Meet the Company Onboarding Celebrities to Web3
Jessica Klein

Thu Apr 28 2022

MoonPay has made it easier for millions of people to buy crypto. So what's the deal with them helping famous people buy JPEGs now?

Ashton Kutcher, Jason Derulo, Bruce Willis, Justin Bieber, Kate Hudson, Gal Gadot, James Corden, Zoe Saldana — the list reads like it could have come from the casting announcement for the next Cats movie. Rather, these are just a handful of the celebrities and talent managers who have invested in MoonPay, a company with a self-described “white glove” concierge service for people making big-ticket NFT purchases.

This past year, it seemed like all the biggest names in culture were getting into NFTs, often in a way that felt… forced. On The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon, and Paris Hilton had their famously stilted exchange about their Bored Ape buys, and a few weeks later, Gwyneth Paltrow unveiled a Bored Ape of her own on Twitter. Hilton and Paltrow are also on the list of MoonPay investors, along with Creative Arts Agency, which reps Fallon. And as the tangled web of celebrity NFT enthusiasts, investors, and owners grew increasingly tangly, people cried “conspiracy.” Indeed, Moonpay’s Series A announcement — which lists a total of more than 50 investors, including Blond:ish, Shawn Mendes, Steve Aoki, Post Malone, Lil Baby, Lil Durk, the Chainsmokers, Maria Sharapova, Paul George, Matthew McConaughey, G-Eazy, Jay Z’s fund Marcy Venture Partners, Stacey Bendet, Shay Mitchell, and Scooter Braun — conjures up a zig-zagging web of (probably coincidental) connections worthy of Pepe Silvia himself.

But as with most conspiracy theories, the reality is a lot less thrilling and in fact points to a more run-of-the-mill series of circumstances. Rather than whispering about floor prices from within the shadows of some Calabasas mansion, members of the elite were more or less openly learning from each other about how and what to buy in Web3, and many of those purchases could be traced back to one company: MoonPay.

MoonPay is a fintech start-up and cryptocurrency exchange, launched in 2019, that lets customers buy crypto with a credit card. Its mission, its website states, is simple: “increase cryptocurrency adoption.” And so is its proposition when it comes to the concierge services it offers celebrity clients like Paltrow, Fallon, and Post Malone: These days, a lot of people like to spend their extra money on things like NFTs and cryptocurrencies, and wealthy people, definitionally, have lots of extra money. However, there are a lot of barriers to entering into the digital art market, like setting up a crypto wallet, buying enough ETH to cover both the NFTs themselves and their associated gas fees, and taking care of one’s private keys.

MoonPay handles this stuff for them — in other words, the entire purchasing process — and charges a fee for its services. All its clients have to do is point out what they’re looking to buy – just like Post Malone does at the beginning of his “One Right Now” music video with The Weekend. MoonPay does the rest.

When I asked Justin Hamilton, head of communications at MoonPay, how the company began targeting celebrity clients, he insisted that “targeting” wasn’t the right word. To hear him tell it, the company’s celebrity-heavy customer base formed organically. MoonPay CEO and cofounder Ivan Soto-Wright’s social circle, Hamilton claimed, simply includes “a lot of public figures” — big names in entertainment, music, sports, and fashion. With a background in crypto investing as the founder of a crypto/blockchain venture firm, Soto-Wright became the natural choice for those people to turn to once NFTs started blowing up.

“In his excitement, he’s spending a tremendous amount of time personally walking everybody through every step of the process,” said Hamilton, who came on board the company about a year ago after joining the service as a user. “But somebody tells somebody who tells somebody who tells somebody, and then next thing you know, he’s [essentially] a customer service rep.”

Helping high-profile people across various industries buy NFTs and crypto made sense to Soto-Wright for two reasons, Hamilton said. First, if celebrities embrace NFTs, that’s great for the market — Fallon and Paltrow buying Bored Apes, for example, can further drive up the interest in these collections, in addition to convincing ordinary people with no prior interest in Web3 to dip their toes in, potentially using MoonPay’s services. Second, these people are leaders, or at least influencers, in their respective industries. They could be the ones to bring blockchain to their arenas, helping shape the future of sports, film, etc. using NFTs and tokens. However, it’s also likely that many of the celebrities lending their profile to the space — like Matt Damon and Larry David, who have appeared in commercials for and FTX respectively  — are just trying to suck money out of a fad that’s happened to make a small handful of people unexpectedly wealthy.

It’s not a conspiracy, per se — it’s deliberate, calculated trend-making.

Besides the fact that famous people tend to circulate at the same parties, talent agencies tend to tie various celebrities together. In a chart that writer Max Read created mapping what he called the “celebrity NFT complex,” CAA features prominently, both as an investor in NFT-related companies and as a representative of NFT creators and collectors.

“They’ve actually been building sort of an internal [NFT] task force for a really long time,” said a marketing professional who goes by SAFA on Twitter. He’s the friend and business partner of a specific Bored Ape owner who goes by Jenkins (also the name of his Ape). The pair approached CAA about representing said Ape around August, as Jenkins the person had developed enough lore around Jenkins the Ape to generate an idea for a book. It will be written by the gonzo journalist and author of The Game Neil Strauss, a writer who famously quit the New York Times and became a full-time pickup artist.

“We thought we’d have to explain it,” SAFA said of introducing the Ape to CAA. “We very quickly realized that we didn’t — we got connected with folks who were as deeply passionate about the space as we are.” In early 2021, CAA was reportedly telling clients to wait out early “cash grab” NFT buys. By July, the agency had invested in the massive NFT marketplace OpenSea, participating in a $100 million Series B funding round.

SAFA said his and Jenkins’ CAA contacts see NFTs as “the next evolution of content,” a way to create new revenue streams for celebrities and IP owners, such as by selling NFTs of their work or forming their own exclusive, token-based fan clubs. Overall, CAA is an illustrative example of Hollywood positioning itself to benefit from the NFT boom from multiple angles, all of which rely on not just the spreading popularity of NFTs, but also making it easier to buy and sell them, which is where MoonPay comes in. (Through a representative, CAA declined to comment for this story.)

Now that celebs are all-in on NFTs, they’ve started goading each other on. Paltrow, famous for hawking bogus “healing” stickers and jade vagina eggs via her high-end lifestyle company Goop, is the prime example, hosting Zoom calls for other high-profile women through her participation in an organization called BFF, which is dedicated to getting more women in on the NFT game. She’s bullish about MoonPay, too: As she put it in a press release about the funding round, “Their technology is best positioned to make participating in cryptocurrency more accessible.” Per the aforementioned press release, Paltrow’s venture firm is responsible for about 17 of the big-name investors in MoonPay’s Series A round, which totaled $555 million, with $86.7 million coming from the high-profile contributors announced last week. The company is currently valued at $3.4 billion.  (Goop declined to comment for this story.)

While MoonPay already has an impressive roster of celebrity clients, other big names have gotten involved in NFTs more organically. Murda Beatz, a prolific music producer who crafts beats for the likes of Drake, Migos, Cardi B, and Ariana Grande (as well as MoonPay investors G-Eazy and Lil Durk), bought his first 20 NFTs from a collection called “PissPunks” about four months ago at the suggestion of his friend Joel Madden, the lead singer of Good Charlotte. “He thought that it was like a secret project that was created by someone that was going to come out in the future,” Murda said. “Then nothing ever happened with it.” (The floor price of a PissPunk on OpenSea sits at just .007 ETH as of this writing, down from a high of roughly .05 ETH.)

Still, that purchase led him down the NFT rabbit hole, and Murda followed up by buying two Mutant Ape Yacht Club NFTs (a spinoff of the original Bored Apes, by the same parent company Yuga Labs) and some Alien Frens. He said he talks regularly with others in the music industry about NFTs, including Madden and the DJ Steve Aoki — another MoonPay investor.

“Steve is so into this shit, it’s crazy… He’ll find a project and buy like fucking so many of them,” Murda said, adding that he and Aoki catch up on what NFT projects they’re excited about. (Aoki’s label, Dim Mak, did not return WIP’s request for comment.) Murda has also seen the utility of NFTs for raising money and fostering community — the NFT project he dropped on several months ago, which consisted of animated audio-visuals based on his “Baby Murda” character, “did pretty well,” he said, and he’s set to airdrop holders a surprise within the next couple of weeks. “It’s definitely going to be really, really good for anyone that makes music or is a fan of me,” he said.

While Murda has never used a service like MoonPay, he knows people who employ someone to operate their wallets and do the buying and selling of non-fungible digital art for them. But regardless of how they buy in, Murda said, there’s a level of social influence at play.

Ultimately, celebrities don’t just make trends. They’re also susceptible to them, getting in on the NFT rush because their friends and peers are. And when they’re convincing each other to invest in projects like BAYC, Murda said, they’re “creating a lot of value for the brand.”

Though Hamilton wouldn’t say exactly how much MoonPay charges for its services, he disclosed that the company earns “a fluctuating percentage” from each transaction. The company also benefits from the publicity offered by celebrities extolling the virtues of the products it provides — which Hamilton also claimed happens “organically.” That includes the moment when Post Malone purchases a Bored Ape using the MoonPay app at the start of his music video.

“Post Malone came to us as a concierge client, and then afterwards said, ‘I think this is really cool. Do you guys want to sponsor our music video?’” Hamilton said. (Post Malone’s label did not respond to a request for comment.) Many of the recently announced celebrity investors in MoonPay came to the company and asked if they could invest after making use of its services, he added, including many of the names on the company’s Series A celebrity investors list.

Going back to that web of connections in the celebrity NFT universe, it looks less like a conspiracy and more like a bunch of people succumbing to the same hype machine and sharing knowledge about how to make the best bets. But ultimately, it seems to come down to the world of very famous people not being a particularly big one. Like with any social circle, one person’s actions can inspire others to act in kind.

With so many high-profile entertainers, athletes, musicians, and fashion designers buying up NFTs while also investing in a company that helps people execute those buys, it’s almost as if these people are making a sort of meta-investment in crypto itself. Though there’s no guarantee that the bottom won’t fall out of the NFT market one day, losing investors thousands or in some cases millions of dollars, their public involvement in MoonPay could be a boon for the industry as a whole, increasing, or at least maintaining, the value of the pricey JPEGs they’ve already sunk money into.

It’s an arrangement that benefits everyone involved — companies like MoonPay, the talent agencies representing entertainers building NFT-fueled fandoms, and the celebrities who’ve paid six figures to own a Bored Ape. It also helps ensure that the hierarchies that rule in the “real world” transfer over to Web3, an internet that was supposed to “democratize” everything by letting even unknown artists find a thriving market by selling NFTs of their work directly to buyers.

In other words, these celebrities and talent agencies are ensuring that their place in what’s set up to become “the metaverse” is still at the top. Because after all, you’re not going to get to the moon anytime soon unless you’re riding in a billionaire’s spaceship.

Jessica Klein is a freelance journalist who's been covering crypto/blockchain since 2017, with work on that and other topics featured in The Atlantic, Fortune, The New York Times, The Guardian, Slate, and Teen Vogue.

Graphics by Fiona Carty.