Arts·Pandemic Diaries

I joined Cameo to raise money for coronavirus relief and immediately ruined everything

Arrow actor Ben Lewis details his misadventures in being introduced to the video messaging platform.

Arrow actor Ben Lewis details his misadventures in being introduced to the video messaging platform

Ben Lewis as William Clayton in Arrow. (CW)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

Earlier this month, my friend sent me a highlighted passage from a New York Times profile on the cast of Tiger King. It stated that Jeff Lowe — arguably the most deplorable villain in a cast consisting almost exclusively of deplorable villains — had recently joined Cameo, "a service that allows fans to pay low to midrange celebrities to send them video messages." Having recently joined Cameo myself, I turned to my husband with stars in my eyes and said, "Did the NYT just call me a celebrity?"

Now I know most of you are reading this, thinking, "Low-range seems generous." And honestly? You're not wrong. But when an actor joins a popular show in its seventh season, like I did with Arrow, you acquire a following, just by default. The fanbase is so passionate and dedicated, and they've (mostly) embraced my character from the beginning. Sure, I've been called an "off-brand Zac Efron" on Twitter, but I also took that as a massive compliment.

Almost as soon as my Arrow stint began, Cameo reps started sliding into my DMs, asking if I'd like to give it a try. "Some of our talent can make 10K in a month and some are tracking to make over $200K this year," they told me. But to be honest, I judged it. I mean, charging fans for personal shoutouts? Felt like a bad look.

My first real exposure to Cameo came when my husband Blake received a birthday message from a popular late-90s/early-aughts actress, purchased by our Cameo-obsessed friends who I'll call..."Rusty and Samantha." They facetiously informed the actress that Blake was recovering from a "painful bone-lengthening surgery" and that the only thing getting him through it was binge-watching the Sharknado movies...shit, ok, it was Tara Reid. For Tara's troubles, she made approximately $93.75 US (75% of her listed price of $125 — the other 25% goes to Cameo) for a 1-2 minute video. For context, Tiger King's Jeff Lowe charges $175 per video, #MeToo'd Entourage actor Jeremy Piven charges a whopping $400 and I charge...$30.

Ben Lewis in writing mode. (Ben Lewis)

So how, in the end, did I come to join the esteemed company of a known animal abuser and an alleged sexual predator? Well, at the beginning of quarantine, I received another DM from Cameo, and something caught my eye: "A lot of talent is joining for charity to help those impacted by the coronavirus." First, I love being referred to as "talent," but second, like a lot of people, I was struggling to think of how to give back at a time when we're all confined to our homes. So I consulted a (less disparaging) NYT article titled "How You Can Help Victims of the Coronavirus Pandemic" and decided I'd join to raise money for the GlobalGiving Coronavirus Relief Fund.

100% of my proceeds would go to charity, and the rep was right — a lot of "legitimate" talent was joining (if it's good enough for Mandy Moore...). It seemed positively troll-proof! To my delight, within 10 minutes of my profile going live, I received my first request. Then I saw who it was from: "Samantha," no doubt of "Rusty and Samantha," clearly mocking me.

She wrote that she was "a massive fan" and had two questions for me: 1) "How do you stay so grounded and positive?" and 2) "Are you ticklish? I am, on my feet, and my siblings torture me!" Wow, I thought, Samantha and Rusty must really think they're clever, posing as a tickle-fetishist fan. But I was going to have the last laugh. The following is a transcript of my response:

(Ben Lewis/Cameo)

"Hey Samantha! How are you? I just wanna say, thank you so much for requesting me! You were my very first request. I hadn't even posted it to my social media yet, and you found me on here, so I kinda feel like we're already friends. In answer to your questions: I would say that I stay positive by keeping a good circle of supportive, non-judgmental friends around me. That includes my husband Blake, who encouraged me to join Cameo in the first place because, last year, he had a really painful bone-lengthening surgery and said that the only thing that got him through and gave him a reason to live was the Cameo he received from his favourite actress, Tara Reid. Also, it doesn't matter how famous I get — Blake keeps me grounded by making me do chores around the house. And then, in answer to your second question: yes, I am super ticklish, and the most ticklish part of my body is my taint!"

End of video. Pleased with myself, I sent it off on a Friday morning and smugly waited for my friends' response. Hours went by, and I was still waiting. Luckily, every Friday night, Blake and I have a standing cyber-date to watch RuPaul's Drag Race with Samantha and Rusty, so I figured they were just waiting to acknowledge it in person (via Zoom). By the second commercial break, they still hadn't said anything, so I caved. "Ok, Samantha, the jig is up!" They stared at me blankly. "What are you talking about?" I laughed nervously, beginning to sweat. "Very funny! You guys enjoy your Cameo?" They looked genuinely perplexed. "Ben, we honestly don't know what you're talking about." There was a moment of silence before my stomach dropped into my (ticklish) taint and I ran out of the room.

Cameo Samantha's words flashed through my mind: "Are you ticklish?" "My siblings torture me!" Oh my god. Was this fan a child? Did I just say "taint" to a child? Can I go to prison for saying "taint" to a child? My very first Cameo, and I'm going to end up on a watchlist. I texted a Cameo rep in a panic and was informed that there was no way to know if Samantha had already watched the video, but I could re-record it and the original would be erased.

I immediately recorded a new video, with terrible lighting and a shaky hand (I'd sat by a window and used a tripod for my previous masterpiece), nervously explaining how I hoped she hadn't watched the first video, since it was intended for someone else named Samantha. Still spiralling and deeply overcompensating, I recorded a third video the next day, hoping she hadn't watched either the deeply bizarre original or its shoddily recorded replacement. But then I wondered: what if she watched all three? Had anyone ever asked Cameo to stop a "celebrity" from sending them videos? Is there such thing as a digital restraining order?

A day later, Samantha finally put me out of my misery. She messaged me to thank me for my last two videos, and said she wished she'd seen the "mythic" first one. I was comforted by her use of the (very adult-seeming) word "mythic" and relieved that a catastrophe had been averted. But then I wondered: tickling and the name Samantha aside, why had I been so thoroughly convinced she wasn't a real fan in the first place? Honestly, to even admit I have fans feels deeply immodest, and therefore deeply un-Canadian. But maybe quarantine isn't the time for cynicism or self-deprecation.

We may not be able to physically embrace, but we can embrace new avenues of connection. Certain days, I'll wake up, shower and put product in my increasingly unruly hair just to record videos for people I've never even met — and I'm grateful for that. So in conclusion, thank you for reading my Pandemic Diary and if you were a fan, you know where to find me.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Ben Lewis is an actor-writer-director from Toronto. He lives in Los Angeles with his husband Blake, who's recovering from a painful bone-lengthening surgery. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @benlewishere.

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