ELLE (UK) - - Contents -

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

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