April 13--In the era of "pics or it didn't happen," Steven Galanis and the team behind his Chicago-based company Cameo have reimagined the age-old process of getting celebrity autographs.
Cameo is a service that allows people to pay for personalized video shout-outs from athletes, celebrities and social media influencers. The year-old company counts more than 1,400 stars on its talent roster, including some Chicago names -- Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull, former Bulls player Dennis Rodman, entertainment reporter Showbiz Shelly and sports commentator David Kaplan, among others. A Cameo app for iPhones is set to launch April 27.
Galanis, Cameo's CEO and co-founder, said the platform was inspired by his friend and co-founder Martin Blencowe's work as an NFL agent and movie producer. Blencowe got his client, NFL defensive end Cassius Marsh, to tape a video message in April 2016 congratulating Blencowe's friend Brandon on the birth of his son.
"The feedback that Martin had got from Brandon was literally like, 'This is the best gift I've ever got.' And it kind of made us think, if you're not that person's agent or you don't know their agent or you don't run into them in real time, it's impossible to get something like that. So at that point we started dreaming up this marketplace," said Galanis, a 30-year-old Glenview native.
Marsh posted a tweet in March 2017 introducing the service to his fans. Cameo built its athlete lineup and expanded to include social media influencers and musicians. Galanis said his team recruits celebrities for the service and some stars sign up on their own -- 20,000 Instagram followers is usually the threshold to get accepted onto the platform.
Galanis compares social media influencers to this generation's rock stars as the most-booked Cameo personalities are Vine-video-star-turned-musician Nick Colletti, YouTube comedian Evan Breen and "The Real Housewives of New York City" star Sonja Morgan. Galanis also maintains a list of the people Cameo users have suggested join the platform. The most-requested names might surprise even the most avid celebrity news followers.
David Dobrik, a YouTube star raised in Vernon Hills; comedy vlogger Shane Dawson; and controversial YouTube star Logan Paul top the list. Harry Styles, of One Direction fame, is No. 11.
"What we've learned is the thing that makes all these people special is that they have like opened up their whole lives to their fans, so their fans just are engaging with them in a totally different way," Galanis said.
Customers go to bookcameo.com to purchase their video and tell the celebrity who the video is for and what he or she should say. The stars set their own price. A Rodman video costs $200, while a Kaplan message is $20. The average price is $25, Galanis said.
Kaplan told the Tribune he signed up last year after a friend's daughter who worked at Cameo called him with the pitch. He said he's done several messages -- including many videos for fans who asked Kaplan to trash talk their friends ("in a good-natured way").
"Fans have tweeted at me or emailed me how much they liked what I recorded for them," Kaplan said in an email. Kaplan has a perfect five-star rating from Cameo users. "LOL!!! He called my boy Sparkles. This is everything" read one of the comments on his page.
More than 26,000 Cameo videos have been created since February 2017, Galanis said. Cameo takes a 25 percent cut of each booking, but Galanis would not share company financials. The business, which is headquartered at the 1871 office space in the Merchandise Mart, employs 11 full-time workers and five interns.
With each booking, celebrities have seven days to create the message or decide not to do the video. Galanis said a Cameo video has never had to be pulled for inappropriate content, but his team is strict about making sure its personalities fulfill orders on time.
There have been some hiccups. Galanis said some stars have mispronounced a name or forgotten to say the video recipient's name in the message. Galanis gave the example of a video done by "The Real Housewives of Orange County" star Vicki Gunvalson, who grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.
"Vicki gave the most passionate two-minute-and-30-second video pumping this woman up for her chemotherapy. But she didn't say her name and the review we got was like, 'This is generic. This could have been for anyone.' But she mentioned like 50 things that were specific to that person, like her kids' names, what hospital she was at, so we've really learned that the personalization is absolutely the key," Galanis said.
Social media has propelled Cameo's growth. Cameo recipients often post the video messages to their social media pages -- which is like free advertising for the service. Some happy customers go so far as to post videos of themselves watching their Cameo messages.
Looking ahead, Galanis said he would like to eventually cast a wider net for talent to include everyday motivators -- the boss that boosted your career, the coach that inspired you as a kid. Imagine Loyola University's Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt offering comfort and prayers to a digital audience. Galanis has no plans to get in the business of live celebrity-fan interactions (too difficult to schedule), but his team is focused on creating "the most personalized and authentic fan experiences in the world."
"Our goal is really to help the 99 percent of talent monetize. We think the Kardashians and the Drakes of the world, they have so many outlets to make money and to engage with their fans, that this is just a great outlet for everybody else to boost their reach," Galanis said.