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Actor Cara Ricketts records a video message on her cellphone in Toronto on Oct. 22, 2020. After the pandemic shut down Broadway, 'I thought that the best way to combat how small my world was getting was to reach out through social media,' she said.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Live venues are closed. Concert dates postponed. Television and movie productions scaled back.

What’s a celebrity to do?

Stuck at home like everyone else, a vast and growing number are turning to the Cameo app, where users can scroll through screen after screen of familiar (and unfamiliar) faces, find someone they like and request a personalized video message at a fee specified by the talent.

To name a few of the many Canadians on Cameo: Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary will do a shout-out for a product or service you’re trying to promote. K. Trevor Wilson of Letterkenny will wish you a “supersoft” birthday. Anne with an E’s Cara Ricketts will offer warm words of encouragement to those laid low by lockdowns. And Colin Mochrie might sing you a semi-improvised hoedown.

“Leading up to March, I believe, I was doing two different tours … and I was filming a movie,” says Mochrie, 62, the Toronto-based improv comic of Whose Line is it Anyway? fame.

“And then the next day, I was in the most vulnerable [age] group of a pandemic. So almost immediately, everything changed, and I came home.”

Now Cameo is “basically my only source of income.”

To date, Mochrie has filmed about 2,800 witty, personalized videos, for which he currently charges $100 (all figures USD).

What do you get for that money? “An incredible video by an international comedy icon,” he mock-boasts. “And possibly a hoedown.”

“I try to keep the video at least a minute and a half. So that’d be like, you know, almost a buck a second.”

Ninety seconds is generous for a Cameo video. As a result, he’s earned a perfect five-star rating out of 830-plus reviews.

Colin Mochrie, the Toronto-based improv comic of Whose Line is it Anyway? fame, might sing you a semi-improvised hoedown on Cameo.Handout

Mochrie’s fee puts him somewhere in the middle range of Cameo talent, on par with Drake’s dad, Dennis Graham ($100). That’s well below Tiger King’s Carole Baskin ($299), former Mexican president Vicente Fox ($300), Snoop Dogg ($900) and – with Cameo’s top fee – Caitlyn Jenner ($2,500), but above former MMA fighter Randy Couture ($50) and the guy who played Pinhead in one of the Hellraiser movies ($45).

The Chicago-based company, which launched in 2017, used to have an overabundance of second-tier athletes, Donald Trump impersonators and “where are they now?” reality TV stars. They’re all still there, but so are a lot more celebrity actors and musicians – ranging from Rosie O’Donnell to John Cleese, Ice Cube to Alice Cooper – as well as YouTube and TikTok stars. The talent pool has soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, now numbering in the tens of thousands.

“Immediately after stay-at-home orders came down, we saw our biggest influx of talent in our company’s history,” Cameo spokesperson Brandon Kazimer wrote in an e-mail. “We’re seeing thousands of bookings every day.”

The sheer size of the marketplace can make it hard to compete with the bigger names, so a lot of the Canadian talent comes at a relative bargain. There are a number of Degrassi stars, some Kids in the Hall, Letterkennys and Trailer Park Boys, all generally in the $100 and under range (except Bubbles, who bills $300). Jann Arden asks $65 and donates it all to animal charities. Canadian Broadway actor Chilina Kennedy charges $30.

Meanwhile, comic Russell Peters will cost you $500. And O’Leary demands an astounding $1,200.

“I can only do so many Cameos a day. So the way I limit demand is price, like in any product or service,” says O’Leary, who has been with Cameo since its early days in 2017.

Juno-winning country singer Jess Moskaluke just signed onto the platform this past May as a way to manage all the fan requests she’d been getting over social media “for a shout-out.”

“My husband was getting these requests. My mom was getting requests. I was getting them through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, even old e-mails, everything, and it was becoming impossible to manage,” she says from her Rocanville, Sask., home.

“Cameo has made it really easy. … I just send them that one link and it’s like ‘here you go.’”

Country singer Jess Moskaluke signed onto Cameo this past May as a way to manage all the fan requests she’d been getting over social media.Liam Richards/The Canadian Press

Moskaluke has done about 30 videos so far, at $28 a pop, which is no replacement for the income she lost by having to cancel a 60-odd-night road trip earlier this year after only three shows.

“This year looks dramatically different for me than what it was supposed to,” she says.

Same goes for Ricketts, who left her New York apartment after Broadway shut down, and moved back home to Brampton, Ont.

More than ever she felt the need to connect with her friends and followers.

“I thought that the best way to combat how small my world was getting was to reach out through social media,” Ricketts says.

On Instagram she gets hundreds of direct messages, so she’s unlikely to see if a new fan is trying to reach out. Cameo appealed as a way to find her most devoted followers.

“Cameo is like a clearer line,” she says. “Adding a price to it … cuts out a lot of the people who just want to do it for the thrill.”

Her aim right now isn’t to make money, so she charges just $10, a price she says is low enough to still be affordable for her followers in countries with an unfavourable exchange rate to the U.S. dollar. But not quite high enough to deter would-be suitors, it turns out.

“Someone’s trying to ask me out right now,” Ricketts says. It’s not the first time.

Cameo’s success this year has meant an onslaught of similar platforms (including Greetzly, CelebVM and Starsona) trying to woo much of the same talent.

“There’s been at least five other similar types of apps who have contacted me,” says Mochrie, but he’s staying monogamous. “I don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing, but I feel like it’d be cheating on Cameo.”

O’Leary says he spoke with another one last week but didn’t like their business model.

“The reason Cameo is the market share leader,” he explains, “is that they have aggregated the celebrities of multiple genres, whether it’s music, whether it’s sports, whether it’s television, whether it’s drama or scripted reality TV. They have spent the last multiple years doing that. And it’s going to be very hard to catch up with them.”

Shark Tank’s Mr. Wonderful is chatting from the 4K studio at his Muskoka cottage, where he’s in quarantine but had a full schedule of live hits to the daytime talk shows to promote the show’s Season 12 premiere.

Between takes, he expected to shoot six Cameos. On a typical day he’ll shoot as many as 12.

For $1,200, Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary may do a shout-out for a product or service you’re trying to promote.Handout

Since signing on with the app, O’Leary estimates he’s made “probably thousands” of videos.

“As the price has increased, it’s just more and more businesses approaching me. Very few people say, ‘Do a shout-out to my six-year-old’ for 1,200 dollars,” he says. “You know, mostly I’m supporting entrepreneurs, and I’m happy to do that.”

Essentially, he’s a spokesperson for hire – which makes him far from unique among Cameo talent, though he’s one of the most successful.

But although he’s done videos for everything from local real estate firms to vodka brands to sporting goods franchises, his endorsement isn’t guaranteed.

O’Leary says he “curates” the requests he gets, rejecting the ones he’s not comfortable with (or wherever there’s a conflict with his own business interests).

“I know exactly what I’m doing. They give me a suggested script, I embellish it very often, I know exactly what I’m talking about and why. And very often I’ll go on their website to get a better understanding of what their business is, so I can help them out,” O’Leary says.

“Why wouldn’t I want to help those people?”

The majority of Cameo shoppers, on a tighter budget, are looking for one thing: a unique and memorable gift for a special occasion. Watch the video previews on any performer’s Cameo page, and you start to notice a certain sameness. After doing hundreds or thousands of these personalized videos, doesn’t it start to get tedious?

“As an actor you get used to repetition so it’s not unlike doing multiple takes,” explains Letterkenny’s K. Trevor Wilson, who joined Cameo in June and makes 15 to 20 videos a week, at $100 apiece.

“What’s nice is I get to decide the schedule so if I get bored I stop.”

Wilson has no plans to stop altogether, even when the pandemic ends and performers can go back to their everyday gigs.

“This is a great side hustle,” he says.

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