Future Tense

Cameo Is My Quarantine Therapy

La'Darius Marshall from Cheer, Chris O'Dowd, and Lisa Loeb.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jim Spellman/Getty Images, Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images for AMC Networks, and Anna Webber/Getty Images for Spotify.

Maybe it’s because I was raised by a Fisher-Price cassette tape player and Mr. Rogers coaching me through stories and songs. Maybe it’s because I’m supposed to be teaching college writing in a classroom but instead now operate as a pixelated head in a Zoom screen.

Perhaps it’s a mix of generational crutches and social deprivation, but either way, I’m embarrassed to admit to one of my chief coping mechanisms in this quarantine: Cameo.com.
Specifically, other people’s Cameos.

Cameo is an app on which everyday folks can purchase live greetings from celebrities of every stripe to be sent to our loved ones via text message or email. Forgot to order the Harry & David pear assortment for Father’s Day? Maybe you and your sibs can go halfsies on a $500 greeting by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Need to wish your bestie a happy birthday but social distancing has you in a bind? Why don’t you send her a song and a laugh from hairbrush karaoke inspiration Taylor Dayne? It’ll knock you back a cool $100.

The celebrity may respond within a few hours or a few days, and you can receive the message and forward it or have it directly sent to your loved one. I know this because I sent one to my brother on his birthday last year. I hired Rodney Bailey— what? Don’t look at me like that. He was an All-American for football in Cleveland when I was in high school. He played for the Ohio State Buckeyes? Ring a bell? No? Well, he also played in the NFL before getting injured, which is probably why his Cameo was one of the only ones I could afford. However, it is still one of the best $20 I’ve ever spent (and trust, I did tip, something the app allows you to do if the Cameo is to your satisfaction). My brother loved it, my whole family got such a kick out of it, and I’ve now listened to Rodney Bailey sing, “Happy birthday, dear Mikie,” roughly 84 times.

Oh, but it gets so much worse, my friends.

Since I purchased that one Cameo that one time, I’m on the mailing list, which regularly lists all the new celebs (“celebs”) added to the roster. In recent weeks, I’ve taken a captive interest in the new additions, and I can’t quite explain why. I don’t have any occasion upcoming to send a Cameo to anyone. Nor do I have any money with which to buy one. What I do have, though, is time and an abiding need for human connection.

Which is why I found myself passing the hours watching Cameo after Cameo by Terry “Tito” Francona, former manager of the Boston Red Sox and current manager of the Cleveland Indians. Over and over, I watched the sample Cameos that the site had posted (to give prospective buyers a flavor of what they could expect for $100). I sat back and listened to Tito wishing perfect strangers a happy 14th birthday and to stay strong because baseball was going to be back and he was going to need them to be there, cheering on the Indians at Progressive Field.

Tears. You got it, Tito! More tears …

Then I proceeded to sift through the cast of the Netflix documentary series Cheer. Ever wondered how many times La’Darius Marshall can call a Cameo client “Boo” for $50? Wonder no more! Watch all his Mother’s Day shoutouts for yourself.

I got you, too, Boo!

Some messages are only seconds long, and others are well into the two-minute range. Some are clearly very scripted, while other celebrities embrace the impromptu spirit. I was lucky enough to listen to actor Chris O’Dowd quote Thomas Merton, which I am chagrined to report is something that is possible if you paid $169 and your name is Mick McGuire and your wife is Mal and it’s Mother’s Day and Chris O’Dowd sends you a Mother’s Day gram. Oh my goddess, I need help.

Don’t we all, though? Aren’t we all a little bit hungry in this pandemic time for an encouraging word, something beyond the masked hellos and virtual hugs? Someone to say, “I see you, you’re still there, and that matters.” Something to remind us that there is a world to which we will one day return, full of athletes and artists, rock stars and cheerleaders.

When I begin a class on Zoom with my students, I try to say their names over and over, I ask them questions directly, and I even sometimes read them a quote or tell a story about something I’ve observed in quarantine. I try to bring some shred of humanity to our virtual space. I want them to know that the class is not the same without their presence, even if they don’t feel like being present for this facsimile of a classroom.

I think Cameo is doing the same for me. Either that or I just really have a thing for the way Lisa Loeb sings “Twinkle, Twinkle” to a 2-year-old named Phoenix I have never met.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.