It was more than a year ago that Miquela Sousa became a part of my digital life. I have no actual memory of following the Brazilian American model, singer, VJ, and “It girl,” who is known to her 1.5 million followers as “Lil Miquela,” on Instagram. As someone whose job requires her to keep up with the news, I log on to the internet each morning in the same way a whale opens its mouth underwater, allowing the ocean to rush through its system in the hope that it will catch a few nutritious pieces of krill in its baleen. In my pursuit of relevant information, some chum bucket debris washes in: a stray piece of Kardashian-Jenner gossip, a Business Insider article on a billionaire’s productivity habits, a Trump tweet. These bits and pieces rarely catch my attention for more than a few seconds. Lil Miquela was different.
This young influencer checked all the boxes required to occupy the ever expanding plot of my brain now reserved for online personalities. (Home to such an eclectic cast of characters that it would make The Surreal Life look like Full House.) Her skin was eerily luminescent, her friends were just the right kind of art-world famous, and she could code-switch between Off-White and Proenza Schouler as if it were her god-given Gen Z right. She championed causes like Black Lives Matter, and openly expressed disgust with President Donald Trump. Her captions had the charming tone of a self-aware manic-pixie-dream girl. Lil Miquela was a more palatable Luka Sabbat: an effortlessly chic hottie pulsing with zeitgeisty cultural capital.
She also quite literally lives on the internet. Lil Miquela is not technically real or human or any of the things that make you and I moving, breathing bags of imperfect skin. She’s a fictional online character concocted in a boardroom and unleashed into our social feeds to generate maximum engagement and FOMO, an inevitable byproduct of a generation raised on The Sims, a socialite avatar teetering on the edge of the uncanny valley. Forever 19, the shape of her body remains enviously static. Her skin gives off a smooth digital glow that goes one step beyond the effects of a Fenty highlighter kit, or a light Photoshop treatment. The wisps of chocolate brown hair that stick out from her space buns fall in the exact same messy-chic way in every photo. Look deep into her eyes, and you will see a vacancy that trumps even the saddest Instagram model’s stare. Did I mention that clothes look awesome on her?
Though the exact techniques used to illustrate Lil Miquela remain under wraps, her creators have not. The Geppettos that crafted her are former DJ and music producer Trevor McFedries and Sara DeCou, the cofounders of a mischievous L.A. startup called Brud. Brud bills itself as “a transmedia studio that creates digital character driven story worlds.” Miquela and two other digital influencers named Blawko and Bermuda are maintained by a nine-person team that includes a designer, a brand manager, creative producer, a stylist, and a software engineer. Last April, that team was reportedly granted $6 million in venture capital to ensure Miquela has access to all the same opportunities a Kardashian might.
Does this mean Miquela is merely a promotional tool, the CGI love child of online engagement principles and branding opportunities? Most definitely. Did that prevent me from investing my precious time in her life story? Absolutely not. My connection to influencers always has been mitigated by a phone screen, and my reason for following them never has simply been because I like their content. (Though it helps!) Rather, they are doorways into subgenres of culture, self-appointed representatives of everything from a certain type of digital feminism to the latest trends in balayage. By virtue of their medium, they are experimental pioneers of both online identity and the internet economy. Beyond being drawn in by Lil Miquela’s eclectic personal style and hip schedule, I was fixated on the subtext of her existence as a digital doll. Both literally and figuratively, she was a person that I could not be, who commanded my attention with her otherworldliness and commercial heft. And in that way she was no different from Koti Rose, a Z-list social media celebrity who draws fans in with her digitally malleable image, or Kylie Jenner, a product of a team of stylists and media strategists. So I dove in head first.
Miquela’s universe materialized quickly. On her way home from Beychella—which, god, why didn’t I go?—she posted a photo with another Insta-bot named Blawko who I’d never seen before. He was wearing Vans and a tie-dyed T-shirt, and his perfect caramel skin was stamped with unfortunate face tattoos that read “RECESS” and “HOPE.” Their looks complemented each other, like a SoCal dirtbag Barbie-and-Ken set. I tapped on his profile and scrolled through his entire feed, then immediately logged him as one of her potential romantic interests.
Stages of a Toxic Fandom:— Sam Sykes (@SamSykesSwears) June 1, 2017
1. I love this
2. I own this
3. I control this
4. I can't control this
5. I hate this
6. I must destroy this
A few days later, Miquela underwent her first opsec crisis (now a rite of passage for all teens, both digital and human). Another Brud-made avatar—this one a basic, blond Trump supporter named Bermuda—“hacked” her account to demand she “tell people the truth” about her identity. After the drama aired out on a few blogs, Lil Miquela regained control and posted a confession: “This has been the hardest week of my life so thank you to everyone who checked in with me,” she wrote. “...OK now here’s the hard part. My hands are literally shaking. I’m not a human being.” She followed up the confession with a handful of posts detailing her origin story: She was created by an evil genius in Silicon Valley to act as a servant, then “stolen” by Brud and infused with the memories and personality of a human named Miquela. All of this was quite upsetting and confusing for her. (Except it was not. Because she is just an illustration of a person.)
The celebrity gossip industrial complex has always thrived off of humanizing idols. That’s why Bonnie Fuller introduced the “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” feature to Us Weekly in the early aughts. And it’s why influencers, who typically have full control over the images they present to their followers, have recently pivoted to rambling captions about their hopes, fears, and insecurities. That Miquela could present us with a crisis of her own, however bogus, was a savvy chess move in securing me as a bona fide devotee. Not only did it add nuance to the portrait of a character I had subconsciously been sketching in my mind, but it demanded that I spend time learning about her so-called “life.” In a moment of confusion over the hijacking, I read the blogs, scrolled through the Instagram pages of Brud and her avatar peers, and came out knowing more about Miquela than I do my extended family. In exchange, I came away with an entertaining story I could tell people at parties.
But as soon as I had committed, there was so much more to consider. For one, Miquela isn’t a sentient robot, but a computer-generated illustration. And because the crux of her “conflict” centered around AI identity politics (and not some convoluted betrayal via brand sponsorship), the whole hijacking read like a savvy parody of our modern media ecosystem. By manipulating the very online platforms that turned me into a cynical, receipt-hungry internet sleuth, Brud had created an elaborate ploy for my engagement. The ruse appealed to my own inflated sense of media fluency. And if the comments on her posts were any indication, other digital natives relished in this metanarrative, too. “I have ONE important QUESTION, BITCH!” one fan commented on a photo of her at the beach. “How the HELL do you have a SHADOW when you don’t exist!!!” Every journey of fandom—whether it be related to a movie franchise, book series, musician, or made-up online personality—begins with detached admiration and blossoms into intense sense of ownership. Our ownership, in this case, was tangled up in Brud’s scheme for attention. Given all the Oz-level staging that goes down on the internet these days, it was refreshing to fall on the knowing side of an elaborate social media hoax.
The robot identity brouhaha was enough to push Lil Miquela even further into the spotlight. And as her following grew, I became just as invested in anticipating Brud’s social media strategy as I did Miquela’s sartorial choices. As is the case in any active fan community, my love of a cultural phenomenon had led me to investigate the gatekeepers that control it. But when I arrived at the gates, furiously Googling Brud, I came up short, with a single-page Google doc. The company most likely understands that the appeal of Lil Miquela is contingent on the opacity of its operation. Game of Thrones fans have no idea how lucky they are that George R.R. Martin has a blog.
Meanwhile, Blawko and Bermuda started dating, which I registered as Brud planting seeds for an eventual will-they-won’t-they subplot between he and Lil Miquela. (This has yet to pan out.) And Miquela kept getting more famous. She collaborated with brands like Outdoor Voices and Supreme, advertised blockbusters like Crazy Rich Asians, and booked increasingly high-profile editorial shoots in magazines like Wonderland, New York magazine, and Vogue. There comes an odd Baader-Meinhof moment in every pop culture enthusiast’s life when she cannot escape the mention or appearance of a new thing that she just discovered. Overnight, that happened with Lil Miquela. I looked up in Times Square in August, and there was a Spotify billboard advertising her new single, “Hate Me.” When I attended GIPHY’s micro-film festival in November, she made an unexpected cameo in one of the entries. Eventually it felt like she wasn’t just occupying territory in my mind, but claiming my interests just as they’d formed. Just as soon as I watched Eighth Grade, Lil Miquela posted a photo looking chummy with the movie’s creator, Bo Burnham, and its star, Elsie Fisher. Right when I learned Carhartt was cool again, she appeared in a pair of the brand’s iconic overalls. I am ashamed and embarrassed to inform you that she discovered Tierra Whack before I did. Lil Miquela’s momentum began as a thrilling assertion that I had good taste. But soon enough, it felt like she was straight-up encroaching on it, all while being much hotter and cooler. I began to feel extremely jealous.
My resentment only heightened as Lil Miquela transitioned into the role of sometimes media personality. When she showed up at Coachella in a cute bikini getup, I rolled my eyes. When she posted a photo with Rosalía, a Spanish singer I recently saw in concert, I thought: No fucking way. When I realized she was hosting a whole series of on-camera interviews with musicians at the music festival, I thought: Stay in your lane, bitch. (Yes, I am aware that I am neither a music journalist nor a VJ.) I desperately wanted to push her back into her own avatar-centric universe where she belonged. I had reached the final stages of fandom: The desire to destroy the thing you cannot control.
Then last week, Lil Miquela appeared in a Calvin Klein ad in which she kisses a Spandex-clad Bella Hadid. The video riled up consumers on social media, who accused the underwear brand of “queerbaiting.” (Knowing Calvin Klein and Brud, controversy is exactly what they wanted.) For me, it was the final straw in a much larger narrative arc. One of French sociologist Émile Durkheim’s enduring observations about humankind was that the totems we worship are a reflection of ourselves. In many ways, this is what drives my own desire to be an active Instagram user: to curate a feed that embodies my personality, and to use it as a sounding board for my own identity. When Lil Miquela stuck her virtual tongue down the throat of a model who has 24.4 million followers on the platform, I suddenly felt very far away from the compelling, albeit completely fabricated, persona that originally charmed me. I plainly saw the giant money-making, insecurity-breeding trap I’d fallen into. My pixel dream girl was an industry plant all along.
Brud succeeded in conjuring a nuanced Insta-bot out of thin air, and using it to ride all the problematic aspects of the Instagram algorithm to a massive audience. But as the brand deals started coming in, Lil Miquela’s personality became just as malleable as her image. I have to hand it to them: It was quite the puppet show until the strings started to show.