We Paid Marla Maples to Talk to Us


Marla Maples, clad in a camel-colored turtleneck and white blazer, is telling me all about her astrological belief system. She’s at home, with her orchids, and making strong eye contact. But even though I’ve asked her whether she believes in moon signs, I can’t nod or respond or even figure out whether it’s a crystal that’s dangling around her neck. The video is a bit pixelated; I’ve paid for what ended up being an illuminating one-minute-and-twenty-two-second look into Maples’ life.

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You, too, can watch a slightly uncomfortable looking Maples in her New York City apartment, and it’ll only cost you $22; for that price, she’ll wish your friend a happy birthday, offer your sister congratulations on a new job, or talk you through a break up. That’s thanks to Cameo, an easy to use site with an iOS app that launched Friday, that offers personalized video shoutouts from a growing number of reality TV stars, vloggers I’ve never heard of, pro-athletes, Instagram comedians, and other low-level stars no longer tied to anything who are now just called “personalities.” On Cameo, you place an order with instructions (name, pronunciation, relevant details, what you want the celebrity to say), and talent can accept or decline your request. If the talent accepts, they have a week to make the shoutout; if they don’t, your credit card isn’t charged. (Sadly, Arie Luyendyk Jr. rejected my request to tell me if he believes in aliens and/or ghosts.)

People have used Cameo for all sorts of things, from celeb-assisted proposals to wedding day congratulations to a baby gender reveal courtesy of whatever hard rocker the mom-to-be is a fan of. About 97% are purchased as gifts, and many are made for friends.

In fact, the whole thing started because Martin Blencowe was just trying to be a good friend. In October 2016, he was the agent for then-Seattle Seahawks defensive player Cassius Marsh, and he asked him to record a video for a friend who’d just had a baby. “Hey Brandon,” the shirtless Marsh says in the clip, filmed while riding in the back of a car. “I just wanted to say congratulations on [the baby] Maverick and I’m sure if he gets your athletic ability he’ll be playing for the Seahawks one day, man.” Marsh points to his Seahawks hat and signs off with a “Go Hawks.”

While visiting his former coworker Steven Galanis in L.A., Blencowe showed him the clip. “That ten second video changed my life,” Cameo CEO/co-founder Galanis tells me, sounding sincere. (It’s actually twelve seconds long.)

What interested Galanis wasn’t so much the video itself, but the response it got. New-dad and mega-Seahawks-fan Brandon, who Galanis says is “pretty high up at Nike’s branding department,” posted the clip to Instagram and called it one of the best gifts of his life.

“If someone at Nike who can get access to any professional athlete in the world is impressed by an average Seahawk, we wondered how impressed somebody who doesn’t have that access would be,” Galanis says. In March 2017, they launched Cameo with a handful of low-level professional athletes to find out. Friend and former Vine star Devon Townsend built the site and suggested that the platform might work for YouTube vloggers and Instagram comedians too. He was right. Today, the two top performing people on the site are Vine comedians Nick Colletti and Evan Breen.

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Then came the Real Housewives. Sonja Morgan was the first to join, Galanis tells me. Then he pauses, mid-conversation, to check that it was, in fact, Morgan who was first. “They all have got their own egos,” he says, laughing. He confirms Morgan, followed by Vicki Gunvalson of Orange County, then some other New York Housewives; Bethenny isn’t on the site, Carole is, and Tinsley was but is currently on hiatus and unrequestable.

Cameo crowd-sources talent ideas from their users, whose request for Sonja led them to DM her on Instagram. They recruit talent and also allow talent to request to join the platform; 20,000 Instagram followers is the barrier for entry. Once on the platform, stars set their own rate, and Cameo takes a 25 percent cut for each video. (The company says so far, 28,000 Cameos have been purchased). “We recommend talent start at around $20,” says Abbie Sheppard, the co-head of talent relations. “Some people come on and charge too high to begin with and then we can see that there are lots of people on their page, but no one’s actually booking them. Usually, $150 is the highest we’ll recommend anyone go.” Pricing seems somewhat arbitrary. Morgan’s rate is $59, but former Beverly Hills Real Housewife Brandi Glanville charges $75 and Vicki Gunvalson, of the Orange County show, commands $90.

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Dorinda Medley joined a few months ago and set her rate at $50, not certain that anyone would take her up on the offer. A minute later, she had her first request. Soon after, she was getting ten to fifteen requests a day. Medley has since raised her price to $75, but the requests keep coming. She’s done over 300 videos, including a few re-dos for fans who weren’t happy with the initial take.

In one video, Medley offers advice to a new mom going back to work after maternity leave. The video has a slightly nausea-inducing quality because Medley is rocking back and forth; she points out that she’s in the very chair that she used to rock her own daughter Hannah, now a twenty-something. “Here’s the secret,” she said, “I worked the whole time I was raising Hannah…It’s not the amount of time you spend with your children, it’s the quality of time.” Watching this Cameo that isn’t meant for me, I’m surprised to find myself a bit moved. Then Medley spins out a bit, as is her way—“Make it nice. Keep it moving,” she added—before returning to her message about how it’s healthy for moms to take time away from their kids. From start to finish, it’s forty seconds long.

“Early on, we learned the power of saying people’s names,” Galanis tells me, citing a video Vicki Gunvalson did. In a motivational message, Gunvalson mentions the cancer type (breast), treatment (radiation), status (done), and signs off with a kiss. “Very bummed,” the reviewer wrote. “It was very generic and didn’t even use her name. I feel like she could use this for anyone going through breast cancer.”

“People just want to hear their favorite people say their name,” Galanis says. A successful Cameo is not just personal, but personalized. “My favorite part—and also the part that made it especially surreal for me—is that Ramona calls me ‘Poodle,’ which is what Charlie and I call each other,” 27-year-old Allie Holtzman says of a Cameo her friend had Real Housewife Ramona Singer make for her.

If the selfie with celeb is the autograph of our era, then what is the personalized video shoutout?

If the selfie with celeb is the autograph of our era, as Galanis suggests, then what exactly is the personalized video shoutout? It offers the excitement of engagement and the thrill of intimacy, but from a remove. Somehow, it’s a non-interaction interaction that people find incredibly compelling.

The company doesn’t really need to shell out for advertising because the talent has to advertise if they want their fans to order videos. A lot of website referrals come from Instagram swipe ups. “We always say, ‘one Cameo is an advertisement for the next,’” I am told, by Cameo staffers. It sounds like a line, but it’s also true. Each video has a Cameo logo on the bottom corner, which some reviewers find tacky or annoying, but most don’t seem to mind. People post reaction videos on Instagram and Facebook, which helps spread the word.

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There are alternatives to Cameo, like one site where you can purchase a video shoutout from the voice of The Rugrats’ Tommy Pickles. But none have the startup-y color combo and easy to use interface Cameo does.

Since joining, Sonja Morgan has done over 900 videos, according to Cameo. At her $59 rate, she’s likely made nearly $40,000, and that’s excluding the 25% cut Cameo takes. Unlike the Housewives, many of Cameo’s biggest names do it for charity, or, at least, give a portion of the money they make from Cameo to charity. Recent Bachelor Arie Luyendyk Jr. and his fiance are raising funds for renal cancer on the site. HQ host Scott Rogowsky did a fundraiser for multiple sclerosis over Passover and Hanukkah.

While other celeb-adjacent companies might not be thrilled by a lack of A-listers, Cameo is nonplussed. They’d love to have huge names, but mostly, they want to offer the rest of the celeb alphabet a way to make money while engaging with followers. In fact, sometimes, it’s the lack of star-power that makes for a good Cameo. The team occasionally holds brainstorming sessions to come up with “throwback” celebrities to court for the platform. One recent name that came up? The mid-aughts singer Ryan Cabrera. “He was a staple from our teenage years, so we thought he’d be great,” Cameo’s COO Arthur Leopold says.

It’s true—Lindsay Heath, 32, hadn’t thought about Cabrera much since she was a teenager. “I was a big fan back in the Ashlee Simpson days,” she says “He did some mall tours when I was in high school and I met him at our local one when buying his CD.” When she got a text from her sister, the resulting video shocked her. “Why is he talking to me and how did he know details about my life?!” she reports wondering. Her sister, Courtney McCoy, 37, had instructed Cabrera to “tease her about having his poster up on her wall when she was a kid and to wish her a happy holiday.” Heath fired back by ordering a video from Tori Spelling, who the sisters used to watch on 90210. “Even though I’m not a huge fan, I was laughing my ass off and got a little teary eyed because it was so exciting,” McCoy said.

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Cabrera and Spelling are amongst 1,500 talent options. I emailed a dozen to ask about their experience on the site, and the lack of responses further proved my long-standing belief that there’s a bell-curve of celeb accessibility: the highest and lowest level stars are the hardest to get in touch with. The only response I got was from Bachelor in Paradise star Robbie Hayes. He invited me to meet him in the LA area, but since I live six-thousand miles away, I suggested a phone call. He never wrote back, nor did he respond to any follow up requests for an interview. I guess I should have just shelled out $50 for a Cameo and asked him my questions in the instructions; it says on the site that he typically responds on the platform in three days.

But isn’t it embarrassing that a Real Housewife is charging money for what amounts to a thirty-second video that takes almost no effort? No, is the answer I hear over and over from Cameo staffers. First of all, most Cameos are purchased as gifts, so the fan isn’t paying for the experience. Second of all, fans love it, so it’s actually good for the talent’s personal brand. “A lot of talent, even on the higher end, are still looking for additional revenue sources,” Leopold explains. He joined the company in July after experiencing “some serious FOMO” watching his two former Duke frat brothers (Galanis and CTO/co-founder Spinnler) working together.

“If Justin Bieber was at Coachella and saw a hundred dollar bill on the ground, he’d pick it up.”

“If Justin Bieber was at Coachella walking around and he saw a hundred dollar bill laying on the ground, he’d bend over and pick it up,” Leopold says. “That’s the thing [about Cameo], it’s so easy for them [to make the videos].” Bieber isn’t on the site, but he was at Coachella; no word on whether he found any hundos.

I don’t know why Maples is on the site, or if the money really matters to her, but while I was waiting to get my Cameo video back, I checked out her website. That’s where I found a truly confounding and deeply compelling music video for a song I didn’t know she’d made. I’m dying to ask her about it, and $22 doesn’t seem that steep.


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