People thought these 90s and 00s virtual idols would take over the world

Before Hatsune Miku and aespa, a slew of cyber creations like Kyoko Date, E-Cyas and T-Babe came for the crowns of IRL stars.

by Frankie Dunn
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17 August 2021, 3:20pm

T-Babe image via Shutterstock

Hanging about in the upper echelons of K-pop -- alongside fellow girl groups BLACKPINK and Itzy -- you'll find SM Entertainment’s aespa. In November they broke records when the neon-lit video for their debut single “Black Mamba” became the fastest first release to surpass 100 million views in the history of the genre. Then, in February, they became Givenchy ambassadors. But there's something different about them… something that seriously sets them apart from their peers. Four out of aespa's eight members are virtual. Or rather, the group's four human members -- Winter, Ningning, Karina and Giselle -- each have an AI version of themselves, a personal, virtual avatar that they exist alongside in photoshoots and films.

In a recent presentation, SM Entertainment exec Lee Soo-man spoke of his plans to develop a technology that will allow fans to interact with AI idols. “AI technology will enable customised avatars to fit into people’s lives and people will coexist with their avatars by living together,” he explained.

So aespa, along with the likes of green-haired Japanese Vocaloid popstar Hatsune Miku (she of worldwide sell-out tours and Louis Vuitton collaborations) and Kizuna AI (a popular 16-year-old YouTuber and popstar) is where virtual idols are at in 2021. They’re performing alongside IRL singers, appearing on primetime talk shows, fronting campaigns and even dropping #ads in their livestreams. But where did this begin? Who was the proto-CGI idol and who created them?

Well, through the 60s, 70s and 80s there was some semblance of the virtual popstar. Animated TV shows like Josie and the Pussycats, The Archie Show (hi Riverdale!) and Jem and the Holograms centred around cartoon bands making music that, ultimately, viewers wanted to listen to outside of episodes. Their creators released records and many of those records performed well in the charts; The Archies “Sugar, Sugar” was, according to Billboard, the number one song of 1969. It wasn’t until the 90s and early 00s though, with the rise of the internet, that shit got more real. “A new generation of celebrities is threatening to displace actors, actresses and popstars in the minds of the young,” the BBC prophesied in August 2000. “Only this time, they are not real.”

Having perhaps not threatened the creative industries quite as much as anticipated, the virtual idol has still become commonplace in music today. Here are the ones that started it all.

Kyoko Date

Created in 1996 by Japanese talent agency Horipro, 16-year-old Kyoko Date was one of the first ever AI popstars. Inspired by then-cutting edge computer graphics and the real-world success of fictional singer Lynn Minmay from the Macross anime series, Kyoko (who was supposedly scouted while working in a fast food joint by Tokyo’s Fussa station) was propelled into the public’s consciousness with her popular single “Love Communication”. The song came with a music video typical of the time -- shots of Kyoko singing in the studio spliced with those of her dancing around what appears to be New York. But there was something off about it. People just couldn’t get behind an idol whose movements weren’t altogether human, and so Kyoko shrunk away into obscurity before giving AI fame another go in South Korea three years later, with a new album (Between) and a new name (DiKi). That didn’t work either. Perhaps her daughter, Gen Z YouTuber Ayano Date will have better luck.

E-Cyas

It’s not often you come across a male virtual idol, but in 1999 this Euro-pop-creating Keanu Reeves look-alike turned up on the internet with his appropriately-titled debut single “Are U Real?”. Created by I-D Media (promise this has nothing to do with us) in collaboration with Edel Records, the track -- voiced by a number of human singers -- was a Top 40 hit in Germany. The name E-Cyas, in case you were wondering, stands for ‘Electronic Cyber Artificial Superstar’ and he was sculpted based on some students’ idea of the perfect 20-year-old man. At the height of his fame, E-Cyas gave a number of magazine interviews and received, according to a feature from February 2000, “an average of 100 emails a day from fans mainly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland”. * Mark all as read *

Webbie Tookay

Not a popstar but an early idol nonetheless, 1999 also saw the launch of wannabe supermodel Webbie Tookay. Repped by Elite Model Management, Webbie was “signed” to their long gone Illusion 2K division -- a very turn of the millennium name. With features that were apparently borrowed from Tyra Banks and problematically bestowed upon a white CGI woman, she was presented to the world at a press conference in Sao Paulo, appeared in a number of fashion magazines and soon got slated on ABC’s Eyewitness News. As Ricardo Bellino, director of Elite’s new division told The Guardian at the time: "In the future, virtual models are going to become as widely used as real ones." And maybe they will be… in the future. Lil Miquela came and went and while Hatsune Miku has collaborated with big brands, it’s certainly not a regular occurrence. Perhaps Webbie wasn’t worth the $1million she reportedly cost to develop after all.

T-Babe

If you watch the UK’s Real Housewives of Jersey, you’ll be familiar with Tessa Hartmann and her husband Sascha. You might not be aware, however, that before they were reality TV stars keeping busy by provoking beloved Atomic Kitten, Kerry Katona, the Hartmanns built one of the first ever virtual popstars. You see, in the year 2000, the couple ran their own label, Glasgow Records. Unable to find the right singer for some dance tracks Sascha had written, they decided to create a CGI character to front the project. Enter: T-Babe. 18, single, lonely, fluent in German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. Her voice was that of an established American singer (DM us if you know who) that wanted no association with the star. Disappointingly, her only single “PeterPumpkineater” appears to have been removed from the internet, but it earned her a Vogue feature, the title of EW’s Cyber Pin-Up of the Year, and the above TV interview.

Gorillaz

The story goes that Blur’s Damon Albarn and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett were watching MTV together one day in their shared London flat, when they decided that enough was enough. "If you watch MTV for too long, it's a bit like hell – there's nothing of substance there,” Jamie told WIRED in 2005. “So we got this idea for a cartoon band, something that would be a comment on that." 20 years on from the release of their debut single “Clint Eastwood” in 2001 (which now has around half a billion views on YouTube), Gorillaz -- four cartoon beings named 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs -- have won a Grammy, headlined Glastonbury, hosted their own festival and released five albums. This year, to celebrate that momentous anniversary, they launched their Song Machine project featuring artists including Slowthai, Skepta and CHAI. Naturally, as technology has evolved, so has their live set up -- evolving from visuals of the group playing behind a full live band on stage, to the holograms used at the MTV EMAs above. It’s worth watching this interview 2-D and Murdoc did with NME in 2018 too. The Guinness World Records have named Gorillaz the “Most Successful Virtual Band” and we absolutely agree. But how long will it be until aespa take their crown?

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