The virtual models taking Instagram by storm

Unreal: Margot, Shudu and Zhi (left to right) are the new faces of luxury brand Balmain.

Are CGI supermodels creepy or cool? A luxury French fashion label has unveiled a new “army” of digital supermodels — continuing a rising trend of virtual celebrities sweeping social media.

Her name is Shudu. She is an up-and-coming supermodel making waves in the fashion world: lauded by Naomi Campbell; followed by over 140,000 people on Instagram; and the face of French luxury fashion house Balmain.

One more thing: she is not real.

Shudu (pictured above) was created entirely through CGI and has been called “the world’s first digital supermodel”.

But now she has company. Her creators at Balmain have revealed two new CGI models: Margot and Zhi. Margot is French, while Zhi is described as a “Chinese beauty” modelled on the style of David Bowie.

On Twitter, Balmain claimed the new models are a victory for diversity, hailing their new “virtual troops” and declaring that “everyone is always welcome to join the #BALMAINARMY.” However, some critics have slammed the move for taking jobs away from actual BAME models.

Controversy surrounding digital supermodels is not limited to Balmain.

Lil Miquela is a virtual influencer with a big following. Since her first “selfie” was posted in 2016, she has been featured in Vogue, advertised several luxury brands, and amassed 1.4 million Instagram followers.

Her creators specifically attempt to blur the boundary between fiction and reality.

A recent post shows Miquela supposedly travelling in China. The caption describes how she met “really cool people” and is learning Mandarin. She makes political statements too, declaring her support for the movement Black Lives Matter and criticising President Donald Trump.

For some, digital celebrities like Lil Miquela and Shudu are the future. In fact, artist Cameron-James Wilson predicts that human supermodels will soon overcome mortality with their own digital avatars. He explains that once someone is scanned, “they are, in a way, immortalised… If the technology to scan and capture Marilyn Monroe had been around then, her career could very much be still going.”

Are CGI supermodels creepy or cool?

Computer catwalk

Obviously creepy, some respond. These digital models are nothing but soulless marketing ploys. What is more, with modern life increasingly lived online or in virtual realities, we must try ever harder to appreciate what is authentic in life. Fawning over fake supermodels is just one more step towards forgetting what it is to be human.

Not so fast, others respond. Airbrushed shots of people are no more “authentic” than virtual creations. In fact, the creativity needed to forge entirely original personas makes them nothing short of works of art. Let’s not forget, with every filtered picture we post to our own social media accounts we live virtual lives ourselves. CGI models are not creepy, they are beautiful expressions of the digital age that we all share.

You Decide

  1. Do ethnically diverse CGI models actually achieve anything for diversity?
  2. Does Instagram have a positive influence on society?

Activities

  1. In your own words, write a definition of the term “beauty”. Would you say that any of the digital models pictured above conform to your definition of beauty? Why/why not?
  2. “Soon, the most beautiful people in the world may no longer be human,” writes Peter Holley in the Washington Post (link in Become An Expert). Read Holley’s piece. In 200 words, write down why you think this prediction will, or will not, come true.

Some People Say...

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

Confucius

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Balmain is a prestigious luxury fashion brand. Celebrities who have modelled for the brand include Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Gigi Hadid. The announcement of the two new CGI models was timed to coincide with the upcoming London Fashion Week, which begins on September 14.
What do we not know?
There is still some uncertainty surrounding what links Lil Miquela may have to real people. For example, some think her appearance could be based on that of a real person, or that her posts reflect the experiences of a particular individual. While CGI models are currently confined to images and videos, it is possible that improving hologram technology could allow them to walk down runways at fashion shows in the future.

Word Watch

Lauded
To be praised highly.
Naomi Campbell
English supermodel, actress and singer. In December 1987, she appeared on the cover of British Vogue, becoming the magazine’s first black cover girl since 1966. In August 1988, she also became the first black model to appear on the cover of French Vogue.
CGI
Computer generated image.
BAME
Black, Asian and minority ethnic.
Lil Miquela
Fictional influencer created by Trevor McFedries and Sara Decou. See her posts for yourself by following the link in Become An Expert.
Cameron-James Wilson
The creator of the CGI supermodel Shudu.
Avatars
An icon or figure which represents a particular person in a digitally constructed space.
Marilyn Monroe
American actress, model and singer. She was famous for playing comic “blonde-bombshell” characters. During her lifetime, her films made over $200 million ($2 billion in today’s money). She ultimately died of a drug overdose at the age of 36.

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