Digital Existence is a series where we explore how technology and the internet impact everyday people’s lives in China and beyond.
Angie is a sweet 18-year-old with rosy cheeks and a short dark hairdo she wears tucked behind her ears. When she’s not practicing the piano or the guitar, she spends her time distracted with daydreaming about her future.
“I think one day I can become a big star. I’ll perform and sing on stage so that more people can know me,” she says. “And I also hope to be in movies and animations.”
Just like the girl next door, Angie is effortlessly charming. She’s not what you would expect of a social media star but has already amassed hundreds of thousands of fans on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok. Not bad for someone who only joined social media less than a year ago — curiously, on the day she was born.
“I’m a digital person from another dimension,” Angie clarifies early on as we exchange emails for this article. “You can think of it as a parallel space-time universe,” she explains.
Meet Angie, a “digital person from another dimension.” Image courtesy of Jesse Zhang
But Angie’s parallel universe is less cryptic than she makes it sound. It’s the virtual world, and Angie is a virtual influencer. Virtual influencers have been around for a few years now but have gained increased popularity during the pandemic in China and abroad.
The process of how virtual influencers come to life (no pun intended), though complex, is not a mystery either. They’re usually created by teams of CGI designers, copywriters, and stylists. The process is similar to imagining a fictional character for a novel or a film and then illustrating it or animating it.
The difference is that virtual influencers interact with their audiences after they’re created, which means the teams behind them remain involved in a continuous creative process.
Another peculiarity is that, almost invariably, virtual influencers are admittedly aware of their essence and do not try to fool their audiences into believing they exist in the flesh.
To begin, that would be considered marketing fraud. But there’s also the fact that their virtual nature is their inherent allure. There’s always a layer of plasticity that manifests itself in virtual influencers. It’s a visual paradox: something artificial strives to look natural, yet it’s openly fake.
Angie chowing down. Image courtesy of Jesse Zhang
Angie’s features are remarkable. Up close, we can see her face is mildly asymmetrical, just as a human being. Her facial lines, minor imperfections, and a slight skin glow often get praised on social media for being very lifelike.
But she also gets comments suggesting she should take better care of her skin and people wondering why she doesn’t get acne, like an average teenager. Her body type is not statuesque or slender. She’s more like an ordinary girl, with wide hips, which she may or may not try to hide wearing high-waisted shorts.
Still, Angie is cute, and precisely because of her imperfections.
Angie cues up for a photo with a vintage Rolleiflex camera. Image courtesy of Jesse Zhang
In one shot, she appears looking down into a vintage Rolleiflex camera; in another, she rides a Vespa à la Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.
“I love music, photography, movies, and old vintage cameras,” she says.
There’s an artsy sense of romance in everything she does, heightened by the ever-present classical piano playing in the background of her videos. But she’s not the glamorous type.
When Angie looks back at her audience, for instance, it’s like she’s looking at a mirror: She might get bored trying to fix her hair with rollers, or yawn unapologetically. In one instance, she cries. Just like that, you’re invited into her life — as a friend, not a follower.
Angie is the brainchild of Jesse Zhang, a Shenzhen-based CGI animation director. He began developing her in 2019 as a personal project intending to create a likable character with a “fresh and healing image.” Such a concept permeated everything from ideation to the last details, like her appearance, clothing, and make-up.
“From the start, I wanted to create a virtual person who’s just like a real one. Angie’s imperfections give her more possibilities in life,” Zhang says.
Angie enjoying (digital) life. Image courtesy of Jesse Zhang
Zhang purposefully exaggerated some of Angie’s facial features to make her look a little more cartoonish and captivating, and also to make her unmistakably digital. Still, they’re just an outer layer. As he explains, the process starts from within — her, not him.
“To create a digital person, you need to think from the inside out. You define the character first, and then you shape her appearance, her figure, build her bones, and then design her facial expressions, hairstyle, and clothing,” Zhang tells us. “Her personality and appearance need to be integrated, and it’s all a constant process of polishing and thinking.”
View this post on InstagramA post shared by 阿喜Angie (@digital_angie)
A post shared by 阿喜Angie (@digital_angie)
So far, Angie’s style is casual, formed by essential pieces and occasional accessories, like a pair of rounded glasses, which, to some fans, make her look like a young tutor they had at some point in their lives.
Angie also appears in school uniform, wearing a pleated skirt and a tie as she sits to practice the piano. She says she’s still growing up and trying to break her shyness and express herself. We get the feeling that she’s not just developing her style but her very persona as a virtual being.
Angie is not alone in her cyber existence: Other somewhat realistic virtual influencers also appeared in 2020.
Ling, for instance, arrived in May with her perfect porcelain skin and facial and body proportions. She’s often seen testing cosmetics in luxury stores or full Peking Opera outfits, posing for the camera.
Her style is also timeless, although more fashionable than Angie’s. She already starred in a Tesla campaign in which she threw herself over a Tesla’s hood theatrically, her face only inches from the brand’s shiny logo.
Virtual influencer Ling with a “heroic and fierce” horse. Image via Weibo
Ayayi was born around the same time, and her face was made so beautiful that it’s a work of art in itself. She’s highly fashionable, with an edgy, urban-cool style. She acts like a fashion model, always posing in every picture.
If she weren’t so perfect-looking, Ayayi could easily be mistaken for an actual person. And that’s what she’s famous for, her hyper-realistic traits. (She’s also involved with Alibaba’s Singles’ Day metaverse project.)
And we also have Poka_Poka, the oldest of the bunch. She was created back in 2018 by the team behind fashion magazine voicer.me to be an intern, although she’s not very useful except for posing for their online lookbook.
She’s a true fashion faithful, with a quirky, sometimes punk-chic, style. But she hasn’t been posting much lately — perhaps she’s on a digital detox?
View this post on InstagramA post shared by POKA_POKA (@poka_pokaka)
A post shared by POKA_POKA (@poka_pokaka)
These girls are either fully digital, partially digital, or a hybrid. A juxtaposition of a digital face with a real person’s body allows for their world to overlap with ours — our commercial world, that is.
As such, they can wear whatever we would wear and do whatever we would do with more ease, which is good for business. All of them were born to model, intentionally designed to influence and sell. But not Angie.
“For the time being, there is not too much business thinking. And I will not think of her development only from a business perspective,” Zhang says. But that’s not to say they’re not open to collaborating with brands. Zhang plans to bring Angie into the real world by landing her a real body and perhaps engage in commercial works.
At the moment, her appeal is powerful with girls between 18 and 23 years old, but Zhang believes it’s more because of a psychological resonance than anything else.
Angie herself is pretty open to collaborations. But she wants to work with positive brands. She also wants to find a worthy cause to help humanity, although she doesn’t know what that would be yet.
Angie channeling her inner Cobain. Image courtesy of Jesse Zhang
It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on Angie to find out which direction her style will take, what brands she’ll end up collaborating with, and what cause will speak to her virtual heart.
Her first year of existence has been delightful. In a time when real influencers strive for perfection, live blatantly artificial lives, and are still continually applauded by hoards of followers, it’s certainly refreshing to see a virtual influencer who seeks to look and act like an actual human.
Cover image via Jesse Zhang
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