Washington (CNN)Standing in front of a white bookshelf in poor lighting, Roger Stone — the longtime political provocateur and showman — takes a gentle tone as he records a selfie-style video congratulating a newly married couple he’s never met.
“I hope you both grow and share a beautiful happy life together,” Stone says. “You two were made for each other and that’s the stone-cold truth.”The video is just one of thousands that’s created every week through Cameo, a website that allows users to pay for personalized video messages from celebrities, sports figures or musical artists.
But Stone is part of a handful of convicted political criminals who have leveraged their notoriety into Cameo glory — recording quick birthday messages and motivational shout-outs for potentially considerable sums. The website, which launched in 2017, has proven to be a steady platform for disgraced political figures seeking an income stream all while promoting their own brands free of scrutiny. Read MoreTake Stone, for example. The trusted friend of President Donald Trump was convicted of crimes that included lying to Congress in part, prosecutors said, to protect the President. Stone, who charges $75 for each Cameo video, was set to spend 40 months in prison before Trump commuted his sentence in July.He’s joined on Cameo by former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who started on the website shortly after Trump commuted his sentence in February. During his tenure as governor, Blagojevich, a Democrat, was charged with corruption and impeached by the state Legislature in 2009. His charges included trying to solicit money for an appointment to President Barack Obama’s US Senate seat after he won the presidency. Blagojevich was also accused of shakedowns involving a children’s hospital, a racetrack owner and a building executive.His Cameo profile page, however, lists him only as an “American politician who served as the 40th Governor of Illinois” and is “now on Cameo and wants to connect with you.” The price of that connection? Currently $80 per video. And Cameo takes a 25% cut.Steven Galanis, the CEO and co-founder of Cameo, told CNN that the platform is “ubiquitous” and as a result, he will “let anybody on.””This is America, right? I believe people deserve second chances. And, you know, I’ve heard that Rod Blagojevich is like paying his rent now with Cameo, which is pretty awesome,” Galanis said.Put simply, Cameo’s policy is to “default to letting everybody on the platform unless they violate our three guidelines,” Galanis added.The three guidelines — no hate speech, no nudity, no inciting violence — apply only to conduct on the platform and there are no rules regarding what makes someone notable enough to be on Cameo in the first place. That low barrier for entry — even a convicted murderer would be allowed on the website if they’re not violating the guidelines — has helped Cameo build an extensive and diverse talent pool of more than 40,000 people, according to Galanis.Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was pardoned by Trump after being found guilty of criminal contempt for ignoring a court order in a racial profiling case, is available to send pep talks and advice for $30. He gained national notoriety for his treatment of those he held in an infamous outdoor jail in Arizona known as “Tent City,” where he made inmates wear pink underwear and work in chain gangs. Critics have said the facility was demeaning and inhumane for inmates, who had to work and live in scorching heat.But Cameo rewards relevance, even if it’s earned through controversial means. As a result, the reputation of “America’s toughest sheriff” has become more of an asset than a liability.Arpaio told CNN by phone that he records well over 100 Cameo videos a month and enjoys “making people happy” while still getting his name out. “A lot of them are birthdays, some support, and a lot of personal stuff. Usually it takes me about two minutes,” he said. “I’m well known nationally, of course, after 24 years as a controversial sheriff. So I’m well known around the universe. I don’t know how they are hearing about me, but evidently quite a few have come my way.”And beyond making “a few bucks,” Arpaio plans to use the platform as not just another opportunity to be in front of a camera, but a vehicle to take his notability to new heights in the private sector. Arpaio recently was defeated in an attempt to get reelected to his old job.”I hear that Cameo has a lot of celebrities, thousands and thousands and thousands. I believe they got me hooked into the political side,” he said. “Maybe one day I’ll get into the celebrity side or maybe I’ll be both — double dip.”For $100, you can also book George Papadopoulos, the ex-Trump campaign aide who served 12 days in prison for lying to investigators about his contact with individuals tied to Russia. Papadopoulos also ran in the Republican primary for the 25th Congressional District and was defeated in the March 3 primary.Papadopoulos told CNN in a short statement he enjoys Cameo for the ability to connect with big supporters in a way not possible before.”It’s fun,” he offered.Cameo’s rise comes as “Big Tech” and social media websites have become a new front in the culture wars with thorny debates playing out over the spread of controversial content.
But Galanis isn’t interested in Cameo wading into a broader fight. And for now, the platform’s hands-off approach to its talent appears to be here to stay. “Our policies are our policies today, and for three and half years they’ve served us well.”