- Computer avatar Miquela Sousa models for Prada, Samsung, Ugg, Balenciaga and Calvin Klein
- She has 1.6 million Instagram followers who she tells about her support for LGBT causes
- Miquela is the creation of a technology start-up Brud whose founders Sara DeCou, 27, and Trevor McFedries, 33, have never been interviewed
- Marketing agencies claim ‘virtual influencers give brands ultimate control over the content' which make them popular
With her flawless skin and perfectly styled hair, it’s no wonder Miquela Sousa dreams of becoming a pop star. Her effortlessly cool street-style has earned her 1.6 million followers on Instagram and caught the eye of many a fashion designer.
She has starred in advertising campaigns for major brands such as Prada and Balenciaga, been interviewed by Vogue, and was named one of the 25 most influential people on the internet by Time magazine.
In May, the super-successful 19-year-old Californian was even filmed kissing supermodel Bella Hadid for Calvin Klein’s latest campaign, and tomorrow she will be in the UK to model with the most sought-after young English actress of the moment – Millie Bobby Brown, star of the Netflix hit Stranger Things.
'Sponsored content': Miquela Sousa's distinct Princess Leia-style buns, blunt fringe, ambiguous ethnicity, rosy, full lips and a confident, edgy sense of style have made her popular with advertisers like Balenciaga. Here she is photographed wearing a tangerine jacket
So far, so normal. But look into Miquela’s eyes and you can see that something isn’t quite right. They may be alluringly brown and almond-shaped, but there’s an unmistakable lifelessness to her stare.
She’s eerily vacant, as if there’s nothing behind her eyes. And that’s because there isn’t.
For Miquela is nothing but pixels. She’s an avatar, a computer-generated image, a highly sophisticated 3D cartoon – but one that has an estimated worth of more than £100 million. Miquela is entirely fake. Yet she can sell almost anything through cleverly constructed photos on Instagram. The clothes she wears, the mobile phones she holds and even the hair products she ‘uses’ to keep her strands silky smooth are all real – and they are all for sale.
‘Virtual influencers give brands ultimate control over the content,’ explains Chris Parnell, founder of marketing agency Kairos Media. By choosing Miquela is a safe option for generating interest
Miquela wears the Tasman Slipper: She gets the seal of approval from UGG as she is invited to model for their 40th anniversary. They describe her as 'provocative' and 'representing an entire generation that is revising identity, reality and storytelling'
Miquela is the strangest development yet in a rapidly developing ‘influencer’ industry that many still find disconcerting.
Not that her fans seem to care. ‘Honestly, I love everything about her,’ says 23-year-old Jazz Williams from South Wales, who has been a fan from the outset.
‘To me, it doesn’t matter whether she’s real or not – I genuinely don’t care. I love her style. I think she’s so bold and diverse, her hair is iconic and you can learn from her.’
She gets close with Bella Hadid for a steamy Calvin Klein advert
No wonder the advertisers love her. With Princess Leia-style buns, a blunt fringe, ambiguous ethnicity, rosy, full lips and a confident, edgy sense of style, Miquela’s look is very distinct.
Her pore-free skin is never blighted by so much as a pesky spot. She never wakes up puffy-eyed and groggy on the day of a ‘shoot’ and her weight never fluctuates.
She is 19 for ever and she’ll never be photographed drunk, falling out of a nightclub or taking drugs – unlike many real-life models. She’s the perfect blank canvas for brands to mould into whoever – or whatever – they need her to be.
When Miquela first appeared on mobile-phone screens in 2016, the ambiguity of what she was led many young, impressionable social media users to believe she was real.
‘Wow, who is your make-up artist?’ asked a fan.
‘You’re so pretty. I wish I looked like you,’ gushed another.
‘I love you, Miquela,’ professed an even more enamoured youngster. ‘Thank you for liking my comment, you are so kind.’
'As a robot, I've found that humans really like to tell me what I can't do and my bb Samuel Phonington III reminds me that anything is possible': The virtual avatar praises Samsung in her Instagram phone advert
From nada to Prada: Miquela tries a spot of modelling for the high-end fashion brand in a bright red coat against an industrial backdrop
At first her creators liked to tease her followers and capitalise on the confusion. ‘Is she human?’ asked one perturbed Instagram user. ‘Why do you look like a doll?’ demanded another.
‘She’s some kind of cute mannequin,’ someone claimed. ‘It’s clearly a robot,’ stated another.
Eventually, fans were told the truth, or part of it at least. ‘I’m not a human being,’ Miquela confessed on her page. She said her ‘hands’ were shaking as she ‘wrote’ the post.
Today, Miquela, or more correctly her creators, like to pretend she’s some kind of sentient robot with thoughts and feelings.
Her photos show her in real places, mixing with real people. And she posts about abortion rights in America, supports LGBT causes and backs the Black Lives Matter movement.
She is everything a cool, young social-media star should be and even has a host of celebrity fans (actual ones) including Victoria Beckham, socialite Paris Hilton and music producer Mark Ronson.
The latter may come in useful as the CGI star is also on the brink of a music career. Her debut single, Hate Me, got more than four million streams on Spotify.
So who is behind this bizarre phenomenon? The answers are as puzzling and elusive as the creepy character of Miquela herself.
It turns out she was cooked up in secretive meetings in California’s futuristic Silicon Valley. She is the creation of a technology start-up called Brud, co-founded by Sara DeCou, 27, and ex- DJ and music producer Trevor McFedries, 33. On social media they’re boastful about their CGI pal, posing in the same photos as her.
But when it comes to discussing how they make her, it’s a very different story.
Search the internet and you’ll find ‘interviews’ with Miquela but none with her mysterious makers. Neither Sara or Trevor responded to interview requests. However, they appear to be doing very well from their venture. Sara lives in a £1million top-floor apartment in the gentrified Los Angeles area known as Frogtown, which is full of trendy foodie hangouts and coffee shops. Meanwhile, Trevor owns a £975,000 two-bedroom Spanish-style bungalow in the boho district of Los Feliz in Los Angeles, surrounded by shady palm trees.
But their success has led to some people questioning how ethical it all is. Data analysis shows that more than half of Miquela’s Instagram followers are in the 18-to-24 age bracket, while many others are under 17. Is it right to be promoting products to impressionable teenagers using an entirely fake person? Some have also voiced concerns that Miquela is the epitome of unattainable beauty standards and could promote anxiety in youngsters, especially as we don’t know how she is made.
Is she based on a real person? Is there a real-life model who looks suspiciously like Miquela?
The answer, say industry experts, is almost certainly yes.
While the company may be desperate to keep the tricks of the trade shrouded in secrecy, a trained eye doesn’t take long to unpick how they do it.
‘The face is computer-generated but the body looks real,’ says Dr Richard Southern, of the National Centre For Computer Animation. ‘CGI can be good. But generally clothes have certain draping patterns that are hard to replicate. It would be surprising if they could get them to the standard they have in those images. Looking at one of the images on her Instagram page, there’s a shoe in the foreground with a lot of laces. There are crumpled patterns where the shoe has bent and buckled at the back. That is an awful lot of detail for someone to have sculpted for a single Instagram post. It’s not practical. It would take a competent artist probably about a week and a half to develop.
‘And look closely at her hands, which are notoriously difficult to sculpt. These look like real hands. So it’s clear to me that there’s a real model wearing real clothes and then a straightforward face replacement.’
But what is the point? Last year the publication TechCrunch revealed that Brud raised millions of dollars from Silicon Valley investors because of its creepy creation. One venture capital firm, Sequoia Capital, reportedly invested a whopping £5million.
Meanwhile, Miquela’s visibility grows. She was recently splashed over billboards from London to Japan for Ugg’s footwear campaign. And she’s teamed up with smartphone giant Samsung to promote its latest Galaxy model.
London-based digital lifestyle magazine Dazed even ludicrously made her a contributing editor thanks to her experience ‘as musician and activist on the side of her modelling work’.
Although Miquela is leading the way as a virtual influencer fronting real-life ad campaigns, she has some competition.
British fashion photographer Cameron-James Wilson is the mastermind behind Shudu Gram, which he describes as the first virtual supermodel. Shudu’s striking looks have earned her 182,000 followers on Instagram.
In 2018, fashion house Balmain hired Wilson to make two more CGI supermodels for a campaign, and they became the brand’s ‘virtual army’ to sell luxury clothes. It’s fair to say that real models weren’t happy.
Brud has also created other lucrative characters – there’s Bermuda, a blonde, and Blawko, a male CGI, described as a ‘young robot sex symbol’.
Has the world gone mad? you may ask. For marketing experts, the appeal is obvious. ‘Virtual influencers give brands ultimate control over the content,’ explains Chris Parnell, founder of marketing agency Kairos Media. ‘Miquela guarantees absolute brand safety. She is able to deliver the perfect message for Prada. There is no risk of her then coming back and saying, “Actually I hate Prada.”
‘She’s a stereotypical idol of a Generation Z female and she is what all young people want to be. She’s a singer and does lots of cool things. It’s an aspirational lifestyle. It’s idealistic.’
After all, a lot of youngsters are after her job. A survey in February found that one in five British children want to be a social media influencer when they grow up, and 14 per cent want to be a YouTuber.
But for clinical psychologist Professor Michael Berry, the rise of the virtual influencer is deeply worrying. ‘It’s setting unrealistic ideals for young people that they can’t possibly reach,’ he said.
‘They’ll see these perfect images and think that is what they have to aspire to but are doomed to fail. I find it worrying and quite sinister that we don’t know who is behind these fake models.’
He added: ‘She’s appealing because she’s lovable – the same way as people worship football players or Ariana Grande.
‘It’s about creating the dream. Young people are being conned that they could be like that. But they can’t, because she’s not real.
‘That’s what I find quite frightening – the fact that they’ll never be able to match them.
‘I would certainly suggest that parents don’t let their children follow CGI influencers.’