Just before 6 p.m. on Tuesday, George Santos was at Best Buy on Northern Boulevard in Queens.
Santos, whose biography on the celebrity video platform Cameo identifies him as a “Former congressional ‘Icon’!💅🏼,” was buying a stand for his phone, because he has hundreds of videos to make and his hand is getting tired.
The former congressman was expelled last Friday for a variety of sins and alleged crimes, including overcharging the credit card of a colleague’s mother. He has, in the intervening four days, stumbled across a path to making a living that dwarfs the $174,000 salary he earned as a member of Congress.
In fact, Santos said — and screenshots and the CEO of Cameo confirmed — that he has lined up more than that sum in his first 48 hours on the platform. People pay between $200 and $300 to Santos for various flavors of communication. The videos can take less than a minute to film, and the platform has brought millions of dollars to the occasional campy, game, minor celebrity like the late comedian Gilbert Gottfried.
Santos “is going to be an absolute whale,” Cameo’s founder and CEO, Steven Galanis, told Semafor. His launch, Galanis said, is among the platform’s best ever: “Sarah Jessica Parker, Bon Jovi — he’s putting numbers up like that,” he said.
Santos does seem to be putting his heart into the project.
Some of the videos offer encouragement: “Hey Harper, I love that you are such a dedicated student at NYU, you know, my not-so-real MBA,” he cheerily told a student.
Others are roasts — deliberate or not — like when Sen. John Fetterman’s, D-Pa. office deployed Santos to tell indicted Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. to “stay strong.” (Santos wasn’t in on the joke, but finds it “hilarious.”)
Many are pure camp. One Democratic activist got Santos to sing a few bars of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble.”
Santos signed onto the platform after an aide to former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy suggested it to him and initially underpriced his videos at a mere $75, a mistake he has since remedied. The former congressman, who is currently facing a 23-count federal indictment for fraud and other related offenses, has made 150 videos so far and said Tuesday evening that he planned to “crush another 60-70 tonight.”
Santos said he’d give some of the money to unspecified good causes, and that the cash was only part of the appeal.
“Obviously there’s a monetary benefit — I’m not here doing it for charity — but the other aspect is to remind these assholes who think they’re holier-than-thou that they will be forgotten in history and I will live forever, period,” he said.
The platform also offers an alternative to suggestions his next stop will be television. Santos said he has hired an agent, Evan Silverberg of Entertainment 360, but that “there’s this big disconnect that the entertainment industry is trying to cross me over to become a reality star, but they are forgetting one thing — I am the most conservative member of the New York delegation.”
Santos’s move to Cameo is a true meeting of a man and a moment.
At its best, Cameo offers mid-tier celebrities a way to capitalize on attention that’s typically the property of media companies and sports teams. It’s given a decent living to influencers and athletes most people have never heard of, and Santos currently sits second on the site’s leaderboard behind the former British teen star James Buckley. The CEO, who was forced to cut the company’s costs after it came down from pandemic highs, took Santos out to lunch at the Upper East Side’s Beach Cafe.
And I hesitate to draw the grand lessons about the decline of American politics and society that opinion writers are taking from the former congressman’s lies. He’s a familiar kind of American figure, not a new one, and one who might have happily thrived in Congress with a fake biography and questionable campaign finances in a pre-internet era.
He does seem to have finally found, as The New York Times noted, a way to make an “honest buck.” As Galanis, the Cameo CEO, told me, “This platform was built for him and he was built for it.”
Room for Disagreement
Members of the New York delegation won’t be happy with Santos’ continued celebrity. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, R- N.Y. introduced the “No Fortune for Fame Act” and the “No Fame for Fraud” resolution in March that would strip members of their pensions if they’ve been indicted for violating federal campaign laws and prohibit them from profiting from their story.
One congressional staffer also argued against supporting Santos’ new hustle.
“Controversial opinion but I feel like giving George Santos money and attention is actually unnecessary and bad,” Aaron Fritschner, deputy chief of staff to Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va. posted on X Monday.
- Cameo blew up during the pandemic because “every celebrity is really a gig economy worker,” Galanis told me for a New York Times column in 2020.
- Galanis said the company is now profitable, but investors are skeptical even after deep cost cuts, The Information reported earlier this year. The New York Times reported last month the company had spent too much on lavish parties and half-baked plans: Cameo is just one case study in the grim awakening for the start-up sector writ large, and an especially familiar tale among pandemic darlings like Zoom and Peloton that couldn’t maintain their rapid growth.