Celebrities have long popped up in places we least expect them, and I’m not talking about in cafes or in the high street. I’m talking about television and film, and about the musicians who star even when we least expect it. There are some great examples and some terrible ones, and the most successful cameos are often all about subtlety and relevance.
So what are the good examples? I primarily think of Lady Gaga in American Horror Story: Hotel. Her appearance, while surprising at first, didn’t yank me out of the show. Sure, I recognised her as that-lady-who-wore-a-meat-dress, but given AHS’s general subject matter, it wasn’t jarring. Gaga starred as The Countess/Elizabeth Johnson, the bloodsucking owner of the hotel living in the penthouse. Her performance was brilliant, and as the episodes went by, it became easier and easier to accept her as just another character in the dark anthology series. Gaga won a Golden Globe for her performance, and has since gone on to star in the recent A Star Is Born remake opposite Bradley Cooper, so clearly her musical past hasn’t damaged her theatrical potential.
“his cameo seemed somewhat misplaced”
Gaga’s presence in AHS and A Star is Born were effective because each time she was an active part of the narrative, a settled character with an important and relevant role to play. Even in A Star Is Born, attention wasn’t drawn to her singing as Lady Gaga—her vocals were part of her character, and it made sense for her to sing.
This isn’t as much the case for some other musical cameos. Singer-songwriter Shaun Mendes appeared in a 2016 episode of post-apocalyptic series The 100, singing and playing a piano in the centre of a bunker, and even got tackled by one of the main characters. Here, Mendes’ presence seemed a little disjointed, and not just because he was crooning as the characters around him were fighting to survive. Regardless of his commendable acting ability, given the trajectory of the show, his cameo seemed somewhat misplaced, and the plot shoehorned around letting him sing.
“These appearances worked because they were subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, or because they were blatantly obvious.”
But Mendes’ appearance is nothing compared to the infamous arrival of Ed Sheeran in the fantasy series Game of Thrones. He appeared as a Lannister soldier in the premiere of season 7, and while the song he sang was from the George R. R. Martin novels, seeing his face centre-screen in a close-up while sat beside characters like Arya Stark made me go—wait, is that Ed Sheeran?! They didn’t even attempt to disguise him in a show known for its characters being rugged and usually covered in dirt. I love Ed, but this was a waste of a great cameo, especially considering the featuring of other artists like Mastadon, Sigur Rós, and members of Coldplay and Snow Patrol which were excellent contributions despite being understated.
Some will argue that the fun of having celebrities cameoing in shows is that you can tell it’s them, and I do agree with this—given it’s at the right moment. Sheeran’s cameo was highly-anticipated but kind of anticlimactic in the end, while Gaga’s fully-fledged role was one of the best parts of the season. Cameos from celebrities can work and can poke fun at popular culture and film and TV tropes in a way that isn’t intrusive or lazy. Think of Prince appearing in New Girl—the episode was purposely centred on him—or Gwen Stefani in The Aviator. These appearances worked because they were subtle, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, or because they were blatantly obvious.
With reports that Miley Cyrus is filming scenes for the next series of Black Mirror, I can only hope that her role won’t negatively affect the episode. Cameos can work, but when they don’t, they can really disrupt the fictional world we’re supposed to believe in.