George Santos was expelled from Congress on a Friday in December. On the next business day, he announced a new role: as a kind of clown-for-hire on Cameo, an app and website where he offered his services recording personalized videos for fans. First he priced the messages at $75 each, but soon he was charging $200, then $400, then $500 a pop. But last week, the market contracted. The videos dropped to $350 apiece.
Working through Santos’s Cameo oeuvre — there is a TikTok account, @georgiescameos, that collects clips — is a miserable exercise. In a typical offering, he sits in a featureless apartment or a darkened SUV. His face appears glassy with Botox, his eyes searching for the script. He plods through condolences and congratulations. He says “slay, girl,” he says “kill it,” he says “diva down.” Sometimes he winkingly refers to the fraud allegations against him. He signs off with an air kiss. Mwah. Cha-ching.
I felt sick watching the videos — not because they have enriched a fabulist, but because they are so tedious and flat. There was once a transgressive appeal to the Santos persona. As he pinballed erratically through the halls of Congress, his deceptions dented the self-serious reputation of the American government itself. It was the inappropriateness of his high status that made him amusing. Now that he’s been brought low, viral fame supplies no tension for a Santos character. There is nothing transgressive about a grifter on Cameo.
Santos is right to intuit that his political downfall held a kind of entertainment value. Bowen Yang assumed his form repeatedly on “Saturday Night Live” last year, playing him as a languid and pathological sprite. There was a Mad-Libs quality to Santos’s claims, a giddy randomness that felt tuned toward social media. He said he had family trauma from Sept. 11 and the Holocaust; that he had worked at Goldman Sachs and on “Hannah Montana”; that he played competitive volleyball and saved puppies. (None of it was true). As reporters chased him down, his erratic on-camera performances — tripping over the door to his office, or inexplicably holding a baby — seemed to pop against the hardwood interiors of Congress.
Among Santos’s audience of not-quite fans, his misdeeds came to feel both absurd and relatable. Even when he was formally charged with serious crimes (among them, conspiracy, wire fraud, credit card fraud and identity theft, all of which he denies), the details were deliciously petty. The House Ethics Report released in November told of campaign funds spent on Botox injections, OnlyFans subscriptions, Sephora products. Trump converted politics into camp, and now there was an actual “Drag Race” fan in Congress, one who was versed in the genre’s tropes and who seemed to live for messy drama.
When his colleagues voted to boot him from office, making him just the sixth member in history to be expelled from the House of Representatives, the phrase “DIVA DOWN” trended on Twitter. Compared to the power that actually functional legislators can wield over our lives, his crimes passed as low-stakes, almost cute. A millennial in his flop era.
Now Santos is hoping to ride his political scandal into some kind of influencer role. But like a comic book villain, he has landed in a new dimension only to find that his superpowers have dissipated. He keeps insisting that he’s an “icon,” but his act is unwatchable off the political stage. His story was riveting not because he had any special charisma, but because the reporters on his case worked so persistently, uncovering his lies with such thrilling speed that he seemed to be a more dynamic character than he really was.
Even as trolls (Jimmy Kimmel among them) attempt to prank Santos, submitting increasingly ludicrous prompts for his Cameo videos, the results have proved frustratingly boring. A one-minute video where he offers garbled congratulations to a woman for transferring her dead husband’s spirit into a mannequin — “I look forward for you to enjoying in making all those new memories now with your new beau Jacob in his new vessel, bye!” — proves only that he will say anything.
In his defense, a Cameo is rarely interesting as content. A video from a famous person has a meta value; there is a satisfaction to be claimed by drawing an untouchable person close. It can feel like a form of power, to use a celebrity as your ventriloquist dummy for a minute or two. There’s a touch of humiliation to the exercise, for both parties. But Santos is hardly untouchable, and he is seemingly immune from embarrassment.
Two weeks after his expulsion from Congress, Santos sat for an interview with the comedian Ziwe for her YouTube channel. Some grumbled that it was inadvisable for her to further publicize Santos, but the accusation feels like a shifting of blame: Our standards were low enough to elevate him to Congress, but YouTube is where we draw the line? In the segment, Ziwe was as sharp as Santos was sloppy — “What advice do you have for young diverse people with personality disorders considering a career in politics?” she asked — but he was so shifty, she couldn’t quite pin him down.
When Ziwe asked, “What can we do to get you to go away?” he had an answer: “Stop inviting me to your gigs.” Then he added, softly: “But you can’t. Because people want the content.”
There it was, a moment of truth from George Santos. But the value of his content is dropping, and he has expensive tastes.