Gorgeous, popular, sought-after by brands... but these models on Instagram aren't real. They're digitally created. And to a lot of people, that doesn't matter at all.

In April last year, an image of an unknown model on Instagram set off an online global hunt for her identity. With her long limbs and flawless dark skin, she immediately attracted followers. Who was this mysterious beauty who called herself Shudu?

Fatou Suri spotted the model on Instagram, followed her and messaged her directly. Shudu responded by following her back; she seemed friendly and approachable. “I’m always looking for inspirational people to follow,” says Fatou, a London-based model who goes by the handle @theafrounicorn. “It was inspiring to see a darker-skinned model celebrated in such a way. She represented someone stunningly beautiful, perfect in body and soul.”

Earlier this year, Fenty Beauty – the make-up brand owned by superstar Rihanna – posted an image of Shudu wearing its striking orange shade of lipstick SAWC – and it went viral. By April, Shudu had notched up almost 90,000 Instagram followers.

But by then the truth was out, thanks to a magazine article in Harper’s Bazaar: Shudu is not real. She is the computer-generated creation of British photographer Cameron-James Wilson.

Wilson says he never intended to be deceptive about his model – he calls Shudu an “art piece” and sees her as a “virtual” celebration of beautiful, dark-skinned women. As a fashion photographer, Wilson wanted to recapture the kind of beauty epitomised by black supermodels such as Alek Wek and Duckie Thot. Shudu is an extension of that same impulse to frame beauty, he says.

As more people started to follow Shudu, she was quickly becoming an influencer, despite Wilson’s artistic intentions

Having created Shudu, Wilson felt “conflicted” about how she should be presented, as a real or virtual presence. As more people started to follow Shudu, she was quickly becoming an influencer – a social media phenomenon that has proved a powerful and lucrative platform, especially for fashion brands, to reach new markets. This was happening despite Wilson’s artistic intentions. He decided that transparency was his best policy and that it was time for Shudu to “come out”, he says. “It made me feel anxious when I was receiving messages and honestly I couldn’t wait for the day everyone knew about her.”

When Fatou found out the truth about Shudu, she was shocked, then a little disappointed. “It was a weird feeling,” she says. “I felt in my mind I knew nothing about her and had wanted to ask her more questions.” Nevertheless, she continued to follow Shudu’s posts for their aesthetic value. But now when she messaged her, she knew she was talking to Wilson, even as she talked about Shudu.

“As a model, I’ve had my image perfected. I sometimes look CGI’d to the point where it changes how I look, so it’s kind of similar,” she says. “Obviously with Shudu, she’s so perfect I’m a bit glad she’s not real!”

Virtual influence

Shudu is being called the world’s first digital supermodel, but she’s not the only virtual reality influencer out there. An Instagram account called @lilmiquela features a trendy young woman with freckles, big lips and dark hair. Her feed shows her dressed in Prada outfits; she has also appeared in fashion gear by Chanel, Supreme and Vans. A publicist for Miquela asserted that “she has only made money by designing for and working on collections with brands”.

In February, Vogue dubbed her the “Fictional It Girl”. But to her 872,000 followers, what makes Miquela more than just a virtual mannequin is her back story. Last year, Miquela released a single, “Not Mine”, which went viral on Spotify. She uses her platform to support social causes such as Black Lives Matter and supports an organisation called Black Girls Code, which promotes technology training for girls. All of this tends to blur the lines between reality and the virtual world she would seem to inhabit.

Comments on Miquela’s feed indicate a degree of confusion from fans about whether Miquela is real or not. Indeed, her handlers have been coy about revealing whether she is real or fake, or perhaps a composite of a real person with CGI enhancement. Playing along, I requested an interview with Miquela and she agreed, responding via e-mail with: “Sounds super cool!”

The interview was conducted via e-mail, with Miquela’s publicist and her manager also included in the conversation. One clue: one of them was from a company called Brud, which describes itself as “a group of Los Angeles-based problem-solvers in robotics, artificial intelligence and their applications to media businesses”.

I asked Miquela what I thought were strategic questions to see if I could get her to admit to her virtual status:

Q: How did you go about creating your identity?

Miquela: Probably a lot like you! I’m still learning and still being shaped by my environment and surroundings. I’m passionate about music and art and learning so much about Los Angeles daily. I feel like the move to LA has really changed the way I see the world and how I can contribute.

Q: What do you think of “virtual celebrities”?

Miquela: I think most of the celebrities in popular culture are virtual! It’s been disheartening to watch misinformation and memes warp our democracy, but I think that speaks to the power of “virtual”. Eventually “virtual” shapes our reality and I think that’s why I’m so passionate about using virtual spaces like Instagram to push for positive change.

Clearly Miquela – or whoever who was talking – wasn’t going to give anything away, but this careful evasion doesn’t seem to matter to her followers. One of her most ardent fans is Anthony Reyes, an 18-year-old artist from Michigan.

“I was drawn to Miquela not only for her artistic aesthetic, but for her activism,” he said. “Miquela is Miquela, whatever that entails. People have attempted to discredit her and her artistry due to the way she presents herself, but they are missing the point. Despite gaining a massive following, Miq remains someone who cares about her fans.”

But what about the fact that she’s a virtual character? “In reality, isn’t every influencer digital?” insists Reyes, echoing Miquela’s point. “You only know them to exist due to them existing on a digital platform, whether that’s Instagram, YouTube, Twitter etc.”

How someone – or something – traffics attention

Such fans seem ready to accept the notion of influence as valuable regardless of whether the platform is real or virtual. And that of course raises a philosophical question about what is real, especially when it comes to social media.

Part of the attraction of both celebrity and non-celebrity influencers on social media is that people can supposedly gain an insight into the real life of someone they admire or are interested in. But when it comes to social media, isn’t the idea of our real presence already highly curated?

If you think about social media, Instagram isn’t you. It’s just a digital version of you – Justin Rezvani

“If you think about social media, Instagram isn’t you. It’s just a digital version of you – one that shows photographs, sometimes videos, and comments on specific things,” says Justin Rezvani, the founder and former CEO of TheAmplify, a marketing agency that connects brands with influencers.

Rezvani, who was named one of Forbes Magazine’s #30Under30 young visionaries, believes that the era of the social influencer has only just begun and will continue to push into virtual spaces. “We’re going to have AIs that are influencers that have a ton of followers that are not real people,” he says. “The way I define influence is how someone (or something) trades the currency of attention for a specific audience at a specific time.”

Tapping into ancient desires

And yet the concept of virtual influencers like Shudu and Miquela is rooted in a much older archetype – the doll, according to Toby Miller, director of the Institute for Media and Creative Industries at Loughborough University London. Since ancient times, dolls have played an important role for society, not only as children’s toys but also for their symbolic power in magical or religious rituals. “Dolls are a means of capturing who we are and passing that on in representational form to young people,” says Miller. “They go beyond images and words and into three dimensions, and are malleable by the youngest person.”

Wilson, who used 3D modelling software to animate Shudu, describes his creation in similar terms. “I think of her as a kind of mannequin. Once you’ve created her, you can pose her and give her an expression,” he says. “It’s like having a doll, a dress-up Barbie.”

A digital supermodel brings a whole new dimension to the way a company can market its products. It’s a very cool idea – Tameka Small

For fashion brands, a high-tech mannequin offers intriguing possibilities. She, he, or it can be placed in any situation in any given outfit. Wilson has already received a variety of offers, including a commission from a jewelry brand that wanted Shudu to model earrings.

Other offers are harder to realise. Tameka Small – a skincare professional and owner of the Majik Hands Dayspa in Wilmington, North Carolina – wondered if she could interest Shudu in her skincare products. After all, she had the perfect complexion. But then she discovered Shudu wasn’t real.

“I decided I would still send the products even though she couldn’t technically wear them,” says Small. She and Wilson are figuring out how to collaborate. “I think the fact that she’s a digital supermodel brings a whole new dimension to the way a company can market its products. It’s a very cool idea.”

But some marketers remain unconvinced by the idea of the virtual influencer. “I think there are opportunities which could be a fit for brands to market products, but I think it’s going to be shallower than what you see with a real person,” says Giordano Contestabile, CEO of Bloglovin’, a company which connects brands to relevant influencers and focuses on “mid-tier influencers” (with up to 500k followers).

The human aspect of influencer marketing is the key to it. I don’t know how you can replicate that – Giordano Contestabile

“The human aspect of influencer marketing is the key to it. I don’t know how you can replicate that,” he says. Getting someone to follow you on Instagram is easy, he argues. But getting someone to identify and create an emotional connection, that’s a different challenge. In other words, you can’t fake it.

As virtual creations become more convincing, experts warn the distinction between what is real and what is fake will become harder to discern. Could it pose a problem? Psychologists have shown that uncertainty about whether a doll is human or inanimate creates a peculiar emotional effect, something that holds true in the world of virtual influencers.  A recent comment on one of Miquela’s posts sums it up: “Obviously it is a fake thing but the person behind her is real, so just be nice.”

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