Model Representation: Who is Shudu?
The modelling industry has received a lot of criticism for its failure to adequately represent a more realistic cross section of society. It’s figureheads are deemed too white and too unhealthy: an unattainable ideal. When large well-known brands like… Prada, who has only twice opened its runway shows with a black model, the first time being Naomi Campbell 21-years ago (!) any further black representation in high fashion is a big deal. So, when in April 2017 a new model called Shudu appeared on Instagram, the world was interested.
Shudu possesses a “deep dark” skin tone and is a striking model making her a new phenomenon in the modelling world. She’s hip and joins the likes of Gigi, Kendall and Lucky Blue — models who have used social media to gain huge followings, social capital and ultimately financial wealth. Though not quite at the level of these one named stars, Shudu has amassed an Instagram following of nearly 200,000. She’s at “influencer” status. However, where Shudo differs is that she’s not actually real. Shudu is a total CGI creation.
Cameron-James Wilson, her “creator” only came out in February 2018 to announcing that this model was not a “real person, but an art piece” he was working on at the moment. It felt unnerving. That a white man could so easily profit from and control the perception of women, and specifically black women was triggering and for some too familiar. His admittance to noticing and benefitting from the current “movement with dark skin models”, taking away paid employment from ‘real’ models makes this story all the more concerning.
Of course Wilson has tried to dampen the critics; by saying he and Shudu were “inspired” by various parts of more famous black models like Iman and Duckie; which likens her, though unintentionally, to the Sarah Baartman aka ‘Hottentot Venus’. Another female black representation, that was literally torn into parts to be studied and displayed for her sexual allure in a Parisian museum until the 1970s.
Shudu is not the first digital model or CGI influencer. She joins the likes of Lil Miquela, Blawko, Lil Wavi and the assortment of influencers under Wilson’s portfolio. What is most noticeable among this digital army is the high percentage of ethnic minorities within their ranks. Almost an over-representation to what is seen in general society and in these industries into which they are ‘breaking’. Their presence is more pronounced and by virtue of being one of the few minorities in those spaces they risk creating a new threat of digital-generated erasure. Moreover, since they are literal model citizens, they unknowingly alter the needle when it comes to ideal looks and behaviours of these minority groups. They also bring back the defunct ideology of ‘respectability politics’. No human can compete with an obedient, perfectly fit character with no troubling history of bad tweets.
What many outlets have failed to mention is that Wilson is taking action in Shudu. She is inspired by a team of muses. Real black women that write her narrative, provide the realistic beautiful imperfections, teach her to walk and smize like a human model. Similarly, Blawko and Lil Miquela managed under Brud, are created by the collective creative Trevor McFedies. They present a new way in which technology is creating opportunities for minorities to creatively express and represent themselves. However, this is still a very worrying tale about who is creating how certain groups are seen, particularly minority groups.
Though there are lots of possibilities with technology, we need to recognise the uneven effects on people. Bringing it back to HR/ People… I think of who is hired and their effect on the how the world is perceived. Shudu can be a good thing and has jobs to several minority women; but we can’t deny that ultimately, her creator is from an already well-represented group.