From Chiara Ferragni (@theblondesalad) to Rumi Dowson (@rumineely), influencer marketing is a buzzword that’s been taking over the online landscape for the past decade. However, it is only truly reigning now — with major brands getting onboard and signing campaigns with some of the biggest names in the online sphere.

While celebrity endorsements may have proven successful in the past, influencer marketing enables brands to reach out to the masses in the digital age, especially millennials and those from generation Z. At some point, however, we’ve all asked ourselves the same question: “What’s next?”

Miquela Sousa 

The answer may lie with Miquela Sousa, or @lilmiquela, a 19-year-old Brazilian/Spanish Los Angeles-based Instagram influencer, and an occasional pop singer. Since setting up her Instagram account in 2016, Sousa has amassed over a million followers. She has also been featured on the cover of cult magazine High Snobiety, and her debut single Not Mine has reached number eight on Spotify viral in 2016.

Miquela Sousa, also known as @lilmiquela.

Sousa, who lives in Los Angeles, frequents spots like Venice Beach, art galleries, clubs, coffee shops and even tattoo parlours. Her wardrobe includes oversized band t-shirts, the latest pieces by streetwear brands like Supreme, and limited editions from luxury brands like Chanel and Prada — which she flaunts via mirror selfies, of course.

“Since moving to LA I’ve spent a lot of time in galleries and museums so contemporary artists like Carly Mark, Martine Syms and Kerry James Marshall inspire me,” Sousa said in an interview with Business of Fashion. “In fashion, I look to Isamaya Ffrench, Raf Simons, Sies Marjan and Alexandre Vauthier. I also love Reese Blutstein.”

At first glance, Sousa is just another social media influencer living in the city of angels. An ultra-stylish teenager who is also an artist, musician, and advocate. It almost seems like the doe-eyed beauty is indeed flawless.

But here’s a Black Mirroresque twist to the story; she isn’t real.

Miquela Sousa’s social media posts are emblazoned with brands.

Sousa is actually a CGI influencer, one of the first of computer-generated personalities companies are creating to become the next big advancement in digital marketing. Which makes sense, because, upon further inspection, one can easily tell that her eyes are eerily soulless and her body’s slightly out of proportion.

Bewildered? Us too.

While the concept of a CGI influencer is fairly new, virtual celebrities have been around for decades. Gorillaz, particularly known for its hit Feel Good Inc, is made up of four virtual members. Another name that comes to mind is Japanese virtual idol Hatsune Miku, who opened for Lady Gaga’s ArtRave world tour in 2014, and collaborated with Pharrell Williams’ track for 2013 film Jellyfish Eyes.

Emily Bador, whose resemblance with Sousa is uncanny. (Image credit: @darth_bador)

Inevitably, both fans and critics of Sousa have been drawing up comparisons with her real-life doppelgängers, mainly British model Emily Bador and digital artist Nicole Ruggiero — in a quest to find out who created her. In a turn of events, it was neither of the ladies, but Los Angeles-based startup Brud (the same people who staged her account hacking as a publicity stunt). 

Other CGI influencers 

In this digital edge, Sousa isn’t the only one.

Her Instagram account features photos with her friend, Ronnie Blawko, a Vans-wearing, Popeyes-loving “hype beast”. Unlike Sousa, Blawko’s feed is less curated, and his existence alludes to an alternative subculture where Kanye West is king.

CGI influencers
Sousa (@lilmiquela) and Blawko (blawko22).

Another online persona making waves all over the internet is Shudu Gram, the world’s first digital supermodel whose colour-blocked, glossy feed has gained her 118,000 followers. Gram, with her luminous dark-brown skin and perfectly symmetrical features, wears an iindzila (neck rings associated with the Ndebele people of South Africa) in most photos.

The beautiful social media sensation is the artistic creation of British photographer Cameron-James Wilson, who has been working in the fashion industry over the last decade.

CGI influencers
Shudu Gram, the world’s first digital supermodel.

Yes, she may not be a human being, but like all emerging influencers, there was a specific event that sparked her rise to fame. In Gram’s case, it was a bright orange Fenty lipstick. Gram caught the attention of netizens after a photo of her flaunting the vibrant shade was shared on Rihanna’s makeup line — and rightly so.

However, unlike Sousa, Gram is more elusive and prefers to keep her personal life private. Her Instagram feed is curated with her “modelling projects”, as well as her endorsements with specific brands — such as Soulskybrand and Oscar De La Renta.

Brand sponsorship  

In fact, both Gram and Sousa’s Instagram feeds are no different from any other influencer — if you discount the fact that they don’t have a beating heart, at least. Sousa, for example, boasts collaborations with some very prestigious brands and has achievements us mere mortals would probably never accomplish — such as working with Prada on its Fall Winter 2018 collection, collaborating with contemporary Japanese jewellery label Ambush, and named a muse for celebrated editorial and runway makeup artist Pat McGrath — taking influencer sponsorship to the next level, or realm.

She also landed a full spread in V magazine modelling the latest looks from luxury brands Chanel, Versace, Burberry, Fendi and Coach. If that’s not the ultimate validation of one’s social media existence, we don’t know what is.

CGI influencers
Sousa works with brands like contemporary Japanese jewellery label Ambush.

“I’m really optimistic about the power of social media,” she said to V magazine (via email, of course). “It’s helped me form valuable friendships, gain self-confidence, and inspire people around the world. I want it to be used for good because, like it or not, it’s part of the culture now and it’s not going anywhere.”

Call it a warped reality, but perhaps CGI influencers are really what the fashion industry has been missing all this while. Unlike real-life personalities who have flaws and mistakes in the past for the whole wide web to uncover (take the Logan Paul controversy, for instance), CGI influencers come with a clean slate, which means major brands don’t have to worry about how personal mistakes and views of the influencers will affect their branding.

A CGI future

While we can’t be a hundred percent sure whether CGI influencers will take precedence over “traditional” influencer marketing the next couple of years, it sure seems like we’re taking a step in the right direction. We have a feeling that this is only just the beginning — especially after business-minded folks find even more ways to cash in on these digital creations.

We mean, if a bunch of animated guys have lasted 17 years in the name of music (and are still going strong), there definitely is hope for impeccably-dressed, virtually perfect CGI influencers like Sousa, Gram, and even Blawko.

Dewi Nurjuwita
Senior Writer
Dewi Nurjuwita is a travel and design writer who can be found exploring the streets of foreign cities with passport in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.