June 15, 2018

Any girl who’s ever doubted her own attractiveness after comparing herself with the surgically-enhanced, photoshopped female beauty in today’s media now has a new nemesis — the digital supermodel.

Taking perfection to a new level, the digital supermodel has made her first foray onto the fashion scene bolstered by a fake Instagram account and real-world press.

Computer-generated (CG) model Miquela Sousa, known as Lil Miquela online, has over 70,000 followers on her Instagram account. Recently, she appeared in a V Magazine spread, where she modeled clothes by Chanel and Burberry and responded to questions in an interview.
The budding superstar mentions that she’s developed “real friendships and relationships with people online,” although she adds “I think we are in an age where authenticity is getting harder to find.”

Ironic, coming from what is probably the least-authentic model in the world.

But she’s here to stay, and others are lining up for their day in the spotlight. CG model Shudu is waiting in the wings for her chance to wear top brands for pay, and there are a whole group of creative CG wizards scurrying to develop the next “It Girl.”

And the “It Girl” moniker was never more appropriate. What is Miquela? Her creator is male, but who’s posing as her in interviews and on social media? What’s their background, their interest in “becoming” Miquela and fooling with the public’s perception.

Make no mistake — people are duped into thinking that this “model,” who poses with real-life celebrities like Nile Rogers and Kacy Hill — is authentic. They write to her, listen to her advice, and want to be like her.

But they can’t ever know her, be like her, or even copy her, because she’s computer generated — a trait that takes unattainable perfection, and our pursuit of it, to a whole new level.

Women through the ages have compared themselves to celebrities and other models with increasing dissatisfaction. With the advent of the CG model, generations of girls traumatized into starvation diets by unattainable female perfection now have an even more unrealistic goal. The ultimate in perfection has arrived on the scene and keeping up is going to be virtually —no pun intended — impossible.

Besides the impact CG models may have on body image issues, there are two other stark realities at play: the subterfuge of unknowingly interacting with a non-person who is represented by some unnamed, unidentified entity — and false advertising.

The Falsest of Advertising

Any woman who’s tried on the latest fashion trend only to find what looks fabulous on supermodel Kate Moss adheres like an especially tenacious piece of Cling-Wrap knows the feeling. The quest to find clothing that looks like it “should” has women feeling emotions that range from subtle disappointment to full-on outrage.

Fashion brands pay big money to models with the “right” shapes for their clothing designs that will encourage women to buy them in the hopes that they can achieve that same elusive look. Makeup brands do the same, employing models that already have “the right stuff” to showcase their wares. You’ll see full-lipped models hawking lip-plumping lipsticks and doe-eyed women urging you to buy the right eyeshadows to make your eyes larger and more appealing, even though they themselves don’t need the help.

Of course, if you don’t have full lips to begin with, the lip plumpers are never going to live up to the advertising. Same with the eyeshadows and the clothing. But now companies have a new weapon in their arsenal. A CG model can be created with emphasis on the appropriate body part, making products even more appealing.

As for clothing, it’s no surprise that a CG model is wearing CG clothing, albeit in a design that resembles the original. It will always have the perfect fit, perfect drape, and perfect lines — and here’s the kicker – on any CG body.

That’s right.

When I look at Kate Moss, I know the clothes she’s wearing probably won’t look the same on me. She’s tall, thin, and small-chested. I’m shorter, heavier, and ample up top. Those tiny tops just won’t be the same. But with CG, a creator can force those designs to fit any body shape — perfectly. The clothes are, literally, painted on. So, Kate’s tiny top can be made to look great on an ample bust, even if it’s an impossibility in real life.

From a consumer and legal standpoint, that’s a problem.

Deceptive advertising, also known as false advertising, refers to a manufacturer's use of hard-to-understand, deceiving, or blatantly untrue statements during product promotion. Truth in labeling means that any information a consumer might reasonably need to be made aware of should appear on a label.

Consumers need to know if the models they’re viewing are CG. This should be clearly labeled on every social media account, magazine spread, or anywhere else the “model” appears. Consumers deserve to know the truth about who/what they’re interacting with.

Think of the implications behind a young man or woman interacting on social media with a model who’s not real. Sure, a real person is behind the interaction, but it’s not the person who’s posing with famous people, traveling the world, and wearing designer fashion for pay. In fact, what’s happening with Lil Miquela could be considered “catfishing,” a term used to describe what happens when someone lures an unsuspecting person into an online relationship by means of a fictional persona.

It’s misleading.

But so much about today’s computer culture is. Take Amalia Ulman, a twenty-something Instagrammer who catalogued her personal life journey for nearly 100,000 fans. Except the journey was far from personal – it was a fictional narrative played out under the guise of reality. Thousands of fans supported her through a break-up and interacted with her along the way, only to find out the entire thing was a performance.

That’s misleading and aggravating for those who reached out to her. At least she wasn’t selling anything. At least people weren’t suckered into buying something out of pity, support, or the wish to imitate her.

A New — Virtual — Reality

Joining Lil Miquela and Shudu on the public stage is the pink-haired Lightning character from the Final Fantasy VIII video game. Lightning was chosen to represent premier handbag designer Louis Vuitton’s new designs in 2016 and once again, real-sounding words were put into a virtual mouth. Here’s an excerpt from her “interview:”

“Though his style was new to me, the moment I laid eyes on his collection, it was as if I was hit by a bolt of lightning. (Ghesquière) changed the way I see myself. Perhaps I’m finally learning who I truly am.”

That’s a completely ridiculous statement coming from a fictional character, but at least in Lightning’s case, it’s obvious she’s an avatar, not a CG model posing as human.

Still, there’s becoming an alternate universe of reality-TV-like drama surrounding these CG characters in an attempt, it appears, to imitate real life. Lil Miquela’s account was supposedly hacked in 2016 by a rival model, Bermuda, who was the driving force behind exposing her non-humanity. Which she did, apparently, with “shaking hands.” Is that even possible?

And now real people are jumping onto the CG bandwagon in a quest to extend their useful lives as entertainers and celebrities. The band ABBA, who found fame in the 70s and 80s with hits like “Waterloo” and “Dancing Queen,” are reunited and on tour again, even though the original members are in their 70s. How? They’ve been turned into Abbatars, their tongue-and-cheek name for avatars of themselves in their heyday. They’ll be performing songs from their brand-new recordings “live” on a televised performance which they say will be virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.

While this is great news for fans of the Swedish pop quartet, it might sound a death knell for those who live to see “live” performances everywhere. But at least everyone knows the Abbatars are not “real.”

It’s not the first time that Swedes have forayed into the digital world and stirred up controversy. Clothing retailer H&M drew fire back in 2011 when it was discovered they’d superimposed the faces of real models on CG bodies to sell their swimsuit line. H&M spokesman Hacan Andersson confirmed the process, claiming it simplified photoshoots and put the focus on the clothing instead of the models. Except, of course, that the CG bodies are perfect in every way and better enhance the desirability of the clothing.

Future Shock — The Proliferation of CG in the Online Marketplace

Let’s face it — CG models are here to stay. They can be physically perfect or designed with any set of features and attributes you desire. They’re easy to manage, they don’t act like divas on a shoot, and they can’t sue you for sexual harassment. They can sell clothing because it looks perfect on them, and you can manipulate their “lives” and “stories” the way you never could with a flesh-and-blood spokesmodel.

But they are the ultimate cop-out — an extreme corruption of public relations. They are false advertising at its most outrageous. They represent everything bad about capitalism — greed, dishonesty, and the willingness to sacrifice the well-being of the consumer just to make a buck.

Although we can’t prevent so-called “creatives” from designing new CG personas to sell you everything from sneakers to luxury cars, we can, at least, slap a warning label on the back of their cold, pixelated environments.

Manufacturers, designers, and other sales venues should not be able to hawk their wares using fake people. At the very least, we should protect our up-and-coming generation of adolescents from comparing themselves to the ultimate in perfection. A large, easily-read label warning consumers that the entity they are seeing, engaging with, or reading an interview about, is CG should be clearly evident on every place a CG model appears. It should be on their Instagram page, their Twitter feed, Facebook page and any photos, advertisements, or interviews.

We can’t be too careful when it comes to setting boundaries between reality and the virtual universe. As CG becomes better and more realistic, the lines between real and virtual will be indistinguishable. As consumers and as human beings, we deserve to know the truth about the images that are thrown at us 24/7. No one deserves to endure feeling sympathy, empathy, and concern over an ethereal fragment of binary code — unless, of course, it’s your choice.

Nikki Williams
is a bestselling author based in Houston, Texas. She writes about fact and fiction and the realms between, and her nonfiction work appears in both online and print publications around the world. Follow her on Twitter @williamsbnikki or at nbwilliamsbooks.com.