On Instagram, there’s a woman so gorgeous that admiring fans wonder how she could possibly be human.
“You don’t even look real. You [look] like a painting,” one user commented after the South African model, who goes by Shudu, posted a dreamy photo of herself wearing a gauzy pink dress, gold African neck rings and a powder-pink turban. “Omg!!! Im in love.”
In reality, Shudu, who has 196,000 followers on Instagram, is more painting than person. She’s a 3-D digital animation made by an Englishman named Cameron-James Wilson, who bills his creation as “the world’s first digital supermodel.”
Influencers, beware: hot bots are coming for your jobs. Shudu is representative of a growing crop of beautiful and highly realistic avatars on social media, created for the sole purpose of gaining followers and making money. And it’s working — these otherworldly beauties are landing lucrative partnerships with the biggest names in fashion, such as Balmain, Calvin Klein and Dior. Social-media-savvy celebrities are embracing them as well; Kim Kardashian, Bella Hadid and Zendaya have all appeared in photos and videos with their digital counterparts. Even top modeling agencies, including IMG and Lipps, have signed on to manage the most popular bots.
“Over the past few years, this has really taken off,” Wilson, who runs the virtual-influencer company the Diigitals, tells The Post. Wilson, 30, now controls the careers of seven robot models who, like human influencers, post sponsored content on social media for money. “My company has grown massively. This is a really lucrative industry.”
Though Wilson declined to share how much income Shudu has, social-media marketing expert Charlie Buffin estimates that the top bot influencers are making between $10,000 and $15,000 per post, if not more, which is on par with humans who have a similar number of followers.
Buffin, 27, who runs LA-based influencer marketing company Spark, says that unlike humans, bots present brands with a unique level of control: “They won’t do anything the brand doesn’t want them to do.”
Last year, Trevor McFedries and Sara DeCou, the creators behind hot bot Lil Miquela, got $125 million from investors, according to TechCrunch. She’s the first and most widely recognized bot-fluencer, with 1.8 million followers. And in October 2018, the virtual It girl landed a coveted job at Dazed magazine as a contributing arts editor.
For Wilson, Shudu’s success came by surprise. A fashion photographer for eight years, Wilson decided to take up 3-D design as a hobby and created the model based on his favorite Barbie doll, Princess of South Africa. He posted a portrait of Shudu on Facebook in 2017 and it quickly went viral, with thousands wondering who this mysterious woman could be.
He found the enthusiasm encouraging. “As a 3-D artist, when people are unable to distinguish if it’s a photo or 3-D, that’s a really big compliment,” Wilson says. “I started to see the potential of it.”
Inspired, he launched Shudu’s Instagram page, but kept his identity a secret as thousands of followers poured in. A photo of Shudu wearing a bright Fenty lipstick was reposted on the Rihanna brand’s Instagram, prompting even more speculation about Shudu.
Wilson wasn’t intentionally trying to “deceive anyone,” he says, but a “ ’Black Mirror’ moment” with a T-shirt company prompted him to finally come clean.
Eager to collaborate with Shudu, the T-shirt company sent the model a yellow sample to wear in an Instagram post for cash. Wilson, determined to prove his skills, then created a digital version for Shudu to wear and posted the pic. When the company believed the shirt — and photo — were real, Wilson was shocked.
“It blew my mind, and I was like, ‘OK, if somebody could send me their own T-shirt and can’t tell if it’s real, then I feel like people need to know the truth.’ ”
Wilson unmasked himself in a Harper’s Bazaar piece in 2018, but the confession was met with outrage, mainly by critics who viewed him as a white man profiting off the image of a black woman.
One of his biggest critics is popular YouTuber Natalia Taylor, who posted a video blasting Wilson and sharing the “DISTURBING TRUTH about this model.”
‘They won’t do anything the brand doesn’t want them to do.’
“This individual — which isn’t even an individual; it’s a computer — is taking up an extremely valuable spot as a model in this industry,” Taylor says in the video, which was posted over the summer and has nearly 2.5 million views. “But no. That spot is now taken up by a fake black woman that was constructed by this white man.”
Fellow YouTube star Grace Victory, a lifestyle influencer and body-positive activist, places the blame on companies for perpetuating the trend.
“Brands don’t seem to care who you are — or what you are, in this case — as long as you can push a product to thousands and thousands of people,” she says. “I do not get it at all.”
Wilson says it’s a “fair criticism,” and has pledged to work with as many black-owned companies as possible.
But he’s not the only white artist making serious cash from a design that depicts a beautiful woman who appears to be of another race.
Joerg Zuber is the man behind the dark-haired, wide-eyed Noonoouri. Though his character is much more cartoonlike than the hyper-realistic Shudu, the Munich-based designer has already seen tremendous success since launching the fashionista in 2018, garnering her 333,000 followers and snagging spots for Noonoouri in Vogue, alongside Kim Kardashian and Tommy Hilfiger. She’s signed with IMG Models.
Zuber says that because he employs a team of six designers to work full time on Noonoouri, he has yet “to break even” on her. He’s also been especially, and strategically, picky about who she works with: “I didn’t want to make fast money, like 500 euros here or $1,000 there. I really wanted to be selective,” says Zuber, 44. “In the end, it maybe pays off in a few years because [her fans] see . . . she only works with brands that correspond with her values and attitude and mindset. She’s like a real person in a way.”
Just like living influencers, the virtual ones showcase their “lives” through posts about travel, heartbreak, activism and, in Lil Miquela’s case, sexual assault.
In December, video circulated of Miquela saying she was in a rideshare with another passenger, a “creepy-ass man,” when “I just feel this guy’s cold, meaty hand touch my leg, as if he’s confirming I’m real.”
The video was met with outrage.
“@lilmiquela you’re playing wit [sic] real stories . . . real trauma . . . sexual assault is a scary real reality and at this point you’re ignorantly offensive. what type of sick s - - t is this,” singer Kehlani tweeted.
But influencer robots’ designers see things differently. They believe building personalities for their creations is essential to their success.
“You have to give the character a personality that people can really follow and relate to, otherwise, what’s the point?” says Buffin, whose hot bot Daisy Paige is a model at agency Lipps, which represents Cardi B, Courtney Love and Lizzo. “You need to have some context and background for people to engage with it.”
Zuber agrees. “A big part of her life is raising her voice for the voiceless: children, animals and nature,” he says of Noonoouri, who has done posts with UNICEF, Naomi Campbell’s Fashion for Relief and the CFS Foundation.
Wilson believes the bots have even more potential to do good, by reducing air travel and ground transportation for photo shoots and by eliminating the need for sample clothing, all of which could have a positive environmental impact.
But Victory says any potential benefits are not enough to make up for the fact that beautiful bots are still, essentially, fake. Connecting with real people, she says, “is super important for mental health and our well being . . . [Having virtual influencers] takes away our human-ness.”