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Virtual Instagrammers work with designer brands, earn thousands a day and are adored by millions

Meet Miquela Sousa. Also known as Lil Miquela, she’s the effortlessly cool 19-year-old social media influencer whose on-trend clothes and Princess Leia-style buns have now racked up 2.8 million followers on Instagram.

As well as being known for her devotion to causes such as abortion rights and Black Lives Matter, which have earned her a place in Time Magazine’s list of 25 most influential people on the internet, she’s also worked with brands such as Prada and Chanel, which pay good money to have their products adorn her perfect, lithe body.

She can potentially earn up to £6,500 per post on Instagram.

Meet Miquela Sousa. Also known as Lil Miquela, she’s the effortlessly cool 19-year-old social media influencer whose on-trend clothes and Princess Leia-style buns have now racked up 2.8 million followers on Instagram

Meet Miquela Sousa. Also known as Lil Miquela, she’s the effortlessly cool 19-year-old social media influencer whose on-trend clothes and Princess Leia-style buns have now racked up 2.8 million followers on Instagram

Her devotion to causes such as abortion rights and Black Lives Matter, which have earned her a place in Time Magazine’s list of 25 most influential people on the internet

Her devotion to causes such as abortion rights and Black Lives Matter, which have earned her a place in Time Magazine’s list of 25 most influential people on the internet

She’s the kind of person every teenage girl would love to have as a best friend. As a result, millions of young people look to Miquela for advice on what to buy, how to dress and even what to think.

If Miquela seems too good to be true, she is. She is a computer graphics animation made of pixels who only exists on-screen.

From her exotic Spanish-Brazilian background to the cute freckles on her nose (designed to give her an imperfect beauty and make her more ‘relatable’), everything is manufactured. 

She therefore ticks every box for what marketers think a young woman should look like to rack up followers.

She was created in 2016 by a secretive LA-based company called Brud, which is now estimated to be raking in millions from brands that will pay for its growing range of glamorous avatars to promote their products.

It is said that the ‘virtual influencers’ have become so life-like that one survey found 42 per cent of youngsters have followed an influencer they didn’t realise was CGI. Furthermore, even when they do realise they are not real, a third reported the characters had given them ‘helpful advice’.

But while some might describe this as the most cynical and manipulative stunt to be pulled off so far on social media, others say it’s the logical next step.

After all, it’s no secret that human influencers project an unrealistic lifestyle and use filters to create an illusion of physical perfection. 

She’s the kind of person every teenage girl would love to have as a best friend. As a result, millions of young people look to Miquela, pictured with actress Millie Bobby Brown, for advice on what to buy, how to dress and even what to think

She’s the kind of person every teenage girl would love to have as a best friend. As a result, millions of young people look to Miquela, pictured with actress Millie Bobby Brown, for advice on what to buy, how to dress and even what to think

She was created in 2016 by a secretive LA-based company called Brud, which is now estimated to be raking in millions from brands that will pay for its growing range of glamorous avatars to promote their products

She was created in 2016 by a secretive LA-based company called Brud, which is now estimated to be raking in millions from brands that will pay for its growing range of glamorous avatars to promote their products

So why hire a diva-esque human to sell your products when you can construct the perfect brand ambassador of your own?

Miquela will always be ‘on message’ and will never look rough with a hangover. Moreover, she will be 19, and beautiful, for ever.

‘A CGI influencer has no personal life that can create a PR nightmare for the brand: no messy divorce, no drug abuse,’ says Stefano Marrone, managing director of strategic content agency Nucco Brain.

But what effect will this next generation of influencers have on the minds of young people already struggling with feeling they can’t compete with airbrushed perfection?

Research shows while more than half of Miquela’s followers are in the 18 to 24 age group, many are also under 17.

So will knowing their insta-idols are fake give them more or less to live up to? Marketing expert Scott Guthrie says virtual influencers’ often stick-thin bodies and flawless complexions simply reinforce unrealistic beauty standards. 

‘There is no need for them to succumb to perpetual dieting, gruelling beauty regimes or cosmetic surgery. They do not age or fluctuate between dress size.’ Indeed, it’s clear from the comments that many young people are confused — with girls rushing to compliment Miquela on her looks and asking for advice on hair and skin care.

Miquela will always be ‘on message’ and will never look rough with a hangover. Moreover, she will be 19, and beautiful, for ever

Miquela will always be ‘on message’ and will never look rough with a hangover. Moreover, she will be 19, and beautiful, for ever

Research shows while more than half of Miquela’s followers are in the 18 to 24 age group, many are also under 17

Research shows while more than half of Miquela’s followers are in the 18 to 24 age group, many are also under 17

Andy Phippen, Professor of IT Ethics and Digital Rights at Bournemouth University, adds: ‘Avatars like Miquela are typically skinny with big eyes. Even compared to influencers who use filters, this really is a completely unrealistic representation of body image — because it’s not even real. Both promote unhealthy body image and unrealistic expectations.

‘It falls to parents to help their children understand that what is online is sometimes not what it seems. Young people need help to learn how to make informed judgments when seeing content like this.’

But the last word must go to Miquela — or at least the team who script her every move. Asked about how her online images are edited, she replied: ‘Can you name one person on Instagram who doesn’t edit their photos?’

  • Tanith Carey is author of What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology For Modern Parents, published by DK.

Blank stare gives Miquela away

Name: Lil Miquela, @lilmiquela

Instagram following: 2.8 million

Potential earnings per post: £6.5k

Brands: Calvin Klein, Samsung, Givenchy, Prada

At first glance, Miquela looks like any Instagram influencer. The feed of this ‘forever 19-year-old’ is full of the usual shots of her posing drinking coffee in leisure wear (tagged Adidas) and taking selfies with her phone (tagged Samsung).

In her comments, she shares her heartbreak at splitting up with a boyfriend, complains about her allergies and how much she needs an iced matcha when it’s hot, even though she has never left a computer screen.

It’s only Miquela’s eerily glassy complexion and blank stare that gives her away.

However, devoted followers will know she ‘came out’ as ‘a change-seeking robot’ two years ago. 

According to the California-based team who script all of this, Brud, this seems to qualify her as a role model to talk about how it feels not to fully belong.

At first glance, Miquela looks like any Instagram influencer. The feed of this ‘forever 19-year-old’ is full of the usual shots of her posing drinking coffee in leisure wear (tagged Adidas) and taking selfies with her phone (tagged Samsung)

At first glance, Miquela looks like any Instagram influencer. The feed of this ‘forever 19-year-old’ is full of the usual shots of her posing drinking coffee in leisure wear (tagged Adidas) and taking selfies with her phone (tagged Samsung)

In one post, ‘she’ writes: ‘I see family and friends hurt by ignorance every day. I have to say something! To be an artist and not acknowledge politics seems irresponsible to me.’

While her life is fake, the money she earns — this year she could pull in as much as £8.9 million — is real. In one lucrative collaboration with Calvin Klein, she was pictured kissing supermodel Bella Hadid, although this was later criticised as ‘queer-baiting’.

As well as being featured in Vogue, Miquela also has a music career which draws in cash.

Each month, songs recorded under her name are streamed up to 80,000 times on Spotify. 

The wannabe pop princess 

Name: Bermuda, @bermudaisbae

Followers: 286,000

Potential earnings per post: £1,021

Brands: SoulCycle, Vetements

Blonde model Bermuda is the closest CGI comes to Paris Hilton. In her bio, she has described herself as ‘an unbothered mogul with Daddy’s PIN and flawless highlights’.

Like her best friend Miquela, Bermuda is photo-real to the point where she almost looks like flesh and blood.

Both have bodies that are so realistic that experts believe that real models are used to create their poses before new faces are superimposed.

Like Miquela, Bermuda also has a burgeoning pop career after recording a version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers song, Under The Bridge.

Blonde model Bermuda is the closest CGI comes to Paris Hilton. In her bio, she has described herself as ‘an unbothered mogul with Daddy’s PIN and flawless highlights’

Blonde model Bermuda is the closest CGI comes to Paris Hilton. In her bio, she has described herself as ‘an unbothered mogul with Daddy’s PIN and flawless highlights’

Like her best friend Miquela, Bermuda is photo-real to the point where she almost looks like flesh and blood.

Like her best friend Miquela, Bermuda is photo-real to the point where she almost looks like flesh and blood.

Her feed mainly consists of her glamorous LA lifestyle, which sometimes verges on parody.

According to Bermuda’s Instagram feed, her day starts at 6.15am with meditation and ‘a smoothie of green apple, kale, violet milk and ionised charcoal butter, followed by cycling or Pilates and avocado toast and a turmeric latte’.

However, Bermuda could also be seen as an example of how such CGI characters can be used as mouthpieces for more sinister messages.

A one-time Trump supporter, she has also been a climate change denier, saying: ‘The world’s not getting hotter, but I am.’

First digital supermodel 

Name: Shudu, @shudu.gram

Instagram following: 210,000

Potential earnings per post: £791

Brands: Balmain, Soulsky, Ellesse

Shudu’s bio describes her as ‘the world’s first digital supermodel’.

However she has never set foot on a catwalk because her creator, British photographer Cameron-James Wilson, crafted her on screen three years ago.

He explained he was inspired not only by black Barbie dolls, but also some of his favourite models — Naomi Campbell, Iman and Alek Wek.

Shudu has never set foot on a catwalk because her creator, British photographer Cameron-James Wilson, crafted her on screen three years ago

Shudu has never set foot on a catwalk because her creator, British photographer Cameron-James Wilson, crafted her on screen three years ago

For the moment, Shudu is still more of a clothes horse than a personality, as Wilson says he is still searching for the right backstory for her

For the moment, Shudu is still more of a clothes horse than a personality, as Wilson says he is still searching for the right backstory for her

Shudu looks so life-like that she is often confused for a real model, with Wilson explaining: ‘Shudu represents what I’ve always seen as beautiful, but something I don’t see often enough.’

Within a year of her launch, Shudu got her big break when singer Rihanna’s make-up brand asked to repost a picture of her wearing one of their lipstick shades. 

For the moment, Shudu is still more of a clothes horse than a personality, as Wilson says he is still searching for the right backstory for her.

However her creation has also sparked controversy with some accusing her creator of being a white man making money out of images of black women.  

Big in Japan, perfect Imma 

Name: Imma, @imma.gram

Followers: 324,000

Potential earnings per post: £900

Brands: Porsche, Ikea

Imma’s name comes from the Japanese for ‘now’. Her character — described in her bio as a ‘virtual girl’ — is based around her pastel pink bob, perfect complexion and quirky dress sense and love of Japanese culture.

She is portrayed living in Tokyo, looking after a real dog called Cotton Candy, who has his own account with 2,000 followers.

Imma’s name comes from the Japanese for ‘now’. Her character — described in her bio as a ‘virtual girl’ — is based around her pastel pink bob, perfect complexion and quirky dress sense and love of Japanese culture

Imma’s name comes from the Japanese for ‘now’. Her character — described in her bio as a ‘virtual girl’ — is based around her pastel pink bob, perfect complexion and quirky dress sense and love of Japanese culture

She is portrayed living in Tokyo, looking after a real dog called Cotton Candy, who has his own account with 2,000 followers

She is portrayed living in Tokyo, looking after a real dog called Cotton Candy, who has his own account with 2,000 followers

In fact, she was created by Japanese graphic artists from ModelingCafé Inc, which specialises in computer modelling and aims to make characters that can be manipulated in real time to respond to audience feedback and sales trends.

Imma’s makers put her believability down to the fact that female graphic designers play a large part in sculpting her life. To extend her appeal, her posts are written in Japanese and English.

Blawko the robot sex symbol 

Name: Blawko, @blawko22

Followers: 153,000

Potential earnings paid per post: £598

Brands: Yeezy trainers, Absolut vodka

It seems that Ronald F Blawko, aka Blawko, was well ahead of the Covid-19 curve when he was created two years ago.

It seems that Ronald F Blawko, aka Blawko, was well ahead of the Covid-19 curve when he was created two years ago

It seems that Ronald F Blawko, aka Blawko, was well ahead of the Covid-19 curve when he was created two years ago

Despite his less than clean-living life, industry experts estimate he could earn his creators around £159,000 a year for product placements

Despite his less than clean-living life, industry experts estimate he could earn his creators around £159,000 a year for product placements

He first started wearing masks shortly after he was launched in 2017 to hide his lower face for reasons that have never been fully explained.

A self-confessed slob and ‘young robot sex symbol’, in a break away from the minimalist show homes of most influencers, he is also proud of his unhealthy lifestyle, and untidy LA apartment — and also happy to admit he is not real, even having a tattoo of the name of the company which created him, Brud, on his thigh.

Despite his less than clean-living life, industry experts estimate he could earn his creators around £159,000 a year for product placements.  

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