What’s your pandemic guilty pleasure? My wife is cooking up a storm, my son is binging all 222 episodes of “Phineas and Ferb” and my daughter is posting dances to TikTok. Me? I’ve hired actress and comedian Jackie Hoffman ($20) as my personal avatar.
You know how it is: My cousin graduates and we can’t have a party. My father dies and I can’t hug my sister. I think we all need a virtual Cyrano to keep us connected in our age of social distancing. And I found mine on Cameo.com.
A few years ago when I first heard of Cameo I was embarrassed to even know it existed. As Ice-T ($350) explains on the site, “What you do is… you book me… and I send a shout-out to one of your good friends, or tell one of your enemies you don’t give a [expletive] about them…” In the world of Cameo, every celebrity has a price, commodifying their status into a service for hire. “I handle your business,” Ice-T explains, “For you.” When did the price of fame fall so low?
When I next heard of Cameo, they were in the news. And I could make little sense of it. Brett Favre ($300) was anti-Semitic. Wait, that wasn’t right. Okay, Favre said he was “distressed” that the things he said in a video for Cameo - the coded hate-speech he read on behalf of two anti-Semitic groups that hired him - would be seen as an endorsement. So he would be donating his fee to fight hatred and bigotry. I am not one to admire anti-Semites (being quite Semitic myself), but I couldn’t fail to appreciate their having done it for the LOLZ. That is, they used Cameo to turn a celebrity into a ventriloquist’s dummy, unaware of his complicity in weaponizing the power of fame.
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Then came COVID-19 and the world was turned inside out. Or more like, outside in, as now we all lived in a state of infinite isolation. When my daughter’s 5th grade performance was cancelled, I recalled Cameo. Was there a performer she admired who could give her a pep talk? I searched Cameo for Disney’s High School Musical. I found Julia Lester ($40.99), who starred in the television series. “I am thinking about you,” she told my daughter. “I love you. Appreciate you. And am cheering you on.” My daughter loved it. It made her day. I was hooked.
Hooked, but not yet addicted. That arrived later when I discovered the availability of Jackie Hoffman. I’ve seen Jackie Hoffman on Broadway, in both Hairspray and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She always makes me laugh. And on Cameo, she’s a riot. Cameo is not social media. You can’t scroll an endless feed of “I want to wish you a happy birthday…” But many celebrities offer up to six of their most recent.
Jackie had starred in the Broadway take on the movie Xanadu. I almost cried, from laughter, watching her hilarious and sweet video for the musical teacher whose high school Xanadu was cancelled, to share with his 100+ crushed teen thespians. It’s an odd type of virtual voyeurism, like going into people’s homes and reading their Hallmark cards. And her price was just right for me. Instead of one Joonas Suotamo ($100, Chewbacca in Star Wars) I can get five Jackie’s; instead of one Debbie Gibson ($200) I can get ten Jackie’s!
My weekly habit began with my sister. When my dad died it was heartbreaking that we were unable to support each other in person. We spent three full days sitting shiva together on Zoom yet we could never once hug. So I hired Jackie through the standard request form, which allows a mere 250 characters to provide context for the video. An enhanced Twitter message doesn’t provide a lot of space to explain that your dad died of COVID-19 and that you can’t see your sister who lives 20 minutes away so can you please make her laugh because living alone it’s heartbreaking and if you can work in these bizarre references to our time with my dad she’s going to love it.
Requesting a Cameo is like an improv show, where a performer riffs on words shouted-out by an audience. Jackie is perfect for Cameo because, as a comedian, she knows how to work so hard with so little. I couldn’t be there with my sister but Jackie could handle my business for me.
For my son’s birthday I combined voice celebrities he loved like Deedee Magno Hall ($65), voice of Pearl from Steven Universe, and John DiMaggio ($100), voice of Jake from Adventure Time, with Jackie pretending to be the voices of the celebrities I couldn’t find (or afford) into a 9-minute movie. “I play the voice of Malcolm Gladwell on his podcast,” she said. “I play all the voices on Gravity Falls.” Jackie in fact does neither.
A week later she made a video thanking my friend for running the online funeral for my dad, and the shiva that followed (“That’s a lot of Zoom white fish. My yarmulke is off to you.”). And when my colleagues sent me a condolence basket, I thanked them with a message from Jackie. She roasted my friend who escaped to a farm in the Berkshires. And when it came to my cousin graduating from college, Jackie helped me draw outside the lines, bending Cameo to my will.
Like with my son’s birthday, I decided my cousin would appreciate a video, as he heads to Hollywood to follow his dreams. Along with a new one from Jackie I combined big ticket prizes, like comedian Gilbert Gottfried ($150), with the budget options, like reality show contestant Lili Davies ($10). And using the mobile app Acapella, my sister and I collaborated on creating a late night talk show format as context for our “guests” coming to cheer my cousin on. The challenge was my asks were growing increasingly obscure. I couldn’t explain all the in- jokes I wanted referenced, nor how I wanted to weave the videos together in a debate about whether my cousin should become the personal dishwasher for either Gilbert Gottfried or Louie Anderson ($149). Eventually I found myself just sending lists of words and phrases, asking the celebrities to work them into any sentence they could imagine: debt, Disney World, dirty sneakers, Hollywood dreams, five guys in a basket eating a donut. I was no longer just offering quick cash; I was inviting celebrities to take a leap of faith. They had to trust me. If I abused that trust, I was no better than the trolls making sports figures spout coded hate speech. When I received my first decline (which was far from my last) I took it as a sign of hope. Some celebrities had lines they wouldn’t cross.
And for those who took that leap, who accepted my absurd requests, they often made sure we knew they were in on the joke, not the butt of it. As Jacki said with a straight face at the end of her video for my cousin, “I am being held captive and being forced to say these things against my will.” Captive by an economic system that melds performance and celebrity into a commodity, indeed, but one in which she can find power to make comedy gold, personalized for the hapless souls that need her voice during these chaotic times.
As long as she is willing to play this game with me, I’ll continue to ask Jackie to celebrate on my behalf, to mourn on my behalf, to offer a pep talk on my behalf. And when the pandemic is behind us, when I can manage my business on my own, I can’t yet imagine how I will look back on the new relationships I’ve formed, with those like Jackie Hoffman, with those who have been my celebrity doppelgangers for hire. But I know I’ll have the video record to show for it.
And, of course, a final word from Jackie…
Barry Joseph is the author of Seltzertopia: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary Drink, and most recently in the Forward about his father’s virtual funeral.