Celebrities we like, we like a lot. New tech taps that addiction.

Did you ever run into a celebrity? You know, like, face to face? Disclaimer: fake encounters (like mine with Sting, at the Cannes Film Festival, long ago) don’t count.

Sting was attending a VIP party at La croisette; I was among the reporters outside. There was a thick, bullet-proof, glass wall between us: I only saw him through it. Sting never saw me. So close, and yet… Sorry, no story.

My colleague Tamara, however, was more lucky. She once ran into David Beckham, no less. In Montenegro, of all places.

At the time, Tamara was a budding PR rep, prepping a branding event at a coastal hotel. Formerly an aspiring broadcast journalist, she had just pivoted, because PR paid better and tapped more of her talents.

David Beckham may have had just transferred from Manchester United to Real Madrid. I’m guessing his reasons were similar.

He had been playing for England’s national team too, of course. One of those squads chose the same seaside hotel as their training camp, so there he was too.

Beckham was already a star. Everyone in that South Adriatic town was ecstatic. Everyone hoped they’d see David up close.

Lo and behold, a hotel elevator door opens and Tamara walks into a tête-à-tête with Becks himself. The door closes.

The two of them are alone. The space is tight. It’s rude not to nod, at least. She says “hi!”; he says “hi!”; they smile. Time is running. He’s anticipating the inevitable autograph request.

But Tamara is NOT a die-hard Beckham fan. She is a pro on an assignment.

Unfazed by Beckham’s star power, she uses the lucky encounter to ask him for an interview, whenever he has the time.

(She bets she’ll corral a stray TV crew, if he’s game.) She’s all business and he’s amused.

“Sure,” Beckham says, with his cute smile. He instructs her to arrange it with his manager, though.

His manager, of course, proves duly merciless. So close, and yet… Tamara’s interview with David Beckham never happens.

Becks has long retired from active play and is busy building a brand empire. Tamara is still in PR land.  He and she never meet again. End of that story.

Open-ended celebrity stories

Do you have a serendipitous celebrity story to recount to your friends and family, into perpetuity? No?

Surely you mean: not yet…

Because nowadays, serendipity isn’t even needed. Everyone is guaranteed their own tête-à-tête with a celebrity. And a star of their choice, no less.

Albeit only virtually, over a video chat app called Cameo. And provided the fans pay for it.

What’s in a name? A fortune.

Cameo started as a video-sharing platform where anyone could order personalized videos from their favourite celebs. No, not personalized through merely inserting a «name» field in a message.

Stars actually make unique video vignettes, made to order for individual fans. “The selfie is the new autograph”, the co-founders thought, after getting an NFL player to shoot a video of himself greeting a friend’s new baby.

Soon they launched the flashy service. They gave it a perfect name, to begin with.

It has given actors, musicians, athletes and influencers a new way to monetize their stardom. But like all middlemen, Cameo too profits from it. Their cut is…get ready… 25% of each video’s price.

Hitch your wagon to a star

Cameo predates our global social distancing rules by more than three years. Still, it’s hard to imagine it was not invented during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Remember 2020? All live events were scrapped to prevent mingling and close human contact was in short supply. That’s when the celebrity video greeting business exploded organically.

It had 5.000 celebs on its roster before the pandemic. It has close to 50.000 just three years later.

And no, not every starlet is admitted. It takes thousands of followers to earn a spot.

Cameo is now a bona fide virtual Tinsel Town, open for business 24/7. As evidenced by the supporting actors of Harry Potter, Chaka Khan, Elliott Gould, Snoop Dog, Caitlyn Jenner, Chris Noth and Chuck Norris, among others.

That’s how Chuck Norris knows it’s your birthday. And you gladly pay for his greeting.

Connecting costs

Cameo is building a Direct-to-Fans infrastructure, through innovative technology (of the FinTech ilk). They envision linking the talent with each and every one of their fans, in the future.

No, Cameo didn’t forget that Eminem’s memo. They know most stars are “all sick and tired of being admired”.  That’s why fans must also pay for any direct messages they send out to their heroes via Cameo.

But the Cameo team figured that smart stars’ are thankful for every fan that they get. Their solution to that love-hate paradox is: timeshare.

Fans get to have their preferred entertainers to themselves for a moment. And many such brief moments add up over time.

There’s no limit to how many videos the celebrities agree to record. And they set their own prices for doing the greetings.

Still, it sounds absurd to shrink a normally large audience and perform for individual viewers, one at a time. Because stardom – by definition – works only at scale. Right?

Well, this is a bold new Connection Economy. And it too is fully personalized. Influence can be now rented by individuals, as well as by brands.

It’s exactly like ride hailing. Every minute counts. Why would any resource (be it a car or a star) ever sit idle, without pay?

And just like in ride hailing, fans aren’t helpless; they write reviews after using the service. So work-from-home stars have to play nice.

Even Chuck Norris must eagerly smile.

Star power, scaled

Cameo isn’t predatory. There’s no automated auction to pit one star’s perceived value against another’s. There’s no crazed betting on who among them will come out on top. And no fleeting Top Fan of the Week badges, either.

It isn’t uber-competitive in that respect. Which might sound odd for a marketplace trading modern-day gladiators’ fare.

As of mid-August 2022, celebrities can hold live sessions for small groups of fans, of up to 10 minutes in duration. The “group” can even be a 1-on-1 call.

This novel option automates (and bullet-proofs!) the most volatile part of stars’ brand management – the direct contact with individual fans. All celebrities can schedule those calls on their smartphones, and engage with their fans from their homes, fuss-free.

Each star is a unique character. Assembling them in one pool is not a zero-sum game. In fact, the more of them join, the better it is for the business.

It’s simple. If you manage a single superstar’s schedule, you wall off your icon, as Tamara learned. If you automate the management of many celebrities, you can let them all come out to play.

Celebrities, fans, meet businesses

Cameo’s service to date has enabled some five million “magical moments” for individual users. That’s roughly two videos per minute.

It also channels the same “high-performing paid digital content” for thousands of brands and companies. Stars take part in ad campaigns, endorsements stints, event appearances, and employee engagement of all kinds. Those prices are higher, but so are the stakes.

Fame is a funny thing. We’re all grown-ups, we know the game. We know that those stars get paid – and paid well – to endorse products they don’t really use, services they don’t necessarily trust and brand names they may not care for.

Nevertheless, Cameo For Business data shows that when stars take part in marketing activations, positive sentiment jumps nearly 2X and engagement goes through the roof.

We all revere their familiar faces and drop our guard whenever they speak. We (unwillingly) trust them. Because somehow we feel we intimately know them.

The next level: artificial celebrities

Automating the management of star power is just the beginning. There are now activations of stardom where stars themselves are getting automated. (Take a deep breath here.)

In a recent high-profile case, the star wasn’t even present during production. It wasn’t an automated real presence of the star gone wrong; it was a case of synthesizing the star at will. The star simply wasn’t needed.

Last year (before the war in Ukraine made it, hm, untimely) Hollywood icon Bruce Willis appeared in a series of Russian phone adverts – without ever budging from home. He even briefly spoke lines in Russian. Except, he didn’t.

Another actor channeled his acting and Bruce’s face was applied by AI. The neural network first studied 34 thousand images of him. The result is convincing and fun to watch.

Bruce Willis was intrigued by the experience, and approved the use of his digital twin. The twin was generated based on old screenshots, so the actor felt like he went back in time.

Deepcake, the company behind the phone ads endeavour, works with major talent agencies, representing A-List celebs. In other words, this type of hybrid acting may soon become the norm.

Automatic multilingual lip syncing

Because AI is currently still so expensive, it’s only worth digitizing the top-tier talent – the global superstars. It calls for budgets of that magnitude, or for icons willing to donate their time. And there are companies doing just that.

Synthesia is also a platform for creating custom-made videos. It uses AI for visual synthesis – making avatars and matching voices in over 60 languages. Here you can see how I used its festive freebie to wish my own network a happy New year.

I was able to fit my greeting to the 250-character quota allowed.

Three years ago, David Backham took part in an anti-malaria campaign, where Synthesia’s AI made him speak in nine different languages. Not everyone was thrilled with the resulting video; its viewership (250K) is well below David’s usual reach (of millions).

In our saturated global video market, Beckham often achieves millions of views in even less time. The fact that this campaign had a mild reception indicates that audiences may not have been ready for everything that AI can do with their heroes. Three years ago.

Faking and licensing voices, on demand

There are now dozens of startups using AI to clone voices – too many to mention in this overview post. Just note that, in May 2021, Veritone, a podcast advertising firm, launched Marvel.ai, a platform for cloning and licencing voice.

They don’t just use AI to synthesize voices. They are addressing the ethical side of that innovation, with a code of conduct and other ideas. 

Like Cameo, they see no ceiling in how much endorsement the market can gulp. But they say it can be a hassle to drag stars to visit studios and do their shtick in front of the mics.

“A person becomes the limiting factor in what we are doing”, Veritone’s president admits. But Cameo has solved that hurdle, we know.

Cameo partners with other innovators (like Snap) to tap new channels and opportunities. Imagine if they ever paired up with Synthesia or Veritone.

Digital humans are stealing the show

Live television, film, music, gaming, marketing – there are more and more industries where synthesized, digital humans augment the viewers’ experience. Despite the caution around the dangers of deep fakes, the audiences hugely enjoy watching synthetic celebrities. The thrill is unforgettable.

In the wake of the pandemic, the technology for rendering hyper-realistic artificial beings in real time suddenly came of age. A whole new ecosystem it brings with it creates mesmerizing possibilities.

Any work involving audiences (e.g. learning!) will become hybrid – not in terms of where we do it, but rather with whom we do it. New rules will be needed to accommodate performing avatars or AI-augmented candidates for roles, grants, and awards.

That adaptation won’t be easy. For one, hyper-humans won’t need unions.

If not all creatives, then at least all the professional performers (actors, musicians, anchors, teachers, etc.) will need to adapt to that magical tech. Or they will be deemed difficult and declared obsolete.

Once in a while, performing stars could “deposit” their faces and voices (to match their changing form in real life). That’s to improve the authenticity of content (although we all suspend disbelief.)

The new tech could replicate them as partial or whole – just the likeness or the voice, vs. full-featured clones. It could also de-age them, change their gender or race, bring them back from the dead or, worse, from oblivion.

If I cannot beat them, I can join them

Soon brands and fans would have a field day, cherry-picking video shout-outs or performances from their favourite stars. Or live video chats of up to 10 minutes.

I recall that ten minutes on camera is enough for a brief tête-à-tête on any old subject. I could get Tamara a birthday gift card and let her have her interview opp. Sweet.

It would probably have to be heavily scripted. But that’s OK. God knows I’ve done enough of that in the past. Hm, I could have a business model where I draft real-enough interviews for synthesized stars.

Only now the stars wouldn’t just approve my drafts. Their rendered avatars could deliver them on camera, with confidence and poise. Ghostwriting meets ghostperforming. (I’m off to make the sales sheet for that!)

Back to you. Are you ready?

If you are in show business, media, promotional arts or teaching, these business models are right around the corner for you. We are about to see an explosion of options, which will forever upturn the ways we all work.

After all, any one of us may already have served as a model for a digital human in a computer game or an industrial simulation. (No, we won’t get paid for that; write it off as a donation in kind for building the metaverse.)

Don’t just sit back and refuse to believe me. Start thinking how you too can use all this. Start depositing your own top form or performance, so you can stay in control of your future digital clones.

Because we all know that only Chuck Norris won’t need a clone.

Some links to explore further

While I was writing this story, new examples of AI-enabled simulated humans or human-only abilities started cropping up. Rather than making this long feature even longer, I’ll just list them below.

You can explore them on your own, based on your interests. Here goes:

For fans of music & sound:

Listen to this fascinating 35-minute podcast, the first in a mini series of three pods: Will the future of music sound a lot like the past?

Read this article about a voice synthesizing artist from Ukraine – especially if you are a true Star Wars fan.

For sports fans:

Fox Sports, Silver Spoon and Nvidia recently partnered on synthesizing digital doubles of number of deceased baseball icons, as part of this year’s Field of Dreams game. Read Fox Sports story about it.

Also check out the one-hour panel about it from NVidia GTC (but it might require that you log in.)

For fans of reality shows:

In season 17 of America’s Got Talent, the innovative startup Metaphysic wowed the judges and the audiences by using AI to create hyper-real content. Check out their blog story about it or just watch the most mind-boggling AGT audition ever.