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Artificial Influencers

Emergency Alert Be cautious of an outbreak of beautiful, artificial Instagram models. Objects onscreen are more deceiving than they appear.

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Traditionally, celebrities have struggled with what is made public and what is kept from fans or critics, whether it be their history, personal relationships or family. The status that celebrities hold and the sense of mystery that surrounds them provoke a burning curiosity for an inside look into their private lives. However, the introduction of social media in the modern day has allowed fans to gain an intimate perspective of celebrities’ lives, eliminating the previously established sense of privacy.  This inherently introduces a new type of fame, one that is more digitally based and centered around social media platforms. In the modern era of fame, Instagram models and Twitter personalities are often compared to more traditional celebrities. However, recent transgressions within pop culture have revealed more contemporary celebrities, ones that are tainted by technological advancements, including photoshop and sophisticated CGI programs. These digitized celebrities, commonly known as ‘virtual celebrities,’ contradict the standard “insta-famous celebrity,” as the person behind the camera is actually a digital illustrator or a graphic designer instead of an amateur photographer. The emergence of these project-based social media figures sets a controversial precedent for fame.

Coining the term “digital supermodel,” Shudu, the world’s first virtual supermodel, has racked up a strong social media following of over 100,000 people. Her account, easily mistaken for an average beauty or fashion Instagram account, rose to fame after she was featured in the promotion of Rihanna’s highly-anticipated makeup line, Fenty Beauty. Shudu’s physical appearance, although impossibly perfect, appears realistic. However, if you look behind her external facade, it becomes apparent that every aspect of her persona and online collective serves an artistic purpose. More than just a digital supermodel, Shudu is a long-running photography project created by photographer Cameron Wilson, who ran the account until Shudu’s identity was revealed in March of 2018. Initially, Wilson was interested in developing a non-profit, artistic experiment, yet Shudu’s perfected images began to garner widespread attention, serving as a clear indication of her future prominence on social media platforms. Similar to celebrities in the past, Shudu’s notoriety has provided her with opportunities to partner with brands and promote products to the public. The rapid transition from a digital rendering into a humanized beauty influencer demonstrates the progressing interests of the community on Instagram, most of whom are attracted to surface aestheticism. In conversation with Harper’s Bazaar, Wilson described Shudu’s primary purpose. “Shudu is an ‘art piece’ and [I see] her as a ‘virtual’ celebration of beautiful, dark-skinned women,” Wilson said. “As a fashion photographer, [I] wanted to recapture the kind of beauty epitomised by black supermodels, and Shudu is an extension of [the] impulse to frame beauty.” In addition to promoting Fenty Beauty, Shudu has shared an Instagram photo sporting earrings by Oscar de la Renta, a famous Dominican-American designer. Her Instagram feed is currently comprised of various other promotional posts, as well as a magazine cover with Ulihoumism Magazine, an obscure arts and culture publication. Shudu’s journey to fame demonstrates two transgressions made within society: the power of social media in the modern day and the increasing attraction to technologically enhanced beauty.

Lil Miquela is another Instagram-based model and singer whose smooth complexion, stiff body positions and proportional features are components reminiscent of characters from the popular virtual reality game Sims. These questionable elements of Lil Miquela’s appearance culminate skepticism within her social media audience, primarily regarding their ability to determine the real from the artificial. Although she has not addressed the questions and rumors concerning her authenticity, many believe that her photos are thoroughly edited to achieve her CGI-like appearance. What continues to promote Miquela’s authenticity is her status in the fashion and activism communities. Recently named Vogue’s “Fictional It Girl,” Miquela’s comments on topics regarding political activism, more specifically the Black Lives Matter Movement, displays her authenticity as a virtual model. Miquela’s interactions on social media promote a more intimate connection with her followers, actions that are representative of the cultural shift concerning fame and what it means to be a celebrity that wields influence.

The application of social media and other technologies in a modern context demonstrates how effortless it has become for contemporary celebrities to form a strong following or gain influence. With limited resources, celebrities in the past solely relied on word of mouth to create a substantial following, the only way to promote themselves being through their established talents. This forced artists to perfect their skills, as impressing a crowd at a concert could potentially be their only chance to obtain support. In the modern day, social media platforms and the ability to communicate online allow for a more personal connection between celebrities and their fans. Through Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram, fans from all over the world have the opportunity to bond with a celebrity, a concept that a seemed impossible just decades ago. When social media influencers such as Lil Miquela and Shudu have the ability to reach out to an amount of people comparable in number to a that of a Hollywood artist or singer, the reality of where society’s interpretation of fame is headed in the future becomes apparent. The undeniable contrast between older and contemporary celebrities not only suggests how the undeniable influence wielded by social media, but how that influence can adjust the way people view fame and how society dictates who is considered “famous.” The introduction of virtual celebrities into mainstream media and their increasing association with fame indicates that the new standard is headed down an unprecedented path.