THERE’S A NEW KIND OF INFLUENCER ON SOCIAL MEDIA. YES, THEY CLAIM MILLIONS OF FOLLOWERS AND COMMAND HUGE BRAND DEALS – JUST DON’T EXPECT TO MEET THEM AT A LAUNCH PARTY. ELIZABETH HOLMES EXPLORES THE CGI STARS INTRIGUING THE FASHION WORLD – AND CHALLENGIN
Discover the CGI stars influencing millions online
By now, you’ve probably seen her: 19-yearold Miquela Sousa, with her blunt-cut bangs, light freckles and penchant for messy double buns. She has all the hallmarks of an Instagram influencer: there’s her cool factor (see the Brazilian-American Angeleno skateboarding), her music cred (her debut single Not Mine hit the viral chart on Spotify), her social activism (she supports Black Lives Matter) and her seriously good taste in fashion (think Proenza Schouler, Balmain and Alexander Wang). She’s done a photo shoot for V Magazine, graced the cover of Wonderland and Prada enlisted her to help promote its Fall 2018 show in Milan, where she wore the same orange coat as Gigi Hadid. It wasn’t the first run-in for these two – Hadid tweeted Miquela last November, saying: ‘Hey, gurrrrl, you’re too major for comprehension.’
Another Instagram star to watch is Shudu, a stunning, albeit newer, entrant to the space, with more than 100,000 followers. The darkskinned beauty with close-cropped hair turned heads with her first posts last year, in which she posed nude with a stack of gold chokers around her neck. In February, Shudu caught the eye of the beauty world when Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line reposted a shot of her with striking tangerine lips. It was a dream come true for the budding influencer, a seal of approval that certified her as the real deal.
Except Shudu isn’t real. And neither is Miquela. Both are computer-generated avatars, part of a new force changing the fashion landscape. For fans, these ‘women’ are a welcome new follow; much more interesting than the cookie-cutter bloggers that have taken over en masse. Brands are on board, naturally, with this novel way to draw some attention in the otherwise crowded social media landscape. Plus, as clients, these avatars are easy: they’ll always look fantastic in the clothes and will never demand a front-row seat at a runway show.
Miquela and Shudu have the same DNA, if you will, but their similarities end there. Like any rising star, Miquela has a full PR machine
to perpetuate and promote her elaborate ruse, which includes her own branded merchandise. High fashion has been happy to play along: Pat McGrath named her a muse, and Prada partnered with her to announce its set of GIFs, calling the CGI star a ‘mysterious cyber model’.
Any wariness or sinister undertones surrounding Miquela were minimal back when I interviewed her via Google Hangouts in March. ‘I’m trying to finish two songs today,’ she wrote, ‘and am hiding in the corner of the studio right now lmao.’ When asked point-blank if she was a real person, she responded, ‘We’re chatting right now, aren’t we?!’ She declined to say whether she had been paid for her partnerships (‘Hmmmm, I need to call my manager lol’) and hinted that more of a reveal was possible. ‘Excited to share more of who I am,’ she wrote.
Her big outing would come in April, when her account was hacked by another avatar. The internet lost its collective mind as ‘Bermuda’
(a Trump-loving, blonde-haired, blue-eyed character) took the reins. Bermuda deleted all Miquela’s posts (more than 325) and put up six of her own, demanding that Miquela confess whether she was real or not. The takeover ended a few hours later, as Bermuda returned the account with a threat: ‘You have 48 hours to tell the world the truth or I’ll do it for you.’ Miquela’s posts were restored. ‘So, are we gonna act like a robot didn’t just take over another robot’s Instagram and expose this whole thing or nah?’ asked one commenter. Miquela came clean shortly thereafter in a lengthy post: ‘I’m a robot. It just doesn’t sound right. I feel so human.’
The prolonged, dizzying stunt, worthy of a sci-fi film, revealed both Miquela and Bermuda’s creators to be Brud, an LA-based artificial intelligence start-up founded by the thirtysomething DJ/recording artist/producer Trevor McFedries. The company concocted the entire dramatic, hype-building episode to garner attention. It worked: Miquela gained enough followers that day to push her over the one million mark. And Brud made headlines a week later for raising a rumoured $6 million from Silicon Valley investors (even for avatars, there’s no such thing as bad press). But the net effect – and what the fashion world is so eager to get a piece of – was a ton of attention.
Shudu, on the other hand, sparked a different kind of conversation – followers truly believed she was human, and the media dubbed her the ‘world’s first digital supermodel’. She is, in fact, an art project, the work of 28-year-old British photographer Cameron-James Wilson. He dreamed her up last year almost by accident, with no particular agenda or grasp of the potential result. He was on the hunt for a hobby; an inspiring creative outlet. He first tried joining a small but enthusiastic group of collectors repainting Barbie dolls, but found it ‘too fiddly’.
A self-proclaimed geek who enjoys scifi films and gaming, Wilson turned to a pair of 3D programmes to design clothing and a muse. Inspired by a Barbie called Princess of South Africa, Shudu was born. She is remarkably realistic, a testament to the decade Wilson spent professionally retouching images. In the first picture posted to Shudu’s Instagram, she is seated against a yellow backdrop, leaning to one side while staring directly at the viewer.
‘Everyone was asking, “Who is this girl?”’ says Wilson. The intensity caught him off-guard, even more so when the enthusiasm turned to anger. The accusations grew hostile, suggesting Wilson was hiding or refusing to give credit to a real model. And yet the questions swirling around Shudu were contributing to her popularity. He decided to watch it play out, neither confirming nor denying who, or what, she was.
The demands of creating a computer-generated model are immense. Unlike typical photo shoots, where input comes from the stylist, the set designer and even the glam team, every detail of an avatar is crafted by the artist. ‘I don’t really know what to do with Shudu a lot of the time,’ Wilson confesses. So he welcomed his teenage sister’s suggestion to give Shudu the Fenty Beauty treatment, using and tagging products from Rihanna’s make-up line.
It was a tipping point for Wilson and his muse. When people believed Shudu was real, he decided to come forward. The backlash towards a white man creating a black woman was swift, with accusations of exploitation. One professor said he’d committed ‘racial plagiarism’. But Wilson says he has not made any money from Shudu, nor is he looking to take work away from actual models. Shudu is a celebration of diversity in an industry that badly needs it, he asserts.
It takes three working days for Wilson to create an image of Shudu, plus two weeks of brainstorming. It’s a timetable not unlike that of many fashion campaigns. But the qualities Wilson spent years removing as a retoucher, such as facial peach fuzz, he now laboriously adds. ‘Shudu has given me much more appreciation for our natural imperfections,’ he says.
With their purposeful ‘flaws’, these fully digital creations ironically speak to our desire for authenticity. While human influencers ‘are real people trying to perpetuate some kind of fantasy’, Wilson says Shudu ‘is a fantasy figure trying to break through to reality’.
But perhaps the future of social media isn’t about what’s real and what’s fake, but about what we ‘like’. After all, crusades against Photoshop happen alongside rampant use of filtering and Facetuning. We want it all – the fantasy and the facts – and the most successful influencers exist somewhere in between.
CGI models Lil’ Miquela(above and left) and Shudu (right) are takingInstagram by storm