It’s easier than ever to become a celebrity nowadays (as clichéd as that is to point out). You don’t even need to exist. Amid a new profusion of virtual influencers, CGI it-girls, holographic pop stars, and AI personalities, we’re seeing a brand new wave of digital stardom coalescing before our eyes.
Still, despite being fake, some are arguably more “real” than many human celebrities out there. Here are 10 up-and-coming cy-lebs to watch.
When Shudu appeared on Instagram with her immaculate complexion and otherworldly beauty, she immediately caught people’s eye. In particular, business owners were interested in associating her with their brands. Rihanna’s beauty line, Fenty Beauty, was among the first to repost her image and Tameka Small of the Majik Hands Dayspa in North Carolina offered products in return for endorsement. Meanwhile, Shudu was attracting followers in the tens of thousands.
So it came as a shock to many when she turned out to be CGI. In fact, as the article that outed her reported, she was based on a 2002 Barbie doll called the “Princess of South Africa.” Her creator, Cameron-James Wilson, a photographer based in London, first envisioned her as an art project, having taught himself 3D design from YouTube videos and other online resources.
For some, the fact that Shudu wasn’t real only made her all the more compelling. But others found it distasteful, or even disappointing—especially because of her skin color. Fatou Suri, for instance, a black human model, had come to see Shudu as an inspiration before finding out she was fake—although she did admit that her own photoshopped images also blurred the line between fact and fiction. And this was kind of the point. As Wilson put it, whereas mass media tends to airbrush the reality out of human models, transforming them into some kind of fantasy, “Shudu is coming from the other direction, she’s a fantasy trying to break through to reality.”
In any case, not everyone was appalled at the racist connotations of a “white man trying to capitalize off of black people” while eschewing real black models. According to Wilson, Shudu’s name was actually suggested by a young black South African girl who loved the project. And many others have found its portrayal of dark-skinned beauty, or even perfection, to be racially empowering in a media otherwise saturated with lighter skin tones.
Recognize the celebrity above?
No? Kind of looks like you should, though, doesn’t it?
That’s because the face in this photo is an amalgamation of many real celebrities’ faces from a dataset—the CelebA (CelebFaces Attributes) dataset—of more than 200,000 photos. It’s just one of many images created by an Nvidia algorithm based on generative adversarial networks (GANs), whereby one network generates fake images from a real image dataset in an attempt to fool another network into thinking they’re real. The “generator” network starts with low-resolution images and gradually builds up to higher resolutions, adding layers for finer details while learning from and informing the “discriminator” network’s responses.
It’s a relatively sophisticated form of machine learning that has produced some of the most convincing and detailed images of their type. And while they’re not perfect (just look at the ears in the image above), they’re plausible enough to raise concerns about this technology’s potential for abuse. In particular, as with “deepfakes,” critics worry it could be used by just about anyone to convincingly impersonate heads of state and trigger a nuclear war—or at least spread more disinformation than real politicians do on their own.
8. Lil Miquela
Although Lil Miquela doesn’t look half as real as Shudu, she’s established a cult following of her own—more than a million fans spanning Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, and collectively known as “Miquelites.”
Bizarrely, even long after her debut online, many continued to wonder whether Lil Miquela was actually human. Some claimed that her lack of visible pores was proof she was definitely fake, while others argued she’d just been heavily photoshopped but was in fact real underneath. She herself tended to evade the question entirely by highlighting the extent to which we all, in one way or another, use technology to shape how we’re perceived.
Her full name is Miquela Sousa and she presents herself as a 19-year-old Brazilian/Spanish LA it-girl routinely depicted outside clubs, at parties, and with friends while modeling clothes. She has also released her own music on Spotify and, as a remote-controlled drone, attended Prada’s 2018 autumn/winter fashion show in Milan.
Like many celebrities, she’s even been involved in a publicity-boosting online feud, in this case with fellow CGI “Instagram Girl” Bermuda. After some tedious back-and-forth, Bermuda allegedly hacked Lil Miquela’s Instagram account and threatened to out her as a fake—unless she did it herself within 48 hours. So Lil Miquela did, releasing an emotional statement in April 2018 to confirm that she is (unsurprisingly) “not a human being.” It then emerged that she, her “brother” Blawko, and her bitchy Republican rival Bermuda were all created by the same company—Brud—to serve as “virtual influencers” or cash cows.
Actually, her “coming out” as “not a human being” may well have been legally motivated. In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission updated its guidelines on product endorsement to force online “influencers” (bloggers and other personalities) to make it clear which of their posts are sponsored. Not only did Lil Miquela fail to declare who was paying, but, prior to her announcement, it wasn’t even clear who got paid.
7. Aimi Eguchi
When Japanese idol group AKB48 introduced Aimi Eguchi as its newest member in June 2011, fans were divided. She seemed weird. Debuting as the “ultimate pretty girl” on the cover of Weekly Playboy, she appeared to be heavily photoshopped. And, alongside other AKB48 members in a TV commercial, she appeared to be out of sync.
As it turned out she wasn’t real at all. She’d been created, in part, to advertise Glico’s Aisu no Mi frozen candy. But she wasn’t just CGI, she was something like Frankenstein’s monster, having been digitally cobbled together from seven other girls in the group. She had Yuko Oshima’s body and hair, Minami Takahashi’s outline, Atsuko Maeda’s eyes, and so on, taking her eyebrows, nose, mouth, and even voice from various other members.
As for her biographical details, they were taken from the candy company. Her birthday, for instance, is the date that Glico was founded (albeit not in 1922) and her hometown is the same as its headquarters.
Once the truth was out, Glico offered fans the opportunity to create their own AKB48 oshimen (“highly recommended member”) with an interactive app on its website.
6. LaTurbo Avedon
LaTurbo Avedon isn’t so much a fake celebrity as a digital avatar for a real-life artist. But like so many others on this list, she’s one that questions and explores time-honored notions of authorship and identity, and in particular how we use social media. Like most people, she says, her digital persona emerges through the process of sharing pics and chatting online—the only difference being that she exists nowhere else.
She’s a native inhabitant of digital space, inspired by Second Life and rendered using 3D modeling software. She makes and exhibits her art in digital space too, showcasing her virtual sculptures and environments almost exclusively online. She also curates a digital exhibition space for other artists to show off their work.
Although Avedon has exhibited at physical galleries as well, the nature of her art generally requires people to meet her halfway. At Somerset House in London, for example, this meant strapping on a virtual reality headset. And when she’s interviewed by reporters, Avedon communicates solely by email, text message, Facebook, and so on—only ever meeting “face-to-face” in virtual worlds like Second Life.
We still don’t know who she “really” is, who lives and breathes behind the persona, but that’s actually beside the point. LaTurbo Avedon and her work are the persona and she’s nothing whatsoever without it.
5. Max Headroom
People didn’t know quite what to make of Max Headroom back in the 1980s. Billed as the world’s first computer-generated TV host (but portrayed by a man in make-up), he was unlike anything they’d seen before. And he was rapidly becoming an unprecedented global phenomenon. By the end of the 1980s, he was deemed more culturally influential than Michael Jackson himself.
The character was originally created to anchor (or rather veejay) a music video show for Britain’s burgeoning Channel 4, ultimately hoping to capitalize on the game-changing success of America’s MTV. Before long, though, the idea had evolved into a TV movie as well (Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future) and was later picked up by US TV networks ABC and HBO for various series of their own. Max Headroom was also the face of Coca-Cola’s “Catch the Wave” ad campaign, directed by Ridley Scott.
In 1987 (the year in which he got his own talk show on Cinemax), Max Headroom’s celebrity status became official when he was featured on the cover of Newsweek alongside the headline “Mad About Max: The Making of a Video Cult.”
Unfortunately, this was also around the time that his original creators were losing creative control, unable to pay mounting lawyers’ fees amid aggressive backdoor negotiations and the involvement of corporate interests—all of which, ironically, Max Headroom was intended to parody. And in these less than visionary hands, life came to imitate art completely. When Max Headroom’s ratings began to flag (unable to compete against Miami Vice and Dallas), executives pulled the plug.
But he was destined to live on in the zeitgeist. One month after his cancellation in October 1987, a group of proto-hackers known as “phreakers” briefly commandeered two Chicago-area TV stations to play footage of a man dressed as Max Headroom. Then in Back to the Future Part II (1989), we got the Max Headroom-inspired talking heads of Michael Jackson and Ronald Reagan. More recently, Eminem’s “Rap God” music video also paid homage to the character, as have some videos put out by Anonymous.
In 2007, Channel 4 actually revived the character as a crotchety old man—played by the original actor Matt Frewer—to announce their switchover to digital broadcasts. Now more relevant than ever, there have even been talks to write a brand new series for Max Headroom. First, though, they’ll need to figure out who owns which parts of this completely manufactured celebrity.
Sophia is more “real” than most on this list, but only because she’s got a body—an artificial body built by Hong Kong’s Hanson Robotics, but a body nevertheless. In truth, though, she’s not even accepted as a “real” artificial intelligence by those who work in the field.
According to Facebook’s head of AI research, Yann LeCun, Sophia “is to AI as prestidigitation [stage magic]is to real magic.” She is, he says, little more than a mechanical puppet, an automaton, following a script she has no way of understanding.
Despite her creators’ claims that “she is basically alive,” and that she’s “a bit hurt” when people say otherwise, Sophia doesn’t come up with any of her own remarks. When she speaks, she’s either reciting a scripted speech with facial expressions to match, or she’s selecting from scripted responses. Her tweets and other written messages are also put together by humans.
Nevertheless, Sophia continues to impress people around the world, even if it is by deception. She’s been interviewed by Charlie Rose, Jimmy Fallon, and The Wall Street Journal; she’s been in a movie, music videos, and on the cover of Elle Brasil; and she’s given speeches at conferences, committee meetings, and expos, including one to the United Nations in which she weighed in on “the future of everything.”
She has even been granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia, which, given the regime’s ridiculous fear of women, is said to entail substantially more rights than half of its human citizens.
3. Hatsune Miku
To understand the appeal of Hatsune Miku, an obviously fictional cartoon popstar, we need to have a think about moe. Moe refers to feelings of affection and even devotion toward characters in anime and manga, especially young, “cute” or “huggable” characters that embody an innocent outlook. Obviously, each of these traits carries with it the implication of virginity, which is another characteristic of moe but almost always without reference to sex.
Hatsune Miku, with her big blue eyes, childlike body, and schoolgirl outfit, comes straight from the moe mold. She evokes feelings of fondness and devotion from her sizeable global fan base and has come to seem almost relatable, which is interesting considering she basically started out as a logo.
Specifically, she was designed as a “moe anthropomorphism” or corporate mascot for Crypton Future Media’s Vocaloid-based vocal synthesizer software, which allows users to digitally create and record songs with Miku as the vocalist.
She wasn’t the first of her kind (Crypton already had two others—Meiko and Kaito—on the go and has since come out with more) but she was the first to get moe just right. Before long, additional apps allowed users to choreograph and animate her in music videos as well, turning Miku into a collaborative global phenomenon.
According to her product webpage, she now has over 900,000 fans on Facebook and, because they make most of “her” music, more than 100,000 songs to her name (which, incidentally, is Japanese for “the first Sound from the Future”). As a 3D hologram projected onto a screen, she has also “performed” sold-out concerts around the world, opened for Lady Gaga’s ArtRave tour, and appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman as the featured musical act. She has even modeled clothes made especially for her by Marc Jacobs and Givenchy, and was photographed for American Vogue.
Although 3D hologram concerts are nothing new, as a popstar Miku is unique. She is created by, and therefore entirely dependent upon, her fans (or “prosumers,” i.e. producing consumers) for her existence—a lot like an idol or god. And that makes her strangely mercurial, ascribed differing meanings by different creators depending on their personal tastes. She is, in other words, the first decentralized, democratized popstar, and that’s exactly how Crypton CEO Hiroyuki Itoh wants her to stay.
2. Maya Kodes
Like Hatsune Miku, Maya Kodes is a hologram pop star. But there’s a crucial difference: None of her concerts are pre-recorded. Instead, her voice and dance routines are performed in real time by humans hidden from view. Actress Erika Prevost provides the motion-captured movements, as well as Kodes’ speaking voice, while another woman, who remains anonymous, lends her voice for the songs.
Kodes isn’t as big a star as Miku, but her creators at Neweb Labs are eager to emphasize her difference. They’re also planning a world tour on which she’ll perform at multiple locations simultaneously.
She might want to pad her repertoire first, though; she’s only got a handful of tracks.
While it may not be entirely appropriate to think of Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant, as a “celebrity,” she and her ilk are certainly household names—and not just because they live in your household. You might even call them trendsetters; in 2015, “Alexa,” the name of Amazon’s Siri-type helper, became the 32nd most popular baby name in America, up from #63 the year before.
According to some parents of autistic children, Siri can also serve as a role model of sorts. For instance, whereas humans might lose patience with (or get offended by) someone who doesn’t pick up on social cues, Siri patiently and politely responds every time, in turn teaching autistic children the value of conversational skills. Furthermore, SRI, the company that created Siri for Apple, envisions a future where AI might also help encourage eye contact by tracking users’ eye movements during conversation.
Despite these disembodied AIs being mass-produced machines, they’re arguably more personable than your average celebrity. Not only do they live in your pocket at your constant beck and call, but some of us actually see them as human—or something comparable at least. A recent survey by LivePerson, for example, found that of only 4% of people who could name a “famous female leader in tech,” a quarter said Alexa or Siri—essentially equating them with Bill Gates or Elon Musk. And Alex Jones famously accused Alexa of “lying” to him about the CIA on his InfoWars conspiracy news program.
Others find themselves extending basic courtesies like “please” and “thank you” to these faceless AI assistants, and look forward to a time when more extended, more meaningful interactions become possible. Then again, given how quickly we turned Microsoft’s TayTweets AI chatbot into a white supremacist ideologue spouting off about Trump’s wall and gassing the Jews after just a few hours on Twitter, perhaps we’re simply anxious to show Siri and co. humanity’s better side in case they ever start reflecting it back.