Is Instagram's Newest Sensation Just Another Example of Cultural Appropriation?

The white photographer who created Shudu, a virtual avatar, is being accused of "racial plagiarism."
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Photo: @fentybeauty/Instagram

Photo: @fentybeauty/Instagram

Who might be the world's next top supermodel? Shudu.

She's the brainchild of a British photographer and digital artist, Cameron-James Wilson. She's a virtual avatar who's racked up more than 85,000 followers in less than a year — and that figure is growing. She's received Tyra Bank's support. Fenty Beauty reposted an image of her in their Saw-C shade of lipstick. She's even collaborated with Oscar de la Renta. But she's also aroused a fair amount of controversy.

At 28-year-old, Wilson is a big gamer and self-described "geek" who taught himself how to create virtual mannequins using fashion design software like Marvelous Designer and CLO. Last year, he returned to his childhood home of Weymouth, a seaside hamlet in southern England, after a 10-year stint working in fashion in London. Starved for a creative outlet, he began dabbling in a number of creative projects, including customizing Barbies. One of those Barbies was the "Princess of South Africa Barbie Doll," whose Ndebele heritage inspired Shudu. She also bears a resemblance to a number of famous Black models. 

"I've always loved Grace Jones, Alek Wek, Naomi Campbell, Sessilee Lopez and Iman. She has influences from all of them," says Wilson. Shudu's name came from a young woman in South Africa who was one of her Shudu's first fans. When Wilson asked her advice for a name, she made a few suggestions, but "Shudu" spoke most to Wilson. 

Each post requires a tremendous outlay of time and expense. Wilson estimates that each post takes several weeks to create, from conception to clicking the "share" button. Though he has not yet monetized his account, he remains open to the possibility of paid collaborations. "Likes and follows don't pay the bills and they won't keep Shudu going," says Wilson.

Wilson is white. Shudu is Black. The fact that Wilson is making a name for himself from the use of a Black model — even if not real — has sparked a flurry of critical tweets and Facebook posts, given the long history of objectification and exploitation of Black bodies.

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Minh-Ha T. Pham, an associate professor at Pratt Institute whose work explores the intersection of race and technology, as well as the beauty and fashion industry, would argue that Shudu is, in fact, white, or rather "a white fantasy of disembodiment." She's the product of a white man who fantasizes about and concocts an alternative racialized reality. "Racial masquerade and racial tourism…are part and parcel of internet history. The internet — dating back to when people were still calling it the 'world wide web' or 'cyberspace' — has always promised computer users,  who were tacitly white, the promise of trying on different identities," says Pham. Another example of this practice is "digital Blackfacing" in memes and GIFs, adds Pham.

Is this just another example of cultural appropriation? Pham prefers the term "racial plagiarism." According to Pham, the term is more precise than cultural appropriation because it brings greater attention to the legal, yet unethical nature of this form of creative production. Wilson did not appropriate the creative labor of Black people; rather, he fabricated a racialized avatar with exoticized phenotypes (tall stature, slender physique, high cheekbones, dark skin, etc.) that are currently valorized in the fashion industry and are often associated with models of South Sudanese descent like Alek Wek, Grace Bol, Ajak Deng and Duckie Thot.

Despite the critiques that he is unduly profiting from the commodification of Black beauty, he claims that he also receives a lot of positive feedback. 

"Surprisingly, every designer that has reached out to me to work with Shudu has been Black. If [critics] are saying that there's a consensus among Black people over issues of representation, what do I say to the Black designers that are asking to work with Shudu?" says Wilson. "I get a lot of messages from girls who said that they faced a lot of discrimination because of the color of their skin and they appreciate that these images show dark skin as being beautiful and sexy."

Computer-generated influencer Lil Miquela, center. Photo: @lilmiquela/Instagram

Computer-generated influencer Lil Miquela, center. Photo: @lilmiquela/Instagram

It seems the next frontier in social media marketing is the use of virtual influencers who have more followers than IRL "It" girls. Case in point: @lilmiquela, who has more than 800,000 followers. Miquela Sousa — who released a pop song last summer and sells merch on her site — has gotten the seal of approval from the likes of Pat McGrath and Prada, and her resume is growing.

CUNY professor and scholar of beauty and fashion Elizabeth Wissinger says, "What seems to be new here is the seamless integration of these creations with people in 'real' settings." Lil Miquela — along with fellow computer-generated cool-kid Ronnie Blawko (@blawko22) — is often photographed with real influencers in actual hotspots in Los Angeles and New York. "It's funny to think about since becoming an influencer is usually tied to authenticity, and these influencers are anything but authentic," says Wissinger.

According to Wissinger, though CGI influencers have changed the parameters of digital marketing, they will not replace folks like Chiara Ferragni or Aimee Song. However, she believes that digital influencers (and general consumers of social media) will increasingly leverage Photoshop and other photo-editing apps to create realities that are closer to "second lives." The lines between real life and digital-created imagery will continue to blur.

Wilson has already modeled Shudu alongside the likeness of living and breathing male model Nfon Obong. He's also using the skills that he learned in creating Shudu to launch the career of another non-CGI model: the Melbourne-based Ajur Akoi. Wilson replicated her likeness and hopes to boost her following (and likelihood of being booked) by modeling her digital doppelgänger alongside Shudu. 

Photo: @shudu.gram/Instagram

Photo: @shudu.gram/Instagram

The use of CGI-created models is far from unprecedented. "In the fashion and beauty industry in the late 1990s, there was a lot of anxiety about the idea that 'virtual' models might replace living breathing ones," says Wissinger. She points to the 2002 sci-fi comedy "Simone" about a CGI-created actress-turned-overnight sensation, and reminds us of the uproar after news that H&M was taking real models' heads and superimposing them on CGI-created bodies. Pham highlights a 2011 Burberry show staged in Beijing that included holographic British models.

Retouching, filtering and altering images has existed since the advent of photographic technology, but it remains to be seen to what degree this new trend in CGI-created and enhanced influencers will become the norm. 

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