WEYMOUTH, U.K. — You might not have heard of her, but Shudu's been making major waves in the fashion world. Since her career launched in 2017, she's been featured in campaigns for Ellessee and the French luxury house Balmain. Earlier this year, she landed a gig as an on-camera stylist during the BAFTA red carpet broadcast. And she's been written about in Vogue Australia, Papermag, and The New Yorker.
And Shudu has received all that attention without holding what’s arguably the most basic qualification for any model: being human.
Shudu is a digital model, a computer-generated image that brands "hire" to represent them, much like a standard, living model. Her creator, Cameron James-Wilson, won’t say how much brands pay to hire her, but she’s been booking so much that he’s calling her the world’s "first digital supermodel." Shudu's Instagram account doesn’t quite put her at that level — she has 174,000 followers — and without a personality, it’s unclear how long she’ll hold fans’ attention.
Plus, Shudu has also stirred her share of controversy. As many articles have pointed out, the digital model's success has created a dynamic where a brand can now use the image of a black woman without actually paying a black woman. Instead, the money goes to The Diigitals, the company run by James-Wilson, who’s a British white man.
But the former fashion photographer doesn't think this viewpoint is fair, stating that he makes a point of employing black women when he needs to use motion-capture technology to create a moving version of Shudu. Moreover, he doesn't think she's taking any jobs away from black models — because according to him, Shudu’s race isn’t what brands are after.
"People are booking a digital model, and they're booking her because she's the world's first digital supermodel," he told VICE News. "If I had made a white model, if I’d made an Asian model, they’d want her just the same."
And even if Shudu’s appeal begins to wane, James-Wilson thinks brands will continue to use digital models — even ones based on real people. "You can live forever as a digital-model you, and your appearance can be used for generations," he said. "You can imagine what will happen if Kim K gets a 3D double made. People will become heirlooms."
VICE News went to Weymouth to talk to James-Wilson about his inspiration for Shudu, his critics, and the future of modeling.
This segment originally aired May 15, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.