Have you heard of Shudu yet? She’s a striking Instagram model from Africa with more than 130,000 followers.
She’s also a purely digital being.
Cameron-James Wilson, a 29-year-old London-based photographer, created Shudu. After her image went viral, Wilson revealed the truth, ending months of speculation about her origin this year. She’s since been called “the world’s first digital supermodel,” and she likely won’t be the last.
This summer, for example, Time magazine included a mysterious digital avatar turned style icon named Lil Miquela on its list of the 25 most influential people on the Internet. Miquela — who was being managed by a computer software firm in Los Angeles at one point — has 1.3 million fans. They dissect her online musings and fashion choices and treat Miquela’s implicit artifice like an afterthought.
Shudu and Lil Miquela emerge at a time in which Instagram, Snapchat filters and photo-editing apps that rely on artificial intelligence have blurred the lines between reality and fantasy, turning ordinary people into paintings or delicately featured digital avatars who preen for “likes.” So even as these digital models provide new opportunities for brands, they carry serious implications beyond the fashion world.
Virtual models such as Lil Miquela and Shudu are just the beginning of the avatar revolution, some industry observers say.
“There’s plenty of models out there, but it’s hard to find somebody who is truly unique,” Wilson said. “A 3-D model can’t walk down a runway for you, but they can be digital spokespeople that help you shop or serve as the face of your customer service.”
“Do I think 3-D models will impact editorials and put human models out of work — no, not really,” he added. “It’s a completely different space.”
But a British company that launched in April is already marketing itself as an alternative to human models. Irmaz Models calls itself an “Imagined Reality Modeling Agency.” The company’s website says its designers can “make faces to fit” any marketing campaign. Another advantage: Digital models “never argue, need to eat, throw tantrums or get tired,” the company notes.
Kelvin Boon, the owner of Boon Models, an agency with branches in New York and the District, said he sifts through a daily stream of modeling portfolios in search of “quality models.” Aspiring models don’t always resemble their photos, he said, and those that do often require training before they’re ready for professional work.
If credible-looking digital models emerge, he said, “it’s going to affect the industry a lot.”
“People don’t connect with images that resemble cartoons,” Boon said. “But if avatars begin to look like real people, it’s going to take a lot of power away from modeling agencies. Brands will only need human models for promotional events and walking the runways, and that’s pretty much it.”
Manipulating digital images of real humans has already been blamed for perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards, which begin to affect children as early as 5 years of age, according to experts. Now some fear an incoming wave of digital models will put even more pressure on people, particularly women, to live up to an extreme, synthetic version of beauty.
Wilson — a fashion photographer by trade and an avid gamer at heart — created models that have dark skin, feminine curves, fine wrinkles and realistic stretch marks, details he added to promote diversity and embrace natural beauty, he said.
Renee Engeln, a Northwestern University professor and psychologist who studies body image, told CNN that there is a troubling downside to normalizing digital models. Critics of the fashion world have long accused the industry of foisting unrealistic expectations upon the public, particularly women. Engeln said digital models could exacerbate that trend.