A recent Twitter post has reignited a lot of controversy concerning a digital model named Shudu Gram, who first came under fire in 2018. The main bone of contention is the said desperation of the creator – a White photographer – and all the brands who have worked with her, to profit off of “Black content without having to work with or hire Black people.”
“This not just about race and representation and Blackface, but about taking the likenesses of the Global South, of indigenous people, of Black people, and erasing them THROUGH representation without bodies. A new way to extract wealth and resources to the Global North”, said Twitter user @Vanessid.
Hundreds of people have echoed her sentiments via the social media tool.
“This is so creepy. They’ll do anything to avoid working with or hiring Black talent”, said another Twitter user.
Who is Shudu Gram?
According to the model’s Instagram profile, which has a following of over 200,000 followers, Shudu Gram is the world’s first digital supermodel. VirtualHumans.org, a database for Virtual Influencers, dates her first appearance to April 22, 2017. The website also states that she hails from South Africa – said to have been inspired by the Princess of South Africa Barbie Doll.
She is a CGI creation of Diigitals, an England-based digital modelling agency which has since launched 6 other virtual models, 4 of which are people of colour.
Shudu’s expansive portfolio includes work with Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Fenty, Hyundai, Smart Car and several other high profile brands.
Her Instagram page features a lot of hyper-realistic editorial shoots which have fooled many people, even though her captions are always signed off with a #3Dart tag.
Representation or Appropriation?
While many people believe Shudu and other digital models are taking job opportunities from real models, some see it as an appreciated form of representation in the new digital world.
Of course, chief of the latter group is Diigital’s founder and Shudu’s creator Cameron-James Wilson. When asked if he thought virtual models were truly displacing human models in a 2020 interview, Cameron responded:
“I don’t think there’s any taking jobs because I see there are people behind these virtual influencers. There’s still a human barrier – the character isn’t human. It’s just a change in role. It’s gone from having to be tall and beautiful yourself to maybe just be artistic and have a computer to become a model. It changes the role and I think it democratizes beauty in a way that means anyone can make a supermodel. I think the fashion industry is big enough for real models and it’s big enough to handle virtual models. I don’t think it’s going to take anything away – I think it’s opening up new opportunities for people.”
He also spoke on the glamourisation of the fashion industry, bringing a rather interesting take to the discourse. “Let’s face it, the modelling industry isn’t that great, anyway…Women and men are often sexually abused in the fashion industry. It has so many flaws and faults… Actually, we might be improving it. We might be making it a safer environment for people to work in. Rather than going out to these shoots and stuff, you’re using virtual models who are not being put at risk.”
Moreso, contrary to popular belief, the Diigitals agency has worked with real talent alongside their digital models. The latter are ascribed muses, real models who are meant to capture the essence of the digital creations.
“The idea with the global muse program is that we find people who are kind of similar to our models around the world, and we set up a network where they can kind of step into our digital model’s shoes if clients need to. If we had a client in New York, we can set up a photo shoot in New York, or if we have something in Africa,” explained Cameron.
One of Shudu’s muses is Alek Deng Malek, a young Sudanese model. In an interview on the agency’s website, Malek narrated how Cameron approached her for an editorial shoot which took place in Nigeria with popular Nigerian photographer Emmanuel Oyeleke.
“On the day of the shoot, I was more than excited, I can’t even describe how I felt, I was not nervous at all! At first, I didn’t know exactly what to do, this shoot was all about imitating Shudu, the whole time I was doing the shoot I was asking myself what would Shudu do? I had so much fun on the day and couldn’t wait for Cameron to see the pictures,” said Malek.
Malek further expressed positive sentiments about Shudu’s standing in the modelling industry:
“I believe the industry should give Shudu and Cameron more recognition for the amazing work. I feel that Shudu is not only reinventing the industry but has also positively impacted the lives of real-life models… With platforms like Instagram and Facebook, models can be discovered across the world everyday – everything is now a product of technology, and Shudu is the personification of fashion, art and technology.”
The young model also hoped her work with Shudu would bring her more exposure and opportunities.
Another one of Shudu’s Muses – said to be “The Voice of Shudu” – is British-Ghanaian writer Ama Badu.
Speaking in favour of Shudu in an interview on the agency’s site, Badu said, “I saw her as art, as Cameron’s way of expressing another form of his creativity. I loved that she was so dark, that her hair was so short. I loved the brands she collaborated with too. The fashion industry is shifting. The demand for inclusivity and diversity is currently changing the way we perceive beauty. Shudu is part of this change.”
Badu actually reached out to Diigital’s Cameron because she identified with her and wanted to help compose her narrative.
“But as much as I believe in the good, I know some will not see that and worse than that, some may not use these changes for good. The more I think about it the more questions I have. There is so much cost and waste within the fashion and beauty industry, could this be a way to minimise some of that or increase it? Will digital models replace and take away opportunities from real models or will they encourage even more diversity? Will they be used to further perpetuate the unrealistic standards of beauty that have existed for far too long or will they change it? None of us can have the answers to these questions right now but artists should not allow the fear of the unknown to stifle their work,” Badu added.
While Badu holds a somewhat balanced perspective on the matter, many people are strictly against it, finding it to be an egregious offence against the black model community.
In another interview with BAZAAR.com in 2018, Cameron said, “She is not a real model unfortunately, but she represents a lot of the real models of today. There’s a big kind of movement with dark skin models, so she represents them and is inspired by them.”
The latter part of that statement particularly raises brows concerning Cameron’s intentions. Is this an appreciation like he claims or is he just trying to profit off a movement that has recently gained traction in the fashion industry?
“A literal externally derived image of a BW contrived by a white man who has noticed the ‘movement’ of dark-skinned women. Instead of shooting real models a white man has taken our image into his own hands and projected,” said Bolu Babalola in a 2018 Twitter post.
However, Cameron has insisted that Shudu is carving out her own niche, rather than displacing real models. “When brands book Shudu, they’re not booking her instead of a real model. They’re booking her because she’s a virtual model and they want to spark a discussion about technology in fashion,” he said in a 2019 interview with Elle.
A 2019 account by Sweden-based author and award-winning activist Lovette Jallow easily contradicts this assertion. In the Twitter thread, Jallow narrated how she had had a conversation with a brand on increasing their inclusivity with black and brown models especially, only to find out that they later hired and signed a “hefty” deal with Shudu as “their take on inclusivity.”
“The mental gymnastics white People will go through to avoid real black people yet profit off us s astounding! You want blackness that you can control but you truly do not want black people that may have opinions on how they are portrayed, underpaid or used. This is the Swedish mode of operation,” added Jallow.
Jallow also argued that the fact that black people supported his work did not justify it. “There are plenty of Black people that do work against their own interests due to lack of analysis and internalised hate… Being in close proximity to black people or blackness does not automatically immunise you as an artist or person from committing grievous mistakes that impact our community as a whole.”
It is undisputable that Shudu has landed lots of expensive deals that have lined her creator’s pockets and at times, replaced actual dark skinned models who remain underrepresented in the fashion industry. The extent of the damage she has done, however, is still unclear.