She has over 130,000 followers on Instagram, where she posts photos of her adventures around the world. Her makeup is always impeccable, her clothes look like they came straight from the catwalk. She sings, dances and models – and none of it is real.
Rozy is a South Korean “virtual influencer”, a digitally rendered human being so realistic that she is often mistaken for being flesh and blood.
“Are you a real person?” asks one of his Instagram fans. “You are an AI [Inteligência Artificial]? Or a robot?”
According to the Seoul-based company that created her, Rozy is a blend of the three who struts her stuff in the real and virtual worlds.
She is “capable of doing everything that humans cannot… in the most human way,” says Sidus Studio X on its website.
This includes making profits for the company in the multibillion-dollar worlds of advertising and entertainment.
Since her 2020 release, Rozy has been securing brand deals and sponsorships, paving the runway in virtual fashion shows, and even releasing two songs.
And she is not alone.
The “virtual human” industry is booming, and with it a whole new economy in which the influencers of the future never age, are scandal-free and have no flaws in the digital world – causing alarm among some in a country already obsessed with unattainable beauty standards.
How virtual influencers work
The CGI (computer generated imagery) technology behind Rozy is not new. It is ubiquitous in today’s entertainment industry, where artists use it to create realistic non-human characters in movies, computer games and music videos.
But only recently has it been used to create influencers.
Sidus Studio X sometimes creates an image of Rozy from head to toe using technology, an approach that works well in their Instagram images. Other times, she superimposes her head on the body of a human model—when she models clothes, for example.
South Korean retail brand Lotte Home Shopping created its virtual influencer – Lucy, who has 78,000 Instagram followers – with software typically used for video games.
Like their real-life counterparts, virtual influencers build a journey through social media, where they post snapshots of their “lives” and interact with their fans. Rozy’s account shows her “traveling” to Singapore and enjoying a glass of wine on a rooftop while her fans praise her clothes.
Older generations may find interacting with an artificial person a bit awkward. But experts say virtual influencers have struck a chord with young Koreans, digital natives who spend much of their lives online.
Lee Na-kyoung, a 23-year-old girl who lives in Incheon, started following Rozy about two years ago, thinking she was a real person.
Rozy followed her back, sometimes commenting on her messages, and a virtual friendship blossomed – a friendship that lasted even after Lee discovered the truth.
“We communicated as friends and I was comfortable with her – so I don’t think of her as an AI but as a true friend,” Lee said.
“I love Rozy’s content,” Lee added. “She’s so beautiful I can’t believe she’s an AI.”
a profitable business
Social media isn’t just about allowing virtual influencers to build a fan base – that’s where the money comes in.
Rozy’s Instagram, for example, is full of sponsored content where she advertises beauty and fashion products.
“Many big companies in Korea want to use Rozy as a model,” said Baik Seung-yup, CEO of Sidus Studio X. “This year, we expect to easily reach over two billion Koreans (about 1.5 million euros) profit, only with Rozy”.
Baik Seung-yup added that as Rozy became more popular, the company got more sponsorships from luxury brands like Chanel and Hermes, as well as magazines and other media companies. Their ads have now appeared on television, and even in “offline” spaces like billboards and on the sides of buses.
Lotte expects similar profits this year with Lucy, which has attracted advertising campaigns from finance and construction companies, according to Lee Bo-hyun, the director of Lotte Home Shopping’s social media business division.
Models are in high demand because they help brands reach younger consumers, experts say. Rozy’s clients include a life insurance company and a bank—companies typically seen as antiquated. “But they say his image became very young after working with Rozy,” Baik said.
It also helps that, compared to some of their real-life counterparts, these new stars are low-maintenance.
It takes Lotte and Sidus Studio X between a few hours and a few days to create an image of their stars, and from two days to a few weeks for a video ad. That’s a lot less time and work than it takes to produce an ad with real humans – where weeks or months can be spent scouting locations and preparing logistics such as lighting, hair and make-up, styling, catering and post-production editing. .
And perhaps just as importantly, virtual influencers never get old, never get tired, and don’t invite controversy.
Lotte decided on a virtual influencer when thinking about how to maximize its “show hosts,” Lee said. Lotte Home Shopping hires human hosts to advertise products on TV — but “they cost a lot,” and “there will be changes when grow old,” Lee said. So they brought in Lucy, who is “29 years old forever.”
“Lucy is not limited by time or space,” he added. “She can show up anywhere. And there are no moral issues.”
A question about beauty
South Korea is not the only place to embrace virtual influencers.
Among the most famous virtual influencers in the world are Lil Miquela, created by the co-founders of a start-up American technology, which has supported brands such as Calvin Klein and Prada and has more than 3 million followers on Instagram; Lu of Magalu, created by a Brazilian retail company, with almost 6 million followers on Instagram; and FNMeka, a rapper created by music company Factory New, with over 10 million followers on TikTok.
But there is one big difference, according to Lee Eun-hee, a professor in the Department of Consumer Science at Inha University: Virtual influencers in other countries tend to reflect a diversity of ethnic backgrounds and beauty ideals.
Virtual humans elsewhere have a “uniqueness”, while “Korea’s are always made beautiful and beautiful… (reflecting) the values of each country”, he added.
And in South Korea – often dubbed “the plastic surgery capital of the world” because of its burgeoning €10.5 billion industry – there are concerns that virtual influencers could fuel unrealistic beauty standards.
Younger Koreans have begun to build up pressure against these ideals in recent years, sparking a movement in 2018 dubbed “Escape the Corset”.
But ideas about what is popularly considered beautiful in the country remain narrow; for women, this usually means a small figure with large eyes, a small face, and pale, fair skin.
And these characteristics are shared by most virtual influencers in the country; Lucy has flawless skin, long, shiny hair, a slender chin, and a sharp nose. Rozy has full lips, long legs and a flat stomach peeking out from under her tank tops.
Lee Eun-hee warned that virtual influencers like Rozy and Lucy could be making Korea’s already demanding beauty standards even more unattainable — and increasing demand for plastic surgery or cosmetics among women looking to emulate them.
“Real women want to become like them, and men want to date people who look the same,” she said.
The creators of Rozy and Lucy reject such criticism.
Lotte’s representative Lee Bo-hyun said they had tried to make Lucy more than just a “pretty picture”, creating an elaborate story and personality. She studied industrial design and works in automobile design. She posts about her work and interests, such as her love of animals and kimbap – rice rolls wrapped in seaweed. In this way, “Lucy is striving to have a good influence on society,” Lee said, adding, “She’s giving a message to the public to ‘do what you want to do according to what you believe in’.
Baik, the CEO of Sidus Studio X, said that Rozy is not what “anyone would call beautiful” and that the company had deliberately tried to make her look unique and deviate from traditional Korean norms. She pointed out the freckles on his cheeks and his wide eyes.
“Rozy shows people the importance of inner trust,” he added. “There are other virtual humans who are just as beautiful…but I made Rozy to show that she herself can be beautiful (even without a conventionally attractive face).”
“Digital Black Face”
But the concerns go beyond Korean beauty standards. In other parts of the world there is a debate about the ethics of marketing products to consumers who do not realize that the models are not human, as well as the risk of cultural appropriation by creating influencers of different ethnicities – labeled by some as “digital blackface” [à letra: rosto negro digital].
The parent company of Facebook and Instagram, Meta, which has more than 200 virtual influencers on its platforms, has recognized the risks.
“Like any disruptive technology, synthetic media have the potential for both good and ill. Issues of representation, cultural appropriation and expressive freedom are already a growing concern,” the company said in a blog post.
“To help brands navigate the ethical dilemmas of this emerging medium and avoid potential dangers, (Meta) is working with partners to develop an ethical framework to guide the use of (virtual influencers).”
But one thing seems clear: the industry is here to stay. As interest in the digital world grows — from metaverse and virtual reality technologies to digital currencies — companies say virtual influencers are the next frontier.
Lotte hopes Lucy will move from advertising to entertainment, perhaps appearing in a television series. The company is also working on a virtual human that will appeal to shoppers aged 40 to 60.
Sidus Studio X also has big ambitions; Rozy will launch her own cosmetics brand in August, as well as an NFT (non-fungible symbol), and the company hopes to create a virtual pop trio to climb the music charts.
Baik points out that most fans don’t personally know real celebrities, they just see them on screen. So “there’s not a big difference between virtual humans and the real-life celebrities they like,” he said.
“We want to change perceptions of how people think about virtual humans,” added Baik. “What we do is not take work away from people, but rather do things that humans can’t do, such as working 24 hours or making unique content like walking in the sky.”