With her super-short bangs, space buns and cute freckles, 19-year-old Miquela Sousa (though she prefers to go by Lil Miquela) is your typical fun-loving teenager. Her social media is filled with updates: from late-night pancakes with friends, to awkward throwbacks from yesteryears, Miquela is living her life to the fullest.
But here’s the catch – Miquela is not real. She’s a robot. Miquela is what the world calls a virtual influencer, created by LA-based tech startup Brud. She has a backstory, too: after being rescued from an evil corporation, she was reprogrammed with human-level consciousness, but doesn’t remember where she came from. Sometimes, she discovers new memories in her files, and experiences upgrades where she learns to control electricity with her mind.
Since she first started posting on Instagram in 2016, Miquela has gone on to become one of the most successful virtual influencers in the world, working with big-name brands like Samsung, Prada and Chanel. She hangs out with superstars, and speaks up for causes she believes in. According to British paper The Sun, she makes £9 million a year (about $12 million USD). In 2018, Time even named her as one of the 25 most influential people on the internet.
Of course, Brud is also on the receiving end of Miquela’s fame. To date, they have scored at least $30 million USD from venture capital investors, which includes Sequoia Capital, Spark Capital, M Ventures, BoxGroup and more.
THE RISE OF VIRTUAL INFLUENCERS
It can be said that Gorillaz, and even Crazy Frog, were the earliest virtual influencers, long before this term even existed. By using avatars or digitally-produced characters to replace humans, they managed to make waves in the music industry despite people not knowing who they were and what they looked like.
When they first started out, virtual influencers exhibited more apparent digital 2D-esque features. Long-time pioneers in the scene include Hatsune Miku, who made her first appearance in 2007. The market has since grown immensely, with VTubers (virtual YouTubers), Vmodels (virtual models) and VTikTokers (virtual TikTokers) joining the pool. Even Barbie, following her success as a real-life doll with multiple animated films to her name, has expanded her repertoire to include vlogging these days.
One of the “oldest” virtual influencers (although they never age) is Lu do Magalu, created as the face of Brazilian retail company Magazine Luiza. Since her debut in 2003, Lu has amassed more than 25 million fans through her prolific social media updates, often sharing unboxing videos, product reviews and software tips while at “work”. In an interview with Virtual Humans, Lu revealed that her goal has always been to make online shopping at Magazine Luiza (Magalu for short) a more humane experience, creating content to help their clients understand the products better. “From the moment social media started to gain traction, I became the brand’s spokesperson as well the virtual influencer you know today.”
THE WORLD IS THEIR (VIRTUAL) OYSTER
Today, virtual influencers come in all shapes and sizes, but the more human-looking ones tend to receive more attention. They walk a thin line between fantasy and reality, becoming a manifestation of what “perfection” means to social media users. They live vicariously, meeting their idols and travelling to amazing destinations while looking camera-ready all the time.
Hailing from Korea, Rozy Oh is her country’s first virtual influencer. “I am the only one; I could be everyone,” she writes in her bio. Like Miquela, she has very distinct, memorable features. And yet, she looks almost human. Her portfolio is also very impressive: with eight exclusive contracts and more than 100 sponsorship deals, Rozy’s annual revenue is expected to exceed 1 billion won (about $840,000).
The brainchild of production company Sidus Studio X, Rozy was designed to appeal to the millennials of today, based on nearly 800 facial expressions and movements extracted through 3D modelling technology. Her clean image works in her favour – in Korea, scandals, a common issue among real-life celebrities, are very much frowned upon. In an interview with CBS Radio, CEO of Sidus Studio X, Baek Seung-yeop, explains the feasibility of introducing a virtual influencer like Rozy: as the character can be fully customised and controlled, there is virtually zero opportunity for unsavoury controversies to affect the client’s image.
Imma is another succesful example of how virtual influencers are becoming more and more well-accepted: her clientele includes IKEA, Magnum, and most notably, the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, where she “participated” in the closing ceremony, marking the first-ever appearance of a virtual influencer at any Olympic Games. Imma sports a sharp pink bob, complete with unbelievably proportionate, elf-like features. Her parent company, Aww Inc., is the first of its kind in Japan, boasting more than a decade of expertise in virtual human creation. Imma’s anonymous creator, M, believes that in the future, there will be more opportunities for the real and virtual world to intersect, resulting in a metaverse that allows interactions between both its “inhabitants.”
However, there are also cases where the deliberate bending of reality becomes a question of what’s acceptable and what’s not. When black virtual influencer Shudu first emerged on social media, the true intent of her creation sparked a heated discussion – her creator, Cameron-James Wilson, is a white photographer who has been accused of cultural appropriation. In an interview with The New Yorker, he said he considers Shudu a work of art: “I wanted something that was coming from a place of pure creativity for me.” Experimenting with Daz 3D, a special effects program, Wilson designed Shudu after real-life models like Iman, but his main inspiration came from the Princess of South Africa Barbie doll. He clarifies that the intent behind Shudu is not to fool or trick anyone, but rather, to become a beacon of inspiring beauty and creativity.
EXPANDING THEIR REACH ACROSS GENDERS
While a large percentage of popular virtual influencers are female, there are also a number of highly successful male virtual influencers, like Knox Frost, an advocate of mental health and wellness. Boasting over 700,000 followers on Instagram, the cheerful 21-year-old from Atlanta partnered with the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the peak of the pandemic in 2020, reaching a younger demographic to raise awareness about COVID-19.
First appearing as a 2D avatar, self-proclaimed “anti-influencer” Teflon Sega has been looking more 3D of late in his new music video for his single, “Paralyzed”. With more than 19 million plays on Spotify, Teflon’s true identity remains a secret – the only thing known about him is that he comes from Cleveland, Ohio, and that he is most probably not purple.
Also from Aww Inc. is Zinn, who goes by the moniker Plusticboy. A far cry from the conformist cookie-cutter norms of his “birthplace” Japan, the red-haired Zinn is the brother of Imma (mentioned above), and also has a girlfriend – fellow virtual influencer Ria. Their human-like interactions on social media will have you almost believing that they’re real. As a fashion-forward influencer, Zinn has appeared on magazine covers and modelled for Rakuten Fashion Week.
HOW VIRTUAL INFLUENCERS ARE MADE
In a segment from Japanese television programme News Zero, it was revealed that the team behind virtual influencer Liam Nikuro works with five different male models who share a similar physical build. Each social media “appearance” is carefully planned based on what’s trending among the intended audience, before moving on to the actual shoot. After that, the images are edited to replace the model’s face with Liam’s likeness.
Inspired by Miquela’s unbelievable success, fashion publication The Cut conducted an experiment to see if they could build their own CGI influencer, and they did, in just 48 hours. With the vast number of motion graphics programs available, combined with the right skillset, you could basically create a character, have them pose however you like, and place them anywhere you desire.
This begs the question: if virtual influencers can be made to look so realistic, has it opened a Pandora’s box? If our eyes can trick us into believing, how can we determine what’s real and what’s not on social media? Take Rozy’s posts, for example: in a world where face masks have become the norm during the pandemic, she is able to continue “exploring” the world while remaining blissfully mask-free in Rome, Spain and Bora Bora.
TORN BETWEEN ETHICS AND ENGAGEMENT
As virtual influencers rely heavily on deepfake and AI techniques, many argue that its use can be controversial, especially if these they were created with a hidden agenda of disseminating certain ideas and thoughts – after all, these CGI characters are not able to operate independently, and therefore do not possess a natural human’s thought process. What they “say” and “do” is pre-mediated, but presented in such a way that is appealing and palatable to their audience.
However, from a client’s perspective, the pros of “hiring” virtual influencers seem to outweigh its cons. Dudley Nevill-Spencer, founder of the Virtual Influencer Agency (VIA), shares the four main reasons why: firstly, the product can be integrated with the influencer’s lifecycle, creating a seamless narrative that never looks out of place, something that is almost impossible to achieve with a real-world individual. Next, is the virtual influencer’s ability to carry out and sustain hundreds of automated conversations at one time.
Minimising risk is also a huge deciding factor, as what is being put out has been planned in advance, thereby allowing the message to be as clear as possible. And lastly, money comes into play – paying a traditional influencer for a campaign often results in engagement between the influencer and their followers, instead of directly with the brand. With virtual influencers, clients get better ROI as the audience can grow together with the brand.
Either way, there’s no denying the entertainment value of virtual influencers, especially when they are now on the rise, without an end to their popularity in sight. That being said, like with everything we see and hear on the internet, it’s always better to take it with a grain of salt, and trust your gut feeling.
Cover Credit: Lil Miquela/Brud Records
Writer | Michelle Tan
Lover of all things bizarre, Michelle has a soft spot for dinosaurs, animal videos and a strong G&T. Her lifelong dream is to become an urban hermit.