Meet Laila Blue - Middle East's first virtual influencer
In a market saturated by bloggers and social media celebrities, she was born (read created) to stand out
Recently, I started following someone named Laila Blue on Instagram. Like many people I follow, she loves art, fashion, inspirational quotes, and posting pictures of herself at funky locations. However, unlike most people I follow, Laila isn't a real person. She is a virtual influencer.
Welcome to 2018.
If you're scratching your head wondering what a virtual influencer is, don't worry - you aren't alone. Most people I spoke to had similar reactions. But we are living in the digital age and, as the market gets more saturated with images of perfect-looking people promoting clothing or food, it's natural that viewers start searching for something more. Something different. Enter the virtual influencer - computer generated images of a person who does not exist. They have social media handles, but are created by another person who control their actions, reactions, speech and more. They are basically a play on the popular belief that 'anyone can be an influencer' - even if they aren't real. And, right now, these virtual influencers are blowing up the Internet.
Take, for example, Miquela Sousa (@lilmiquela) who has over 1.5 million followers on Instagram. Or how about Shudu Gram - the world's first digital supermodel - with 148k followers. They have opinions, collaborate with brands and even support charities and causes. So, while they may not be real, they are, no doubt, influencing real people.
Recently, the Middle East got its first slice of the virtual influencer pie. Laila Blue (who operates under the handle @chasing.laila) is 25 years old, half- Lebanese, half-French and fully CGI (her words, not ours). Her articulate founder wishes to stay anonymous for now (which is why we'll be calling him/her A), but that didn't stop him/her from explaining what makes virtual influencers so popular.
"It's a fascinating time for the concept of 'influence' as a whole," explains A. "Influencers are equally lauded and loathed - and, meanwhile, questions of authenticity grow louder and more incredulous. Who has value on Instagram and who doesn't? Who has the right to proclaim themselves the judge of that? So, why not play with that fluid construct and create someone who isn't real but who, ironically, may very well be every bit as authentic as most of our curated digital personas? In doing so, Laila is an experiment and a comment on society - but more importantly, she's also meant to be fun."
Laila certainly is fun to follow. Although (at the time of going to press) she may have just 379 followers (which is probably why she doesn't call herself an influencer), her feed is peppered with pictures of her out and about, wearing real brands at real locations. One would almost think (or, perhaps, hope) that they could bump into her on the streets of Dubai.
So, if a virtual influencer can be fashioned wearing anything and being anywhere, why be associated with real brands and locations? Well, for starters, this gives them a sense of authenticity and relatability (who wouldn't be thrilled to see a virtual person wearing the same shirt you have on right now?). It's also a great way to collaborate with brands. It's not new practice either; In 2016, Louis Vuitton used a character from Japanese video game Final Fantasy as the face of its campaign.
While it might make sense for major retailers to team up with virtual influencers, what about the rest of us? What is it that draws us to like and follow non-existent celebrities? "Probably the absurdity of them," says A. "I think they make people feel childlike in some ways - interacting with them and getting a response makes it fun, as people get a real kick out of suspending their disbelief. Laila talks, interacts, has opinions... people already want to be friends!
"I think, underneath it all, we're all children at heart," he/ she continues. "Even the cynics. So, the fact that CGI influencers are like ultra-modern cartoon characters that seem to have agency - they can also make us laugh, question, or even get annoyed - is of value, I think. It's started a conversation and I don't think that is ever a bad thing. That's what keeps cultures and societies moving forward. And it's great that people have diverse opinions on CGI influencers, and that Laila is polarising. I can tell you that she thinks it's very funny!"
As of now, there is no indication whether Laila is modelled after her creator. What we do know is that she is 'designed to make people question the reality of the virtual world'. And it may be working. In a world of filters and Photoshop, isn't it a breath of fresh air to have an influencer not just admit, but play up the fact that she's, well, fake? Can a virtual influencer, in some ways, be more real than your regular social media star?
But that's not all. Much like the best virtual influencers out there, Laila wants to spread meaningful messages. "She's a sweet, positive girl who wants to encourage diversity and inclusivity - the irony of people hating on her because she's different has not escaped her," says A. "I want her to inspire. And to herald something different. Different is good. Creative is good."
We could not agree more. However, we're going to have to be patient. As of now, only four images of Laila have graced our screens. The reason? Unlike a real blogger, who only has to point, snap and edit his or her pictures, Laila's has to be created from scratch - a process that is far more time consuming. "Every image is different. But I can tell you that each small change takes a number of hours," admits A. "It's not easy."
Even so, we're sure to be seeing more of Laila - and other virtual influencers - in the days to come, believes A. "It's already happening! It's the rise of the machines. We're seeing CGI and AI advance in leaps and bounds - everything from Sophia the Robot to the eye-opening developments at places like Boston Dynamics. I have no doubt this will continue untill we live alongside robots. I just hope it won't be quite as problematic as in the series Westworld. We'd better be nice to them..."
Meanwhile, what is the next step for Laila Blue? "She's due for an upgrade," says A. "Think of it as robot botox."