the curious history of the y2k cyberbabes

Just two decades ago, “cyberbabes” were everywhere, from hosting MTV shows and Playstation games to hijacking the European charts.

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Jul 20 2018, 11:24am

Welcome to the age of artificial intelligence: where ‘fake news’ and acts of human error are met with press releases featuring Sophia The Robot or CIMON, the autonomous floating assistant currently making his way into space for the first time. If you scroll absent-mindedly through Instagram, it wouldn’t be hard to mistake virtual influencers Lil Miquela, Bermuda, Blawko -- and to some degree Noonouri -- for genuine living people. Yet these CGI celebrities have been solely created for life on your social media feeds (except, of course, for the moments they gain enough notoriety for brand sponsorships and magazine cover opportunities).

While some are hailing this as the next big thing, it really feels as though we’ve been here before. Back in February, Fenty beauty reposted an image across their socials of an exceptionally beautiful woman named Shudu with flawless skin and “unreal” eyes. News later broke that she’s a CGI supermodel created by fashion photographer Cameron-James Wilson. In her Instagram bio Shudu claims to be the world’s first digital supermodel. The thing is -- she isn’t.

Meet Webbie Tookay, a digitally composed model created by designer Steven Stahlberg in conjunction with Elite Model Management in 1999. Women flicking through magazines at the time were already seeing airbrushed, poreless women with bodies edited beyond recognition, so the idea of creating a fake persona wasn’t entirely far-flung. This wonder woman was celebrated for being instantly adaptable to trends, without the ability to ever gain weight, have a spot, throw a tantrum or be double booked. Director of Elite's (now defunct) CGI division, Ricardo Bellino, claimed that “in the future, virtual models are going to be as widely used as real ones”.

But Webbie wasn’t the only one. Inspired by Lara Croft, Tomb Raider’s pixelated protagonist, a number of computerised characters began to pop up around the turn of the millennium. These cyberbabes -- a signifier of the wildly futuristic technological predictions and advancements of the time -- were seemingly everywhere: from presenting the news with Ananova, virtually VJing television shows including Cita from Cita’s World on BET and MTV Asia’s collaborative design with Sony Ericsson’s LiLi, with Kyoko Date being created especially to commemorate the Horipro talent agency’s 35th anniversary.

The original wave of cyberbabes were described as having features borrowed from the hottest celebs, like sexy Frankenstein’s monsters. News anchor Ananova was described as being “based on a mixture of Kylie Minogue, Posh Spice and Carol Vorderman” by her PR handler Debbie Stevens to the New Statesman (but with green hair because they didn’t want to deal with the “baggage” of categorising her as either a blonde or a brunette).

Evans Collins, founder of the turn-of-the-century archive, the Y2K Aesthetic Institute, confirms that this is as seedy as it initially appears, explaining that the originals were primarily trying to fill sci fi tropes instead of being fair representations of real women. He points to an article on Motorola Mya where focus groups dissed her as being "too real", yet "pleasingly androidlike" once given a more low-fi makeover.

“For the most part they were developed to fit into pre-established roles; models, actresses, singers, spokespeople, news anchors, TV show hosts or virtual assistants,” Collins tells us. “This can certainly be seen as problematic in the sense that they sometimes propagated ideas about appropriate appearances, roles and behaviour for women. Upon learning that they are the creation of a tech start-up funded by millions by from various capital firms, their intentions seem a bit more insidious. In the case of Lil Miquela and Blawko, they are virtual POC created by a corporation; an entity that has complete control over their expression.”

And his wasn’t a one-off either: Shudu’s creator is also white and with so many WOC already being overlooked in the industry, it’s certainly unwise at the very least to be replacing these integral voices with manufactured ones.

One cyber icon that boasted actually having her own personality and the ability to grow a pimple and have boyfriend troubles was T-Babe, a teenage computerised popstar created by husband and wife duo Tessa and Sascha Hartmann of Glasgow Records. With Sascha’s background in both music and clinical neuropsychology, they were able to construct a distinct personality that included deliberate faults designed to made her appear unique. Before having ever released her first single, T-Babe had already been featured in Vogue and was offered a contract with Louis Vuitton.

When asked about the influence of her generation’s successes on the current Instagram generation, Tessa agreed that “they are doing what we were 20 years ago, except the technology is leaps and bounds ahead now”.

“People are always on the lookout for exciting and interesting concepts that entertain them, it’s about being ahead of the game,” she continues. “We know it’s not real and we can’t compete with cyber personalities so it’s less harmful than the eternal pursuit of perfection by real people.”

Though the Y2K avatars had a great initial impact, they soon faded away. Collins confirms that the personalities of the new avatars are much more intricate than anything attempted in the Y2K era, “involving multiple characters, real-life settings and environments, social movements, political positions, etc”.

In an age where we’re all striving for a perfect Instagram feed, it’s no wonder CGI girls have returned as a performance of identity. With our inability to compete with computerised perfection, it’s unlikely that CGI influencers will ever destroy the need for real human talent, no matter how advanced they become. Until then we’ll be keeping a tab open on their popularity.