increasing number of people who are famous but not rich. Digital media has created more avenues to celebrity than ever before, but opportunities to make money in entertainment have not grown at a commensurate rate.

For many of the talent, Cameo becomes a useful stream of supplemental income. For others it’s more than this — by the end of 2020, more than 150 Cameo talents made more than $100,000 per year from the platform. A fan is two things to a celebrity: a market for their products and an emotional support, a source of validation, affection and respect. Cameo succeeds because it provides a platform to access both.

The other celebrity need that Cameo fulfils is more complex and distinctly modern. Famous people, especially of the social media generation, are expected to share their lives online nowadays. Each Cameo talent I interviewed manages their own social media presence and sees it as an important part of building their brand. Yet this brings problems: they feel a pressure to always be available, to share everything, to navigate blurred boundaries between their public and private lives. Worse are the savage instances of trolling and abuse that regularly occur in comment sections and can prove genuinely wounding.

“It’s pretty hideous,” says Fogle. “The comments are 99 per cent really lovely, but the 1 per cent leave a dark shadow. They can be pretty nasty and really ruin your day.” Oliver Phelps, who plays George Weasley in the Harry Potter films and is one of Cameo’s biggest stars, says people have created fake profiles on social media pretending to be his family members to access his personal photos, calling it “this massive intrusion which I hate”. It is now seen as an occupational hazard for actresses to receive cruel comments about their bodies and for footballers to receive racist abuse or even death threats for losing an important match.

“You’re just not wired for that,” says Jenner. “No one understands when they’re becoming a celebrity, they’re signing a deal with the devil. It’s a Faustian pact but you don’t get to read the terms and conditions until you’ve already signed it.”

Cameo argues that it doesn’t have to be this way. Because of its paywall, the app filters out the majority of abuse. While trolls can send nasty messages on Instagram or Twitter for free, few are willing to forgo their anonymity and pay $100 to say something horrible to a celebrity on Cameo. Celebrities can also turn down any request they don’t feel comfortable fulfilling; about 5 per cent of all Cameo requests are rejected or allowed to expire. Several celebrities told me that compared to their social media accounts, Cameo feels like a safe, manageable space where they are more in control, signposting a way for celebrities to have healthier relationships with their fans. “Cameo is great because there are boundaries,” says Phelps.

That doesn’t mean that a few bad requests don’t slip through the net. One of the worst controversies to rock Cameo was in 2018 when NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre, alongside actor and comedian Andy Dick and rapper Soulja Boy, unwittingly recorded Cameo videos with messages that contained coded anti-Semitic language.

More recently, Carole Baskin was tricked into recording a birthday message that was nominally for convicted child sex offender Rolf Harris in which she said, “The kids wanted to get together and tell you that you have really touched them,” and Nigel Farage was fooled into saying the Irish republican slogan “Up the ‘Ra” in a video. In each case, the controversy hit the headlines but the celebrities stayed on the platform and Cameo rolled on regardless.

Besides the sensational stories of these hoaxes, there is a deeper critique that some users have with the way Cameo works. When I first heard about the app, my gut response was that there was something unsavoury about celebrities selling themselves so baldly, that the grid of famous faces, each accompanied by a price tag, was distasteful. Wasn’t it dehumanising for these people to hold up their hands and admit they are merely financial units in an entertainment machine, for anyone to buy or review?

The celebrity users I spoke to also expressed doubts about whether it was right for them to sell videos to fans. Each of them admitted to being reluctant to join Cameo at first. “I couldn’t quite work out whether it was something I wanted to do or not,” Fogle told me. “I would never charge people if they came up and wanted a video on the street, or for an autograph. So does it feel wrong to be monetising videos for people? I still don’t know quite where I stand with it.”

Others, such as actors Sophie Skelton and Oliver Phelps, told me they reconciled their discomfort when they saw how happy receiving videos made their fans. This convinced them to stay.

It was only after spending time on the app that I got to the heart of what was making me uneasy. Cameo strips away the glamour, however faded, and reveals celebrity culture for what it truly is, and has always been: a product. This transparency may be unpalatable, but it is preferable to the blurry ethics around branded posts on celebrities’ Instagram accounts, where the constant performance of authenticity means it can be hard to tell where real life ends and advertising begins. Hearing both fans and celebrities explain how neatly Cameo suits the needs of the 21st-century fandom machine helped me realise the app fulfils a uniquely current need.

Top: TV presenter Ben Fogle charges £73 for a two-minute video on Cameo, actor Miriam Margolyes (above) ‘from £126’. Fogle likes the fact that the app’s paywall effectively filters out trolls: ‘They can be pretty nasty and really ruin your day’ © Sam Taylor

By allowing celebrities to monetise their fans directly without traditional middlemen — the record labels, publishers or agents — Cameo aligns with a wider trend, the rise of the so-called creator economy. Platforms such as Patreon, Substack, Bandcamp and OnlyFans, for example, allow creators to sell directly to audiences. “I think we’re part of this larger movement,” says Galanis. “We believe very deeply that direct-to-fan monetisation is the future of the entertainment industry, music and sports.”

While celebrities can take more direct control of their finances and fanbases using these services, they would do well to treat Galanis’s argument that the gatekeepers have been removed with a healthy scepticism. The middlemen may be cut out of the equation, but there is now a tech platform in their place, which could change its rules at any time.

We saw the threat of this last year when OnlyFans announced it would ban all adult content — leaving many sex workers who found the platform safe and profitable scrabbling for alternatives — only to reverse course after a public outcry. The incident was a reminder that any tech platform that has the ability to empower also has the ability to disempower.

Meanwhile, Cameo is creating new products. Its VIP Fan Clubs are an imitation of OnlyFans, allowing users to pay a subscription to receive exclusive content from specific stars. The recent acquisition of celebrity merchandise company Represent moves Cameo into the realm of physical products. Cameo Calls allows users to pay a premium to have a live one-to-one video call with a celebrity — Cameo set up a two-minute call between myself and saxophonist Kenny G, which was just enough time to ask about his haircare regime and receive a brief serenade.

This would usually cost about £256. “At this point, we have laid the foundation to be competing in every single major arena where talent monetise today,” says Galanis.

The company has also been trialling more experimental products. It is moving into the lucrative children’s market by partnering with Disney and Universal to offer videos from animated characters such as Mickey Mouse and Boss Baby. Meanwhile, Blencowe has been filming a travel show with Phelps and his brother James (Fred Weasley in the Harry Potter films), leveraging their success on Cameo to expand into other kinds of content. This is currently being trialled outside the company brand but could be brought in-house if it’s successful.

The talent I spoke to felt positive about continuing to use Cameo in the future. “With how much it’s grown in three years, I think that within the next three years Cameo will become a new kind of Instagram, the new norm,” says Skelton. The app has achieved success because it identified and met a desire that celebrities had — to monetise their fanbases in a safe, manageable space — and one that fans had — to continue their pursuit of ever-greater access to the celebrities they love. While some may baulk at the naked commercialism of it all, if fans or celebrities aren’t happy with Cameo, they can simply decide not to use it.

Though Galanis prioritises the success of his business, he seems genuine in his belief that helping people connect with the stars they love is meaningful. When I tell him about the moment that the fan approached Fogle on the bridge to ask for a selfie, he beams. “That woman happened upon him on the streets of London,” he says, “what are the chances that you’re walking on the street and you see the person you love? It’s so random that it’s almost impossible. The thing that’s cool is that here, via the paywall, the access, everything we’re facilitating, we’re letting people pay for serendipity.”

Tom Faber writes a weekly gaming column for FT Arts

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