Ay dios Cameo

A reflection on creating an internet monster.

Former Congressman George Santos already kicked off his second act just three days after his historical expulsion. He launched his Cameo page on Monday, and it’s the least surprising thing he’s ever done. Frankly, I expected something more original.

For those who are unfamiliar, Cameo is a platform where you can pay celebrities—a term used very liberally here—to record a personalized video message for you or someone else. Sen. John Fetterman paid Snooki of Jersey Shore fame to record a video for his 2022 election opponent, Republican and crank doctor Mehmet Oz, trolling him for moving from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, “to look for a new job.” 

But now the joke’s on us: In his first 48 hours on the platform, the sum total of all the videos he’s been paid to do is more than his congressional salary. From journalists to staffers in the Delaware State Legislature, people seem more than willing to shell out $200 or more to get a 45 second clip made by the disgraced Republican. It makes me sick. But it’s also prompted some self-reflection.

Cameo’s founder and CEO Steven Galanis told Semafor that Santos, “is going to be an absolute whale,” on the platform, and compared his stats to Sarah Jessica Parker and Bon Jovi. “He’s putting numbers up like that,” Galanis said.

I posted a stern warning to my followers on Monday across multiple platforms to not, under any circumstances, purchase a George Cameo for me. (I’m only like, 5% disappointed that no one got me one anyway.) As much as you know you’re paying him as a joke, at the end of the day you’re still paying him. And that’s a choice between you and your god and your bank.

Reviews are rolling in from satisfied Cameo customers, with one writing: “George delivered in my video for my friend in a way he could’ve continued to in congress if those cowards let him.” Another simply stated, “Fantastic! An icon.”

George’s quick turn into lucrative internet influencer stardom got me thinking about the role the media played in getting him to this point, and more personally, the role I played as someone who covered his every move earlier this year. Now that his life’s choices have no direct impact on the US government, and he bears no responsibility to constituents, where do we go from here?

I published a piece Wednesday with NBCU Academy—NBC’s education platform for developing and advancing careers in media—about the lessons we can learn from covering Santos. And I called on my fellow beat writers to weigh in on, among other things, if we were at least partly responsible for creating this monster.

One of those writers was Jacqueline Sweet, a freelance reporter who has covered Santos for local news website Patch and for Politico and Mother Jones (and someone with whom I’ve spent many hours outside the Suffolk County Courthouse waiting for George.) She said “We are all tasked every day with grappling with the hard questions, and we control framing, narrative, inclusion, exclusion.” She pointed specifically to the overwhelming coverage of Santos’ Cameos and said, “Everyone is complicit by making these small and large decisions every day.”

I asked Sweet if we should be covering George now that he got the boot, and, in a quote that didn’t make it into the story, she said, “Let’s not. Small blurb when he is convicted or flees to Brazil. The End. Have you guys heard about a guy named Trump and his buddy Mike Johnson who want to end democracy?”

But I think Sweet’s point that there are far more pressing issues to cover than Santos was true even when he was still a member of Congress. Sure, he was an international embarrassment and lied and stole from people, but the only reason he was finally, mercifully, expelled was because other New York Republicans thought he’d hurt their chances at reelection. It wasn’t about national security, or accountability, and it certainly wasn’t about respect for the institution.

Nonetheless, we—the reporters, the constituents, the people around the country—couldn’t get enough. Even right to the bitter end, I interviewed the guy who did his Botox. He wormed his way into the zeitgeist, and there’s no removing him now.

I maintained from the beginning that my investment with Santos came from the fact that he had been elected to represent the district where I grew up, and in which many of my friends and family still live. His lies about being Jewish and having familial connections to the Holocaust were especially appalling to me as the granddaughter of an actual Holocaust survivor. 

When I interviewed Eula Rochard, the Brazilian drag queen who served as a drag mentor to George as a teen, my biggest fear was that people would interpret the scandal as the fact that he did drag, and not that he ran as a staunch conservative whose party was actively seeking to punish people for an activity he, by all accounts, enjoyed. And I was very careful to frame it that way. But once the story was out, it was no longer mine to control. 

And that’s the reality of George’s story now: We can’t put this fabulist genie back in the bottle. No matter how much I and other reporters may have felt we were doing a public service, we made him notorious. And that’s all you need to make a buck online. 

Will I continue to cover his every move? Certainly not. But I can’t promise I’ll be able to stay away forever. Perhaps the only solace we can take from George’s Cameo success is that his lawyer will actually get paid.

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