“Well, everything comes from Miquela,” insists Nicole de Ayora, chief content officer at robotics-focused entertainment company Brud. She is referring to her employer’s hero product, a 19-year-old digital apparition named Lil Miquela. “We’re just her managers; she’s acting alone. Her life will continue to evolve. She just found out she was a robot,” de Ayora says, pausing to search her memory, “I guess, two years ago, now? So she’s still figuring out what that means. And she’s been an influencer since she was born.”
When Miquela began posting on Instagram shortly after her birth, human onlookers were perplexed by her photos, which seemed to show the rubbery-smooth skin and digitally rendered hair of an online avatar somehow grafted onto the body of a teenage Instagram model. Many wondered aloud if she was real. Nobody assumed that a perfect teen robot had been set loose in Los Angeles’s entertainment and media industry. Still, it was hard to figure out how much of this person was a singular, sentient being — as she was being presented — and how much was the composite branding effort of the shadowy company behind her.
This did not last terribly long. Soon came the Prada collaboration, the Calvin Klein ad with Bella Hadid, and the Instagram activism. Brud’s official statement on Miquela’s corporeality is that she is “as real as Rihanna.” She is real and, perhaps more importantly, she is lucrative.
Since the goddess Isis presided over the people of ancient Egypt from wall-length glyphs and spoken lore, humans have been obsessed with projecting their dreams, woes, loves, ethics, and morals onto the most beautiful and successful among them. Before long, Cleopatra championed eyeliner and courted peace over Egypt. Then we had the regents of Europe; then it was aristocrats; then actors, musicians, supermodels. Our paragons follow wherever our eyes take us, from churches to smartphones. Influencers, the Egyptian gods of today, command the lion’s share of public attention.
Miquela is certainly the first influencer to combine CGI with real-world photography, but she’s 60 years late to the title of “first nonhuman influencer.” The true first has earned billions holding down a diverse hot-pink rainbow of careers: Barbie was invented not as a toy, but as a svelte canvas on which young girls could project their hopes and dreams. And then that canvas was sold as a toy. Despite lacking a respiratory system, Barbie still issues missives (like “If you can dream it, you can be it!”) to an eager public. She is discussed in the third person. She is as real as Miquela and Rihanna, and potentially wields more power than both combined. At age one and a half, a child learns to identify their mirror image as a representation of their self. They meet Barbie at around age three.
Brud’s roster has expanded beyond Miquela, and many other CGI influencers have entered the world. There’s Shudu, the “first digital supermodel.” There’s Imma, a “virtual girl,” and her dog, Einstein, who is perplexingly real. Before it was canceled this year, Coachella had booked Hatsune Miku, a Japanese vocaloid hologram performer, as an act. Then, of course, there are the ways in which actual feet-on-Earth humans are conspiring to look more like their digitally-enhanced selves. The fact that dermatologists’ offices are seeing upticks in patients who ask for filter-inspired fillers and procedures was newsworthy… several years ago.
Now, augmented reality, or AR, effects manipulate faces to new degrees. These effects have proliferated on Instagram and Snapchat, resulting in what tech writer Jessica Herrington terms “biofiction,” a blending and obscuring of one’s biological details in favor of synthetic ones. It’s a phenomenon that the HBO series Years and Years hypothesizes our future might look like, as one character, a teenage girl, is able to apply increasingly sophisticated holographic filters to her face, like a mask. In public, she appears with cartoonish doe eyes and antlers, but is able to turn off the features at home — saving biological face for her parents.
Brud, de Ayora assures me, has the technology to make Miquela look as real as a kick to the head, but the company prefers to keep the seams visible (literally poreless skin, bangs that defy gravity) — the visual cue that she is digitally created is important to her overall appeal. “I have a little quote from Miquela on this, as well,” de Ayora says, before reading what appears to be a prepared statement from the influencer: “She says: ‘Real means whatever you want. Is Kim Kardashian real? Is there a guy who thinks of himself as the Tiger King? I think real is whatever you believe in, and whatever you want to believe in.'”
For our Future of Beauty issue, we’re giving you a front-row seat to the see technologies of tomorrow while exploring the impact these innovations will have on our lives. This story originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Allure. Learn how to subscribe here.
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