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 Shudu’s income, social-media marketing expert Charlie Buffin, who manages both human and digital influencers, estimates that the top bots make 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 the LA-based 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.