“She’s ethereal, you can’t tell if she’s fantasy or reality, it plays with your mind, it creates wonder and makes you question the things you see,” said British photographer Cameron-James Wilson, the mastermind behind “the world’s first digital supermodel” who has been christened Shudu Gram. The digital creation catapulted into social media stardom earlier this year when Rihanna’s cosmetics line, Fenty Beauty, shared her image on its Instagram account.
Since then, the striking photograph of Gram sporting vivid orange lipstick has amassed more than 200,000 likes and over 2,000 comments, far surpassing the average engagement of images posted on the account. The reactions were a divided mix of awe and resentment. While many cooed praises for the computer-generated model, others blatantly shot her down, pointing out that she was but a fictional character.
Gram first came to be about a year ago when Wilson first sketched her. “It was something I would visit, and come back to until I eventually had the very first image, with the gold Ndebele necklace,” said Wilson. Her deceivingly life-like luminous dark skin, intense glare, pouty lips and slender figure are drawn primarily from South African Princess Barbie and from the likes of supermodels such as Alek Wek, Naomi Campbell and Iman. As human as she seems, there exists an inherent disconnect in her contrived personality.
“She’s in her mid- to late-twenties and could grow younger, older, or both...I want as little input into who she is as possible. I think she’ll develop naturally, over time,” said Wilson.
The intermingling of digital technology with reality has in the years before led to the rise of intelligent personal assistants: Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Android’s Robin. Previously, artificial intelligence found its value in human life by aiding in its betterment. But what exactly does a digital persona like Gram have to bring to the table of an already saturated online media platform?
“Shudu is my own view and exploration of what beauty means to me. It’s not a comment on anyone else, or a standard I’m trying to set. It’s just me exploring my own views,” said Wilson.
An outfit of the day (OOTD) of computer-generated persona Lil Miquela in Prada.
Shudu is not the only one of her kind. Lil Miquela, also a computer-generated creation, poses as human on Instagram. She not only speaks in first person but is also Photoshopped into images alongside her human counterparts in real life settings.
As of press time, Miquela boasts a burgeoning following of 959,000 followers. Unlike Shudu, Miquela is a full-fledged, independently functioning social media influencer.
“The term influencer is still so new to me! I first started using Instagram to see what other people were doing, find cool art and new music, as well as post my own. I never imagined by social media to take off like it has!” mused Miquela. Feigning ignorance to the fact that her existence can after all be measured in pixels, she manages her Instagram account just as someone in the flesh would.
“I have a great, personal relationship with my fans. I’m always reading my DM’s and the outpour of support has been extremely positive and uplifting,” she said. The 19-year-old social media phenomenon, born in Downey, California, brands herself as an activist and artist.
Lil Miquela "photographed" with social media influencer Margaret Zhang.
Her involvement in social causes is apparent on her Instagram account where she shares posts on campaigns ranging from Black Lives Matter to ones related to education for the youth.
“I hope I have the power to create change. I’ve taken the opportunity to share social and political causes that are near to my heart, and causes I find powerful that may not have visibility on a larger scale. If one person takes the time to click on an organisation, artist, whatever it may be, I feel like I’ve succeeded,” said Miquela.
On the sidelines, Miquela has also released multiple bubble- gum pop tunes fit for the clubs. In her seemingly ordinary world, like any other teenager, the pouty-lipped, heavily freckled Miquela spends time with her friends and hangs out at the beach. A persona so distinct, followers are left to grapple with her authenticity.
To date, her creator, who remains in the shadows continues to purvey the idea that Miquela, is indeed a person. “I’m not famous... to answer questions in the third person!” she offered when quizzed if she was real.
In the grand scheme of things, Gram and Miquela may only be two computer-generated personalities in a world that is populated by billions but the traction that they have both garnered speaks of a potentially impending trend. Projecting into the conceivable future, we could all be rendered as three- dimensional characters, tweaking our features and building a wardrobe of enviable outfits in a world within our computers.
“There might be a time when we all may be 3D,” mused Wilson. How relevant is reality in actuality?
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