She’s wanted! She’s hot! She’s everything you’re not! But that’s because… she’s basically a robot!
Meet Shudu Gram, the beautiful model on the rise whose symmetrical features and dark-brown skin have ignited a fierce debate thanks to her curious origin story. Shudu wasn’t scouted on the streets or at her dead-end job like so many other models. She wasn’t even born. Instead, this model was created by a white British photographer named Cameron-James Wilson. It was after Wilson had downloaded a 3D modeling program and begun to play around there that the image of Shudu came to life—with a bit of inspiration from dark-skinned models like Duckie Thot and a Barbie doll called Princess of South Africa.
If all of this sounds like a problematic fever dream, you’re not alone. A litany of think pieces have been written about the complicated reality of a white man creating a dark-skinned supermodel, with Dazed’s Kemi Alemoru most aptly summing up the problem: “If you like what women of colour represent, and how they look, then hire them. They should be remunerated and championed. Until then, your CGI imitations only prove that you love the looks of POC, but not the reality of us.”
That isn’t to say Wilson hasn’t already confronted the thorny issue of his Frankensteinian creation. It’s just that his explanation hasn’t been very sound. According to the photographer-turned-creator, Shudu has been a way for him to express his creativity and “add to the kind of movement that’s out there.” In his eyes, “it’s meant to be beautiful art which empowers people. It’s not trying to take away an opportunity from anyone or replace anyone.”
That may sound nice but, in the two years since her inception, Shudu has had editorials in WWD, Cosmopolitan, Vogue Australia, Vogue Arabia; done fashion campaigns for Ellesse and Balmain; and even worked the BAFTA Awards this year. That’s a whole lot of coverage of a virtual model that could’ve gone to, say, an actual model of color.
The “World’s First Digital Supermodel” and her 159K Instagram followers don’t exist in a vacuum, though. Alongside her perfectly pixelated façade are a new legion of virtual influencers and models. Want a perpetually-young, Brazilian-American Instagram it-girl to model your brand? Hit up robotics company Brud, the creator behind Lil’ Miquela. How about a girl with oversized doll eyes who champions veganism and sustainable fashion? Message Munich-based graphic designer Joerg Zuber about using his character Noonoouri. Even Cameron-James Williams has realized there’s no real reason to stop with Shudu. He’s now created an entire roster of CGI models for his all-digital modeling agency—from the plus-sized, dark-skinned Brenn to black male model Koffi.
There’s also the pre-Shudu-and-Lil-Miquela era as well, though that period was a bit less sinister and a lot more tailored towards Japanese audiences. In 2012, Final Fantasy XIII-2 characters modeled Prada clothes in Arena Homme+; in 2015, Final Fantasy XIII’s Lightning modeled Louis Vuitton handbags; and in 2016, Riccardo Tisci gave virtual “singer” Hatsune Miku a Givenchy couture makeover.
There are so many CGI influencers to choose from that it almost feels as if we’ve become trapped in a fashion-focused expansion pack of The Sims. But with all of the symmetrically stunning, overwhelmingly nonwhite beauties landing fashion campaigns, it’s easy to gloss over the reality of how far the industry has yet to progress in terms of actual diversity. These creations exist an industry that only just achieved the “milestone” of casting 34.5 percent models of color in fashion campaigns last year and 38.8 percent models of color on the runway this year. It’s an industry that celebrated Anok Yai becoming Prada’s first black model to open a runway show since Naomi Campbell in 1997 in February 2018 and then, six months later, saw Balmain debut a “digital army” of multicultural CGI influencers and be prided on diversity.
Fashion has a lot of work to go in creating runways, advertisements, and magazine spreads that reflect the reality of the audiences they attract. That much has been true since the industry’s inception. But over the past decade, and largely over the past five years, change has come. From Spring 2015 to Fall 2018, nonwhite models in ad campaigns has more than doubled, which invites an essential question: Why stunt that progress by giving space to dark-skinned virtual models when so many incredible real ones already exist?
Giving coverage to these CGI creations takes away a potential opportunity for Duckie Thot, Anok Yoi, Zuri Tibbi, Philomena Kwao, Ajak Deng, Nyakim Gatwech, Khoudia Diop, Leomie Anderson, Shanelle Nyasiaseto, or Alek Wek. That’s naming just a few of the dark-skinned models who have real, lived experiences of being black in the industry; whose stories on and off the runway should be told and celebrated.
It’s time to dump models created by people whose lived experience with race revolves around loving a Princess of South Africa doll as a child. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but when your imitation blocks real equality, it isn’t flattering. It’s ridiculous.
About the author:
Chris Thomas is a Berlin-based writer and editor whose work has appeared on Essential Homme, Notion, Sleek, Paper, and other publications. Before moving to Berlin, they worked as Out Magazine’s Digital Managing Editor in New York City.