who's really profiting from diverse cgi models?
Shudu and Lil Miquela are bringing in serious cash for their mysterious creators.
Fashion was exploring the possibilities of automated models long before H&M was called out for advertising underwear on skinny CGI bodies. It’s been two decades since Alexander McQueen created two robots to douse Shalom Harlow in spray paint at his spring/summer ‘99 show, and 12 years since the late legend created a hologram of Kate Moss in response to the model’s cocaine scandal. Louis Vuitton tapped Final Fantasy‘s Lightning for spring/summer 16, plastering her on billboards alongside Jaden Smith and Jean Campbell. In February, Dolce & Gabbana had drones carry handbags down the runway.
Fast-forward to 2018 and the dominion of Lil Miquela. When i-D spoke to the streetwear-savvy, DACA-championing avatar last year, she was slinging merch to benefit victims of the California fires. But last week, TechCrunch revealed that Miquela has raised her creators $6M in funding from Silicon Valley investors. Brud — the startup that modeled its racially ambiguous CGI star after contoured, filled, and filtered “Instagram Faces” — also masterminded the dramatic “hacking” of Miquela by a pro-Trump avatar by the name of Bermuda. Brud is run by Trevor McFedries, a.k.a. DJ Skeet Skeet, and “Chief of Stuff” Sara Decou. McFedries and Decou likely made bank from Miquela’s recent Prada collab.
Unlike McQueen’s robots or Louis Vuitton’s sci-fi fantasy, which were never framed as real, avatar Instagram models thrive on a degree of deceit, or at least ambiguity. “Making it” requires compelling fans to have heated comment feuds about the physical existence of the person they’re following.
Another CGI supermodel called Shudu recently went viral when Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty reposted an image of her wearing the brand’s lipstick in shade Saw-C. Fans initially praised Shudu’s flawless dark skin, but the creator’s Milkshake Duck moment came swiftly, after he was revealed to be a white male photographer by the name of Cameron-James Wilson. Shudu hasn’t posted to Instagram since March 29.
Miquela, meanwhile, has entered damage control mode. Over the weekend she posted a forlorn-looking selfie addressing the brewing social media shitstorm. “I’m not sure I can comfortably identify as a woman of color,” she wrote under a stoic Facetuned selfie. “‘Brown’ was a choice made by a corporation. ‘Woman’ was an option on a computer screen. My identity was a choice Brud made in order to sell me to brands, to appear ‘woke.’ I will never forgive them. I don’t know if I will ever forgive myself.” Yesterday she announced that she had dropped her managers at Brud, hashtagging the post #freeagent.
Much of the Miquela and Shudu backlash stems from a fear that CGI models are taking opportunities from real models — specifically models of color. Shudu’s creator fervently denies this. “It’s not trying to replace anyone. It's only trying to add to the kind of movement that's out there," Wilson recently told Harper’s Bazaar. "It's meant to be beautiful art which empowers people. It’s not trying to take away an opportunity from anyone or replace anyone. She’s trying to complement those people." For what it’s worth, Fenty Beauty only reposted the image of Shudu. The brand’s campaigns feature IRL model Duckie Thot, who Wilson cites as one of the inspirations for Shudu, along with South Sudanese-British model Alek Wek and a Barbie doll called Princess of South Africa. “There's a big kind of movement with dark skin models,” says Shudu creator Cameron-James Wilson, “so she represents them and is inspired by them." Ironically, in 2016, Wek called the new generation of Instagram models — the flesh-and-blood ones — “embarrassing.” Fellow South Sudanese model Ajak Deng has threatened to quit the fashion industry over accusations of racism.
Avatar models might be giving brands a woke façade detached from the responsibility of treating models fairly, hiring people who can do their hair and makeup, or hearing out their valid opinions. User @_shazfit commented on one of Shudu’s recent photos, ”It seems the white man behind this account would rather benefit from this digital creation, inspired by black women, than to let an actual black woman win.” L’Oreal’s firing of IRL model Monroe Bergdorf, a black trans woman, echoed this sentiment. “You can't just use the images of people of color to profit from an untapped demographic;” Bergdof explained, “you need to actually support the people you are representing.”
Genderqueer and/or plus-size models have yet to see any Miquela-level degree of computer-generated success. Where are the avatar-style Ashley Grahams or Tess Hollidays of Instagram? But such a phenomenon would create a similar predicament: brands could claim size diversity without ever actually making the clothes they’re showcasing.
Before #sponcon opps granted to influencers by the explosion of Instagram, avatars were being used to more empowering effect. Kelela’s recent Sims-inspired music video for “Frontline” saw her living out a carefree animated fantasy with a joint, an ex, and the iconic crystal dreads she debuted at Calvin Klein’s spring/summer 18 show last year. The video reminded some fans of the efforts to diversify the O.G. game with downloadable skins and cheat codes. Online communities were created around a shared desire for realistic racial demographics, non-binary genders, and plus-size outfits.
Compare these fan-made efforts to diversify the game with those coming from higher up the hierarchy. The Sims was groundbreaking for allowing same-sex couples to hook up in the heart-shaped “love bed.” But programmers’ subsequent creation of genderqueer and SOC (Sims of Color) haven’t taken into account anything other than stereotyped physical features. “While this ensures that every Sim is given equal footing socially and there is no discrimination on the basis of skin color (a positive thing, however unrealistic),” argued A. Brady Curlew in Liberal Sims?: Simulated Difference and the Commodity of Social Diversity, “there are no differentiations among people of different racial make up – meaning everyone conforms to the same cultural lifestyle – that of the middle class, Caucasian suburbanite.”
The most revolutionary avatars might be those that blend reality and fiction: Internet artist Opalslut is using CGI as a sort of self-portraiture, proving her avatar-style, NSFW selfies can be complex and meaningful, and highlighting the untold diversity of dot com creators in the process. Janelle Monáe’s fiesty sci-fi alter ego Cindi Mayweather, a persona/android hybrid, has seemingly been retired as Monáe finally feels free enough to let her guard down — but we’ll always remember her as a welcome departure from the male gaze-gratifying android characters of Blade Runner or Tomb Raider.
Trevor McFedries, the co-founder of Brud, has been manufacturing influence in the IRL entertainment scene for years. According to his Wiki page, McFedries has worked with Katy Perry, Azealia Banks, Chris Brown, and Steve Aoki, and was given the "People's Choice Award for Best DJ" by Paper mag. "Miquela" recently told Highsnobiety that she is simply leveraging existing tools for a greater good.
“The internet is endlessly powerful, and that power has been wielded in many ways. It feels like we’re not going to put the genie back in the bottle, so we’ve got to learn how to leverage these tools in positive ways. I’ve used my platform to raise real money for important organizations throughout LA and I’ve seen lives changed as a result. I think the only chance we’ve got is to collectively teach our loved ones how to think critically and how to spot misinformation. I know that we can manifest the change we want to see, and the internet can be a part of that.”
That's correct. CGI influencers aren’t going anywhere. And in an era of Fake News and disguised #sponcon, we need full transparency as to who their creators are, otherwise we’re just hyping new versions of creepy men pretending to be teen girls on AOL. Few industries are immune to the threat of automation — estimates show 38% of US “human infrastructure” jobs could be lost to robots in the next 15 years, despite the utopian efforts of tech-positive pioneers like Elon Musk — and fashion isn’t one of them. If CGI influencers are more willing to speak up on social justice issues than flesh-and-blood celebrities, more power to them, if they are upfront about where the money’s going. But generating fake feuds for the sake of real $$$ isn’t groundbreaking. Kris Jenner has been doing it for decades.