Shudu, the model behind the page @shudu.gram is being called one of the most beautiful models on Instagram. Although new on to the scene, Shudu has caused a fair amount of controversy, hinging around the fact that she’s not actually real, but a project from photographer Cameron James-Wilson.
In 2018, fashion, tech, and augmented realities have been fusing together at a rapid rate. Two weeks ago, Dolce & Gabbana sent drones down the runway to model handbags and virtual influencer Lil’ Miquela talked her audience through the latest GIF sets from Prada in Milan. In these times, the emergence of an entirely digital model such as Shudu isn’t much of surprise. It is unusual though.
So where did she come from? And what do people think of her? We spoke to Shudu’s “creator,” Cameron, who creates every image of Shudi with a painstaking level of detail from his computer. Cameron estimates that a single image takes about three full days work — and that’s not including the weeks of planning.
“I’ve been inspired by quite a few people,” says Cameron of his initial conception for Shudu. “But her main inspiration is a South African Princess Barbie. Obviously, her real-life inspirations are pulled from so many different women — Lupita, Duckie Thot and Nykhor — even throwing it back to Alek Wek, who was a massive influence on how I saw beauty growing up.”
The first few images posted to Shudu’s Instagram account received a lot of attention. There were people applauding her beauty (“God took his time on you”), while some photographers slid into her DMs with requests to set up a shoot. It’s a testament to the hyper-real level of detail in Cameron’s 3D modeling.
In the study of aesthetics, there’s a concept known as the “uncanny valley.” This describes the eerie feeling that arises when objects look human, but not quite (mannequins, dolls, Sophia the Robot etc.) Shudu is notable for being post-uncanny valley, appearing so human that most people, even with a closer look, wouldn’t suspect that she’s CGI.
The attention for Shudu started to snowball when Rihanna’s beauty brand Fenty reposted an image of her wearing the brand’s lipstick. The image (created without Fenty’s involvement and at the suggestion of Cameron’s younger sister), exceeded the average amount of Instagram likes and engagement almost four-fold with some 222,000 likes compared to an average of around 50,000. At the time, it hadn’t been disclosed whether or not Shudu was a real person; her Instagram bio simply repeated the comment left under her photos: “who is she?”
Following the exposure that comes with a co-sign from Rihanna, Cameron began responding to private messages to clarify that Shudu was an art project.
Of course, posting on social media welcomes a full spectrum of opinions about one’s work, including criticism, too. Some users observed that the manufacturing of a black woman’s image by a photographer — a white male nonetheless — takes up the space that could be filled by an IRL model, and any profit from this comes at the detriment of real careers.
“The comments that have been most critical of what I’m doing have been from white women, which was kind of unexpected. I had dark skinned girls and women message me to say that they absolutely love the art that I’m doing,” says Cameron. “This is why I like to do interviews: to show people what’s behind it. This is not trying to take away from anyone but it is trying to add to the standard of beauty that’s being shifted to something much more inclusive.”
Is it possible that the existence of Shudu’s Instagram page could be pushing other would-be models out the door ? “I don’t really see Shudu as a money spinner or a business for me,” says Cameron, “It’s more of an expression, and when I’ve had companies approach me, if what they want doesn’t reflect in what I see for her then it’s a no go. You know it doesn’t matter about the money or things like that. Because it’s not why I started Shudu. I started her for me, to express myself.”
Cameron also points out that in his creation of Shudu, he found it challenging to create someone in her image, due to a lack of available software. “Just the same as in many industries, the 3D world is sorely lacking ethnic diversity and black characters and assets are particularly rare,” he says. “There’s a push to shift this, and with the advancement of tech and 3D industries, we can expect a change. But it’s one thing that Shudu is contributing to in her own way. It wasn’t something intentional from the start, but now I’m very interested in helping to create the resources needed for game developers and 3D designers to make more diverse characters”.
Is this signalling a shift from IRL human models to “perfect” CGI replacements? At the rate it takes to create an image of someone like Shudu, and not forgetting that all the clothes would need to be accurately rendered in 3D too, it seems unlikely. “I don’t see her or virtual people taking over the real world,” says Cameron. “The work that’s involved is extremely intense. The only reason I can make Shudu what she is is because I have a knowledge of photography, hair, make up.”
Unless a major fashion brand decides to cast someone like Shudu in a campaign (and works out the technical logistics of doing so), digital models like her will probably remain as art pieces, albeit with a huge social following.
What do you think of the digital supermodel?
In other news, Kelela turns herself into a character from The Sims for her new music video for “Frontline”.
- Photography: Cameron James-Wilson