Looking at her, the natural response would be envy. She’s beautiful, loved, financially secure. Her life appears full of friendships and food trucks, music festivals and travel—effortless, joyful. In one photo, she sits on the floor of an apartment, clutching a half-eaten piece of toast, gently resting her head on the shoulder of her smiling friend. In another, her boyfriend (who she refers to as “angel”) paints her nails. Some steady source of income, a huge circle of friends, a chosen family of other stylish LA creatives, work as an upcoming singer, over a million Instagram followers. The only catch? She’s not real. She’s a marketing ploy, a crafty bit of 3D animation and photoshop.
Several articles have already been written about the origins and development of “Lil Miquela”—first released in 2016 by Brud, a mysterious LA based “transmedia studio” which claims to specialize in “robotics, artificial intelligence, and their applications to media businesses.” I, however, am more interested in what her appearance and success suggest about our ideal, online selves—and about our appetite for similarly artificial idols.
It seemed, for a while, that young people were clamoring for influencers and celebrities who were authentic and relatable. People wanted to buy from models who shared their body type, race, or ability—and that they were finally being heard. This trend towards growing authenticity might suggest that a completely computer-generated model would flop horribly. But if Lil Miquela has demonstrated anything, it’s that a computer-generated model can be a huge success. She has well over 3 million views on her music videos “Money” and “Automatic,” 1.8 million followers on Instagram and 25,000 on Twitter. She’s been featured in modeling campaigns for major international companies like Samsung, Calvin Klein, and Uggs.
Lil Miquela seems to carry influencing to its logical extreme. The idea of an influencer is already something artificial and suspect, people who endlessly have to manicure and edit their lives while hiding the majority of that editing process so that it does not corrupt their “naturally-cool” image. Already, influencers have partially decoupled relatability from reality. Most people know that influencers filter and edit their photos or receive extensive help from teams of staff, or large amounts of product donations from hopeful companies, but they still choose to see them as authentic. Lil Miquela is just the final extension. She has no human embodiment, she only exists in the imagination and the manipulations of the company trying to sell her and the brands who buy her, but she somehow still reaches the hearts of millions. It appears our appetite—or perhaps our tolerance—for falseness is deeper than we thought.
French social theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote that “Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” This perfectly captures Lil Miquela: There is no person behind this feed. The feed becomes the reality, the feed builds the person. Baudrillard described a short story of Jorge Luis Borges, where the map makers of a fictional kingdom make a map so accurate that it covers every square inch. He writes in relation to the hyperreal:
“The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.”
Well, here we stand, with reality rotting. And Lil Miquela suggests what will remain and thrive in this desert: It will be our deepest aspirations, revealed through our digital bread crumbs, reflected back to us in a human form best calibrated to tug at our heart strings—and to sell us something.
Who will inhabit the future?
Lil Miquela could be anywhere from fourteen to twenty five. One hopes not the former, since she frequently poses in bikinis or underwear for her adoring Instagram crowds with not a hair, mole, or spot of fat on her lithe body.
Some of the articles mention her being nineteen at her release, which means that by now—if this “robot” ages like us—she’s likely meant to be in her early twenties. She doesn’t really look it. And while in the real world people would likely criticize the oversexualizaton of a child/very young woman, it’s hard to make the same claims about a software model. The joy of a software model is that she can be made to look fourteen, and then her creators can claim she’s nineteen—Who can possibly verify her “real” age? She will also stay looking fourteen regardless of however many years pass. It’s not just her appearance, but also her friends and the virtual world of her music videos. They feel like college or high school parties. In “Money” you wander through a smokey house. In some rooms, people play video games, in others they dance ecstatically, in the kitchen they’re taking shots, and out front people skateboard. In “Automatic,” the vibe is even younger. Beautiful young people play spin the bottle and smack open a pinata.
Perhaps this is beneficial, in that CGI models can take the role of young stars who are being oversexualized, sparing them that often harsh and psychologically-damaging spotlight. In reality, I think this will force young stars to compete even more intensely with the CGI stars—having to look as beautiful, and behave as maturely as they do.
There is also a notable racial element about Lil Miquela and her world. Lil Miquela’s “real” name is Miquela Sousa, and she is meant to be part Brazilian. Her appearance is what Jia Tolentino called “distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic.” Her videos widely represent people of color and often other marginalized groups like LGBTQ individuals. Representation is positive—many people long to see more people like them on screen—but there is something sad and sinister about a diverse world led by and created for a fake mixed race individual. Lil Miquela and her CGI friend “Blawko,” who are the center of Brud’s CGI model efforts, are also taking potential modeling jobs from in-the-flesh mixed race models, and offering up empty, commercialized representation. They seem to be catered to brand executives who are so squeamish about including POC that they will only accept manufactured ones. Miquela is not the only example of generated non-white models: photographer Cameron-James Wilson created Shudu, a model of African descent, and Xhi, a model of Chinese—both have modeled for Balmain.
In many ways, it makes sense to have computer generated models be mixed race—the world’s mixed race population is swiftly growing and they crave representation, but mixed race models simultaneously have a wide enough appeal to engage non-mixed consumers. Stephanie Phillips, in a wonderful, in depth piece on mixed race CGI influencers, also points out that “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.”
Lil Miquela’s politics seem to do exactly that. Her feeds are openly progressive with tweets and captions in support for wrongly convicted African Americans like Rodney Reed and Cyntoia Brown, or tweets reading “Fuck Christopher Columbus” for Indigenous People’s Day or “There is no ethical way to be a billionaire, have a blessed day y'all.” She supports Black Lives Matter and seems to espouse the flippant brand of millennial socialism popular on twitter. Although one might assume she's straight, she had called herself queer in earlier posts.
Lil Miquela certainly is not the only commercial entity to take political stances. In recent years we’ve seen Nike support Colin Kaepernick, Dick’s Sporting Goods stop selling assault rifles, and Starbucks close for a day to do racial bias training. Progressive beliefs—whether genuinely held or carefully calculated—seem increasingly popularity among big corporations. While some applaud these efforts, many have accused them of “greenwashing”—for attempts to convey environmentalism or creating “rainbow capitalism—for ostensibly supporting LGBTQ rights while doing little in reality. Yet none of these corporate attempts seem quite as cynical as Lil Miquela’s political beliefs, because there isn’t even a panel of executives to attribute these beliefs to or any real entity claiming to hold them. It’s a pure charade. A marketing company blatantly decides what beliefs will make their CGI model most appealing and has her voice them.
Right now we assume Brud is behind Miquela’s political posts, but they could just as easily be determined by whatever brand she is currently representing—it would probably be trivial to ask for a tweet to be posted, or surreptitiously deleted. That’s the convenience of CGI influencer, that the company who owns it, or rents it for a specific campaign, can take full control of the avatar’s social media presence. If they need them to represent a specific set of political ideals, they can make them do so. Chris Detert, a marketing officer interviewed by Phillips, explained this appeal of CGI influencers: “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 same company can create models with diametrically opposed politics to appeal to different crowds—which Brud has already done with “Bermuda” a blond CGI model who was originally created as a conservative version of Lil Miquela (I was not able to dig far enough back in her feed to locate these specific posts). A company could create a model with even more disagreeable political beliefs for an even more niche market, because who would be held responsible? The company can benefit from the persona of their model while still being at a safe distance from them.
Make them Dance
Corporate owners of CGI models can do more than just control their political beliefs, as my slightly hyperbolic titles suggests. On November 15th, Miquela posted a photo of her kissing a version of herself with the caption “Gay for Myself” and a robot heart robot string of emojis.
It could have been a bid at “queerbaiting,” suggesting a queer relationship but not developing it enough to alienate straight consumers, or just a way to titillate male audiences. Regardless, it gained publicity. The photo looked like it might have been an edited version of an earlier Calvin Klein advertisement, where Lil Miquela is shown kissing the straight supermodel Bella Hadid. The ad received quite a bit of criticism, since Bella Hadid is not queer and Lil Miquela is not real—meaning the ad seemed to exploit the public’s curiosity about affection while displaying little true queer representation. While brand and marketing executives laud CGI models for helping them avoid the foibles that come with employing humans, they usually frame the benefits as avoiding undesirable human actions, rather than being able to design actions that the brand desires. Both are equally possible for the future of CGI models. There will be no jobs that they’ll turn down, no roles that they feel uncomfortable or morally opposed to playing. Perhaps their owners will reject marketing jobs that could permanently narrow their models future appeal, but a brand’s qualms will likely be fewer than that of a human model, since the brand can always create a new model. This could lead to more depraved behavior or statements from models.
We Want Your Love
Reading the comments on Miquela’s photos drive home the most cynical part of the whole affair.
As Miquela talks about falling in love, or how much she loves her friends, or being lonely on Thanksgiving, she calls on our most basic emotions. She’s even more appealing for certain sectors: say a mixed race child looking for role models, or a bisexual child feeling isolated.
American philosopher Daniel Dennett warned about a similar phenomenon applied to artificial intelligence. He said that the Turing test “puts a premium on deception, on convincing human beings that they’re talking to a human being” which has led to the “Disneyfication of artificial intelligence—making AIs that seem more human. They’re basically false advertising. Whether we’re talking about Siri, or Watson, or any of the others, they have this paper-thin human user interface which is deeply deceptive about what the AI actually understands. That’s false advertising. It should not be honored, but rather criticized and condemned...We should get out of the habit of treating AIs as agents when they’re not.”
There are many reasons to avoid the trap of attributing more intelligence or agency to a system than it possesses. Doing so obscures the fact that the system cannot take moral accountability for its actions, it can make horrible mistakes, and it creates a deskilling of the person interacting with the system. Many brands will want to claim that their products are more powerful than they are in order to secure investment or acclaim, or like Brud, claim their product involves AI and robotics when it appears they use neither. It’s telling that Brud chooses to call her a robot, despite the fact that she has no robotic presence. She’s a brand, a set of 3d animation specs. Nevertheless, this fiction of her embodied robotically somewhere is key to her followers. Someone may actually play the body of Miquela, but I suspect they use multiple people because her chest significantly changes sizes between photos. Nevertheless, it’s not a body model that people are relating too, it’s her face and fake persona. It’s hard to relate to a brand or software, but the idea of some engineered body out there in some office in LA, or as Miquela claims, free to live her glitzy life, is relatable. People will take artificial, but they won’t take ephemeral.