“Go Charlotte, it’s your birthday. We’re going to party like it’s your birthday. We’re gonna sip Bacardi like it’s your birthday,” they rap, holding up the bottle of rum and then breaking into laughter.
As Baskin explained to The Washington Post two weeks later, “I don’t know a whole lot of birthday rap.”
Her choice was apt, though — so apt that the video, created through the app Cameo, went viral and reached 50 Cent himself. He posted (and later deleted) the clip on Instagram with the caption, “This song wasn’t music it was magic, it went everywhere in the world then never went away everyday is somebody’s birthday.” Jamie Foxx commented that their performance was “hilarious and legendary all at the same time!!”
Yeah, even by the standards of 2020, Baskin’s had a strange year.
“Tiger King,” the Netflix documentary largely about the contentious relationship between the big cat conservationist and now-imprisoned private zoo owner Joe Exotic, became an enormous hit as the pandemic began and made Baskin a household name. But just as her Big Cat Rescue sanctuary in Tampa became a major tourist destination, the novel coronavirus prevented people from visiting — a blow, considering about 30 percent of its revenue come from tours, with the rest coming mainly from donations.
In search of income and simply something to do, Baskin downloaded Cameo, which like “Tiger King,” has received a pandemic-assisted boost in popularity. About a month later, people were using the app to pay her $299 to make 30-second happy birthday videos. Two of the main pandemic pop culture phenomena, “Tiger King” and Cameo, had converged, a perfect symbol of the perpetual Mad Libs that is the news in 2020.
The concept behind Cameo is simple: Users pay celebrities — Lindsay Lohan, Gilbert Gottfried, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Flava Flav, a solid chunk of the cast of “The Office,” you name it — to create short, personalized videos about anything. The Saints Happy Hour podcast spent $500 for New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton to insult them. A woman hired Mark McGrath of the band Sugar Ray to break up with her boyfriend — while the breakup was later proved fake, the Cameo sure isn’t.
Anthony Scaramucci appears in one for someone named Popehat (yes, Popehat), which the Mooch claims was booked by a cat named Socks (yes, a cat named Socks). “There’s nothing wrong with Dungeons and Dragons and video games. They are great pastimes, Popehat. Take some advice from Socks the cat.”
Co-founder Martin Blencowe, who previously worked as a National Football League agent, stumbled upon the idea a few years ago. When one of his buddies became a first-time father, Blencowe asked a member of the Seattle Seahawks to record a short congratulations video.
“It was raw. It was authentic. The guy posted it on Instagram and said it was the best gift he ever got,” said another co-founder, Steven Galanis. “Immediately we had the lightbulb moment: ‘We should sell this.’ ” Their hypothesis, he added, was that “the selfie was the new autograph.”
At first their talent was B-, C- and D-list athletes they just happen to know personally. They found more success when they invited influencers in, especially those from the now-defunct video looping site Vine, where Devon Townsend, the third co-founder, was an early star with more than 1 billion loops. Eventually, Cameo grew by word of mouth among celebrities. Ice-T convinced Snoop Dogg to join. As of May, the site had sparked 600,000 videos since its founding in 2016 — now there are more than a million.
“People today are more famous than they are rich,” Galanis said. “People have these huge followings, but how big your following is and how rich you are aren’t necessarily correlated.”
Cameo tries to throw them a few extra bucks — sometimes more than a few. Users can pay for a text or video that ranges from about 30 seconds to three minutes, and it’s up to the talent to set their own fees. (Cameo takes a 25 percent cut.)
“I started at 59 dollars [per video], but I had to keep raising the price because I was inundated with over 100 requests right away,” Baskin said. Eventually, “I settled in at $299, and that seems to keep the flow at about 30 a day. And I can handle 30 a day.”
The app has the added benefit of giving celebrities a bit of hands-on control of their social capital. “Every time they make a Cameo, the person that receives it becomes a super fan. They like them more than they ever liked them before,” Galanis said. The recipient, in theory, “becomes a living, breathing billboard for the artist.”
And, indeed, Cameo has helped the Baskins capitalize on their “Tiger King” fame, albeit with a bit more control of the message, insofar as they choose which requests to accept and how to carry them out.
“It’s a way to communicate who Carole really is,” said her husband, Howard Baskin. “You know, this very kind, fun sort of person that may correct some other impressions.” (The Netflix documentary painted Baskin as a controversial figure for reasons too complicated to delve into here.)
Baskin will sort through the asks, which come in the form of a few sentences that sometimes can be “really cryptic.” Most come from fans. Some come from businesses. In one, Baskin hawks Pastime Auto Wash, a carwash in Oroville, Calif., by riding around on a bicycle while being surprise-sprayed by hose water.
It’s not as though Baskin needs Cameo to remain in the limelight. She recently made headlines for criticizing the use of big cats in the music video for Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s racy summer smash “WAP.” Still, the app comes with another benefit: the opportunity to tout the Big Cat Safety Act, which among other things would ban private possession of wildcats.
If someone offers a rating or a review after hiring Baskin, she can text back to them — and always does with a note informing them that the money is going to support the bill. “And a number of them have texted back saying they’ve called a member of Congress,” she said. “And the thing is, they’re going to have to pay $20 to tell me.”
The exposure can have its downsides, of course. Some Cameos try to goad her into saying something goofy, such as the one that required the phrase “awkward turtle,” a slang term for a hand gesture signaling “social clumsiness,” according to Urban Dictionary. Others have sharper blades. In mid-July, Australian comedian Tom Armstrong hired her to wish a happy birthday to Rolf Harris and to mention Jimmy Savile. Unbeknown to her, Harris and Savile are notorious serial sexual predators.
“I don’t know what they’re talking about a lot of times. A lot of it seems to be slang or some kind of a personal joke, an inside joke they have with a member of a family or their friends,” Baskin said. “I live under a rock. If there’s not a cat involved in it, I don’t know anything about it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Howard Baskin as Harold.