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Exploring mixed race identity in CGI influencers

From Lil Miquela to Lil Wavi, we look at why the majority of CGI influencers are being conceived as mixed race

Historically the It girls of the moment have reflected the true values of their time. 60s model Veruschka’s flowing blonde tresses and chiseled bone structure represented the decade’s youthful outlook. The 70s gave birth to the unconventional where powerhouse Grace Jones and avant-garde Donna Jordan came to life. Kate Moss started heroin chic in the 90s, and Brazilian Gisele Bündchen ended it. Today we have a new It girl to shape our confused and conflicted era.

With her constellation of freckles, millions of followers, and collection of side hustles that includes modelling and a pop career, 19-year-old Brazilian-American Lil Miquela, aka Miquela Sousa, could be your average beautiful, woke celeb crush except for one crucial fact; she’s not real. Created by the mysterious robotics company Brud, Miquela is one of a number of racially ambiguous CGI avatars taking over Instagram using a collage of mixed race identity.

Her relatable aesthetic has seen her work with Prada, been featured in Vogue, and pose for the cover of Highsnobiety. When LA fashion boutique Departamento collaborated with Lil Miquela on a non-paid promotion, her unique appeal was clear to the boutique’s creative director, Andrew Dryden. “An interesting aspect of her is the idea that she is every girl,” says Dryden. “She's a complete fabrication of what a social media person would do or would be.” From her relatable self-help selfies to her strategic thirst trap posts, Lil Miquela’s character has all of the self-awareness of influencers like the Kardashians, the Hadids, and twin DJs Simi and Haze.

Other popular avatars in the virtual world include Lil Miquela’s skateboarding buddy Blawko, who posts about running from the cops and his mental health troubles, and Lil Wavi, a grill sporting, Soundcloud rapper lookalike created by London-based creative Emily Groom to model her own fashion line Waviboy. Perhaps as a way to reflect the battlegrounds of social media, Brud, which has a multi-racial team, also created Bermuda, a right-wing, Tomi Lahren look alike, known for her feud with Lil Miquela. She has far less followers than Lil Miquela.

The characters were created to replicate the relatability, swagger and quality content of popular Instagram influencers without the baggage that real people bring with them. Chris Detert, chief communications officer at Influential, a US-based company that matches brands with influencers, says: “When you're using regular influencers you have all the inherent risks of people living their lives; people can get DUI's, get arrested, say non PC things. You'll always have that risk. With CGI influencers you'll have a markedly better chance of that not happening.”

The security of having a brand ambassador that does not have the sentience to go off the rails is understandable, but why are the most popular avatars all racially ambiguous? Detert offers one possible explanation: “Racial ambiguity is something (brands) like to play into because then it doesn't play into one particular interest group, it ends up hitting a wider swath. I think that's maybe the appeal of the pop culture generation of the Kardashians and the people in pop culture now, they try and ride the middle so they can attract all interest groups so it doesn't become a white or black or Asian or Hispanic thing; it all melds into one.”

 "The number of people identifying as mixed race is rising" - Stephanie Phillips

Detert’s analysis of influencers reflects the changing population demographics. According to the UK census the number of people that identified as mixed race rose from 1.3% in 2001 to 2.3% in the 2011. Although the 2011 data is relatively old (the UK census takes place every 10 years, making the 2011 data the closest available official statistics) experts believe that the mixed race demographic is the fastest growing racial category in the country. Tze Ming Mok, a PhD researcher into mixed identities in the UK at the London School of Economics says the number of people identifying as mixed race is rising for a number of reasons. “It is a very fast growing population and that's because the white population is aging. Young populations are more weighted to minority groups in the UK, partly due to immigration patterns and different kinds of family structure.” Mok expects the number of people that identify as mixed race will continue to grow and notes that there is a trend towards “super diversity” where people identify with multiple ethnic groups.

The millennial demographic influencers rely on expect their multiracial environments to be reflected in the media. A notion stars like Kim Kardashian know all too well after receiving backlash for not catering enough for darker skin tones in her KKW makeup line. Consumers also have the self-assurance to let brands know if they make a misstep. South Korean brand Stylenanda found this out the hard way when they were accused on social media of colouring a model’s hand to make it appear darker. To not appease today’s representation-hungry generation and subsequently miss out on the multi-level appeal of racial ambiguity could be a fatal move for a new company looking to impress.

With that in mind, Mok sees why companies have employed non-specific diverse imagery to reach people. “If they're aiming for this young, urban demographic they've clearly done their research that shows even white people in that demographic want to affiliate with something that represents something they can get outside their identity and project a fantasy onto.”

The use of racially ambiguous characters also gives brands the freedom to latch on to key woke messaging points about identity politics without having to deal with the often messy reality that encompasses those difficult topics. Miquela’s Instagram is awash with celebratory posts about black excellence. “GO TF OFFFF!!!!” she exclaims on a post about a 12 year-old black girl with two degrees, while her bio promotes groups such as Black Lives Matter and Campaign for Youth Justice.

These human displays of personality traits have earned her a devoted following. Her fans hang on every post about her emotional lows and goofy moments. On a post showing off a new addition to her wardrobe user @pomegranatestars added: “WHEREEEE can I find that shirt she cute afff”. Under a snap of Miquela lying down, bathed in light user @souvenir.haji wrote: “🙂 awesome pic”. While on a post celebrating her new single commenter jaeblazem wrote: “#sofresh!! Love this!!!”. For many of her fans Miquela is as real as any other friend, making her more than a branding tool; Miquela is now an essential part of many people’s daily lives.

More representation is what many minorities have been crying out for, so could the high profile of influencers like Lil Miquela be a positive step forward? Susan Dale, creator of the HaluHalo photo project which celebrates mixed race identity, is unsure. “Being mixed race often feels like you are being constantly judged and tested by others but you will always fail as you will never be deemed 'black enough, white enough, [insert ethnicity] enough and now the usage of these racially ambiguous mixed raced CGI influencers seems to reflect a notion that mixed race people aren't even mixed race enough to represent themselves.”

"For many of her fans Miquela is as real as any other friend, making her more than a branding tool; Miquela is now an essential part of many people’s daily lives" - Stephanie Phillips

But, when you look at it another way, surely a greater visibility of mixed race models and idols - whether real or fake - suggests a mixed race identity is the new beauty ideal? It’s no coincidence that the majority of CGI models currently at the forefront are mixed race. Can we say the same for the models of the catwalks?

Suran Goonatilake, co-founder of Bodymetrics, a technology company which has created applications for the fashion industry including a skin tone map of London, believes CGI influencers will become an essential part of our lives. “I can see increasingly that photorealistic (mixed race) avatars will be used in a fashion context where you're doing something like a run of the mill ecommerce site and you have to shoot many different looks.” Bodymetrics is not the only company with a vision to change the way people interact with technology. Pinscreen, a computational imaging company, have developed technology that allows users to digitise selfies to create a 3D photorealistic avatar. Speaking from computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH, founder Hao Li says, “we have been approached by many companies that are interested in VTubers”. A VTuber is a Japanese phenomenon where a performer reenacts an anime avatar. The work of companies like Bodymetrics and Pinscreen will result in more accurate depictions of skin tones and race, which can be used to create avatars of various races to help consumers pick out matching cosmetics.

Goonatilake’s vision of photorealistic avatars in the fashion industry could impact models of mixed race heritage, who may wake up one day to find their bookings taken by avatars. We have already seen the arrival of Shudu, the world’s first digital supermodel.  Shudu is a dark-skinned avatar created by a white photographer, a revelation that sparked outrage from commenters questioning whether a white man could accurately depict a woman of colour. That said, Shudu has already garnered approval by Fenty and has over 100,000 followers on Instagram.

But, of course, the drive to use CGI models isn’t just about catering to societal needs for representation, it also comes down to our natural inclination towards the new. “There's a lot to be seen still as far as CGI influencers go,” says Detert. “They haven't reached anywhere near a saturation point. They're a media curiosity right now and the media's curiosity about them is getting them more headlines. The headlines will permeate society and there will be more demand for them.”

As technology and demand for CGI influencers develops, the focus on creating more varied racial categories will intensify. In the meantime, Miquela’s It girl status and popularity continue to soar. Whether more racially diverse virtual stars will join her is up to the many savvy tech companies striving to meet our collective needs for a virtual mirror to the real world.