Shudu, The First Digital Model, Has Become An Entry Point For Discussions Of Race, Representation, And Beauty


As if modeling wasn’t already a controversial industry, it just got even more interesting with the introduction of a whole new class of model. Shudu — a model whose claim to fame was an appearance on Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty Instagram page — is UNREAL. No, literally… she’s not a real person. Seriously.

Shudu is the world’s first entirely digital model, the creation of photographer/digital artist Cameron James-Wilson. Technically, all models are somewhat digital these days — what with the toning, sculpting, makeup application, and other tweaks — but Shudu has never existed in real life. She’s all pixels.

James-Wilson said of his creation that he was inspired to create Shudu mainly based off of the South African Princess Barbie, but “her real-life inspirations are pulled from so many different women — Lupita, Duckie Thot and Nykhor — even throwing it back to Alek Wek.” The artist said it takes three days to come up with one image of Shudu, which is easily believed because Shudu is #blackgirlmagic even if she is completely CGI.

The first thing I, a darker-skinned black woman, thought when I heard about Shudu was, “Oh my word, she’s so gorgeous…and she’s dark!” In a world of beauty full of “paper bag tests” and the strange sense of shock when someone talks about a very melanated woman of color in the entertainment industry, it’s exciting to see darker hues celebrated and photographers wishing so badly to have the perfect black model that they would go as far to create one out of thin air.

After all, James-Wilson said of Shudu, “Shudu represents what I’ve always seen as beautiful, but something I don’t see often enough.”

That’s lit!…or so I thought, until I started talking to more people, and realizing how potentially fetishy/ Frankensteiny/ detrimental the creation of a virtual dark-skinned model could be when there are actual living, breathing, dark-skinned models who eat real food and have real families and real bills to pay.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that there’s some white British guy who thinks the ideal woman has a ton of melanin. I am totes down with the swirl, even. But there is a thin line between admiration and appropriation and Shudu is dancing right on the razor’s edge of it. Especially considering that real live black women are already underrepresented on the runway. Besides that, creating a computer image of a model not only perpetuates the idea of the “perfect” woman, it makes it more inaccessible to real women.

The message may be accidental but it seems clear: Ladies, you will never be beautiful enough.

The truth is, it’s hard to tell what’s really going on here and we’re not ready to rush to call it out. But there are some questions worth answering when Shudu is booking gigs left and right. Do photographers have the stereotypical finger popping, neck rolling black woman with the slick mouth in their minds and think a cartoon would be easier to work with? Somewhere in the backs of their minds they have an issue with black models receiving the highest pay in the industry and would rather give that cash to a tech bro? Or was this really just a cool project that went nuts?

I’m happy to believe it’s the latter, seeing as how Rihanna is a black woman and thought Shudu was cool enough to be used in her campaign (however weird it is to have a cartoon wear makeup). Still, as much as I appreciate the effort, and I think Shudu is gorgeous, it’s not for me.

I am all for a dark-skinned woman being in the forefront of fashion, but I’m just not vibing with a white man being paid for it.