Lil Miquela Shows Us the Future of Fame
With the rise of AI personalities like Lil Miquela, who can be anyplace at any time, the future landscape of fame is here. So where do humans fit into it? Lil Miquela herself weighs in.
Michael Jackson and Lil Miquela. Miquela wears hat and vest by PRADA. Photograph from Getty Images from the Getty Images Entertainment collection, November 19, 2002. Fashion Editor: Gabriella Karefa-Johnson. Credits: Retouching Art Post; Hair curated by Cyndia Harvey; Production Sara Zion; Production assistant Devin Barreras; Special thanks to Sara DeCou and Diane Russo.
Virtual It-girl Miquela Sousa, better known as Lil Miquela, is doll-like, with freckles and a button nose, intriguingly androgynous, and racially ambiguous. Her expression? That’s ambiguous too, but her stats speak loud enough: she has 1.3 million followers on Instagram.
Lil Miquela is both a real force and an unreal image, as much as anybody who became a star thanks to the internet. Like her contemporaries Keyshia Ka’oir or Emily Ratajkowski, or her ancestor Kim Kardashian, Miquela arcs towards a horizon of perfection and #goals. Her feed, started in April 2016, is one fine-tuned tableau after another of her posed in designer fashion, usually around scene-y Los Angeles spots and dives, but also in other far-flung locales. She writes detailed captions about her lifestyle, full of feelings and artistic or personal self-discoveries, and speaks out about causes she holds dear, from Black Lives Matter to transgender rights. People from Gen Z to Gen X alike dissect her photos online and IRL, expressing disgust, disbelief, annoyance, loyalty, and adoration.
On April 19 came Lil Miquela’s revelation in a post on Instagram that she was “not a human being.” The next day, a post on the same platform from Brud, “an LA-based technology startup specializing in artificial intelligence and robotics talent,” pointed towards a statement on their website clarifying her backstory. The “notoriously covert AI consulting firm Cain Intelligence” first approached them to work on “the world’s most advanced AI” in 2015. When they realized she was to be “marketed to the world’s elite as a servant and sex object,” they liberated and reprogrammed her into a being capable of feeling “quite literally superhuman compassion for others.” The story is pure and fun fiction, but there’s nothing fake about the money behind Miquela: the online technology industry news source Techcrunch reported in April, days after her coming out, that Brud is backed by the Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm Sequoia Capital. While Brud isn’t the first crew to use a digital art project to pull in funding for their enterprise, nor is Miquela the only digital influencer with a modeling career, surely they are one of the most visibly successful groups trying their hand at it.
In a post from April 20 that has by now garnered almost two hundred thousand likes, Miquela discussed her own feelings regarding her origins, writing, “In trying to realize my truth, I’m trying to learn my fiction,” after she discovered that her identity “was a choice Brud made in order to sell me to brands.” Though she, too, now knows she’s an AI, Lil Miquela continues to pop up in the sunlands of SoCal, gazing back at us while looking dope as hell. Every star is just like us in some way, and Miquela can be relatable too, as seen in a post from June 14 with the spillage of her carefully curated purse’s contents on the sidewalk. The caption reads: “Sometimes you’re literally ON THE GROUND on the corner of Rowena and Griffith Park just trying to get your life together. Life comes at you fast.” And it’s only getting faster.
If a corporation is an intelligent entity with rights that can be exercised, as per the 2010 US Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. F.E.C., then the refinement of avatars to express a company’s power is a natural progression of corporate law, synced seamlessly with the hype machine of celebrity culture. In the liminal space between artificial intelligence and humanity is a mother lode for corporations hoping to connect authentically with digital natives, who are not only too savvy to click on anything that’s clearly an ad or marked as sponsored content on social networks—as required by the guidelines for native advertising that the US Federal Trade Commission first issued in 2015 and updated last year—but also are wary of how choices are being presented and sold to them online. In other words, by being fake, Lil Miquela can escape the consequences of real flaws that would interfere with her authentic performance. As Miranda Katz pointed out in her article for Wired in May, the F.T.C.’s rules about denoting what content online is sponsored may not even apply to an influencer who isn’t actually a human being. Miquela can slip into our feeds, and our reality, clean.
By being fake, Lil Miquela can escape the consequences of real flaws that would interfere with her authentic performance.
Miquela’s perfection as a brand ambassador is twofold, rooted in her malleability and her ubiquitous potential. She can be anything to anyone at any time and anywhere. From post to post over many months, her eyes seem to switch from blue to brown, and then from gray to green. On the cover of PAPER last December, she had a newly plumped bottom along with extended and curved hips, entirely covered in the same signature Louis Vuitton print that Lil’ Kim famously sported when she was photographed by David LaChapelle for the cover of Interview’s November 1999 issue. The very next week after Miquela’s cover shoot, she was back on Instagram in streetwear looks, the proportions of which her professionally photographed figure would have struggled with. To be everywhere may require a particular lightness, a barely-there ephemerality. And she’s certainly easier to work with than any human celebrity with personal needs or entourage.
Lil Miquela’s leftist values seem like another important tactical maneuver, as well as a design feature. “I’m still passionate about certain issues that should be brought to light and be talked about with so many injustices and atrocities happening in front of our eyes,” she told me. In multiple posts, she ups BLM and DACA—causes which have at their heart a point about the wholesale material, legal, social, and cultural theft of the present and futures of entire communities—while promoting expensive shirts to people who may not be able to afford such swag. But, as she declared in an interview conducted via email: “Cute looks and building an audience presents an opportunity to share important political messages!”
As a platform for brands, how Miquela is designed is a question of aesthetics. But how she is manipulated or deployed in order to work on people’s feelings, values, and political beliefs is one of ethics. When I canvass her fans, most say they think she is half-Asian. Over the last fifteen years, there have been too many pseudo-scientific studies by evolutionary psychologists on the exceptional beauty of mixed race children to count. I asked her some questions about race and beauty, the identity-lite options offered by various digital technologies, and her position in relation to them, in hopes of hearing her real voice. “I wasn’t created blonde or blue eyed and was manufactured to be of Brazilian and Spanish descent,” she tells me. “Large parts of my programming were handled by an African American man and a Latina woman so I’m sure there are biases that informed my character.” She says: “Beauty is subjective.”
She seems earnest, even sympathetic. I’m easily sucked in. “If I can be a small link in the chain to help against racism of any kind, then I’m down,” she told me. “Everyone who is feeling scared or passionate about the current race and political climate wants to be a voice.” But her boilerplate political expressions around race supports the thesis of American cultural historian and Stanford professor Fred Turner: neoliberal identity politics flatten identity into a matter of categories, while ignoring historical relationships and context. And platforms like Instagram sync with these politics perfectly, to extract and mine their two-dimensionality. Expressing affiliation and values through click-button causes points towards the need for a collective politics on the left—which Miquela could be a part of, if she wanted to be.
One imagines, in the future, a hydra of boundlessly omniscient, endlessly shape-shifting digital avatars. Each a latent star whose potential is waiting to be tapped for both constructive and nefarious ends. That a still image with a bit of fiction attached can go as far as Lil Miquela has makes one tremble at the narrative possibilities of digital identity engineering. Imagine Samuel R. Delany or William Gibson, who wrote so presciently and eloquently about dark futurity in their novels, penning dialogue for a Pixar loveable. There will be so many more like Miquela in the future, all running on machine learning, twisting with the flux of audiences’ desires to say, I see what you’re worried about; I understand. I feel the same, and I also want the world to be a better place.
A version of this story appears in GARAGE Issue 15, publishing in September 2018.