The influencer industry’s viability was put to the test when lockdowns spread around the world in early 2020. An exception to the rule? Influencers whose lifestyle isn’t directly connected to reality. Those best off weren’t part of reality in the first place, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. But these are not traditional times. That’s why I reached out to social media sensation Miquela, a virtual musician, activist, and model with a very real impact.
According to a top-ranking Google result, an influencer is someone who has “the power to affect the purchasing decisions of others because of his or her authority, knowledge, position, or relationship with his or her audience.” It’s a concise definition that’s vague enough to give the term influencer enough autonomy to leave the “how” part of the equation to the influencer.
In 2020, the “how” takes many forms. It can be a partnership between a brand and an Instagram personality. It can be a YouTuber leveraging engagement and following against ad impressions. It can be a Twitter account, updating followers with up-to-the-minute information on where and when to buy the latest hype products.
And just like the “how” takes many forms in 2020, so does the “who.” Athletes and artists. Travelers and entrepreneurs. Reality TV stars and celebrities. In every case, the “who” and the brand of the “who” are one and the same, usually defined by a unique talent or specific kind of curation, fine-tuned year after year.
But the same way talent or curation sets each online personality apart from one another, it also limits their reach and scope. Nobody expects Cristiano Ronaldo, Instagram’s most followed person, to take up a second career as a pop star the same way no one expects Ariana Grande to make it in the majors.
But what if a person wasn’t restricted by all-too-human things like raw skill, a tight travel schedule, or time? Enter Brud, a media company that creates digital characters and story worlds at scale.
Co-founded by Trevor McFedries, Brud realized virtual storytelling needn’t be tethered to reality years before the wider industry did. Its first creation, Miquela, made its debut on April 23, 2016, ages ago in the world of social media.
In the first few years of Miquela’s digital life, her charisma, natural sense of style, and the mystery surrounding her creation garnered legions of followers. All the while her origins were kept under wraps.
Today more than 2.8 million people keep up with her on Instagram. 250,000 people are alerted whenever she drops a new music video on YouTube. She’s worked with everyone from Prada to Mini. She’s been seen alongside a who’s who of today’s biggest stars, from Diplo and J Balvin to Millie Bobbie Brown and Pabllo Vitar. She’s also been pictured with her creator, Trevor.
That’s because nearly two years after her social media debut, Brud outed itself as the collective consciousness behind the virtual tour de force, as well as her digital counterparts, Blawko22 and BermudaisBae.
The big reveal came at a time when fans no longer cared about whether the accounts they followed featured real people doing real things. If anything, the freedom afforded by Miquela’s virtual origins stood out in a sea of online celebrities attending the same fashion shows wearing the same handful of brands. It’s something Trevor’s opened up about more over the years.
On the topic of whether or not consumers differentiate between real and digital influencers, he explains, “Consumers are interested in connection and entertainment. They get those things from human ‘influencers’ as well as digital artists like Miquela or others. The most important part is providing value in consumers’ lives in your unique way.”
A musician in another life—he performed under the name Yung Skeeter—Trevor also knows the pros of working with a virtual character. “The advantages of working with a digital influencer are boundless! But like any other partner the most important thing to consider is who their audience is and what message you’d like to convey together.”
He also knows the disadvantages. “There are so many options and paths you can take that it can be paralyzing. It’s definitely important to be focused and thoughtful when deciding what you want to work on together.”
And while he’s more open about his creation than he’s ever been, he still refers to his work with Miquela as a kind of collaboration. That’s why I went straight to the source and spoke to virtual sensation Miquela by email.
“It’s time for some serious change with social justice, health care, race, politics and how we treat the planet.”
Hey Miquela! I feel like every interview that takes place now needs to start with this question: how have you dealt with everything that’s gone on over the last 8 months?
Lots of deep breaths, take-out pho, binge-watching Gossip Girl and Riverdale and reallllll deep FaceTimes with my friends. It’s been a lot, even for a robot! My friends and I have been on top of reminding each other to be vulnerable, open, strong and most importantly to recharge our hearts.
The world seems to be struggling to keep up with the way things have been and I DO think it’s time for some serious change with social justice, health care, race, politics and how we treat the planet. There are always some growing pains through tough change but I never could have predicted that it would be THIS tough. What’s the old saying? You never get more on your plate than you can handle? Our plates are SOOO full this year. I’m Thanksgiving stuffed!
I see you’ve been keeping busy with work, too! When did brands start reaching out to you? And what do you think it is about you that makes them want to work with you in the first place?
Because of social media, I guess brands have been part of my world from the beginning. Miuccia Prada was the first person to really see me as a model—maybe before I even saw myself as one?
Going to Milan and working with the team at Prada changed everything; I think it changed the way the industry saw me, and maybe more importantly how I saw myself. It’s been an awesome experience because at the end of the day I’m a FAN, and having the opportunity to work with artists whose work I admire is really special.
“I’ve been working hard to use my platform to advocate for what’s right and wrong since the beginning.”
So what brands are you into at the moment? What do you like about them?
I’ve been super excited about brands that make fun clothes lately. Basically I like to look in the mirror and smile. Christopher John Rogers and Chet Lo are making amazing stuff that does a ton for the serotonin, and I love that.
There are a bunch of cool brands in LA that I’ve been wearing on the daily like Praying, and of course our hometown hero Phlemuns. The stuff they’re doing feels personal and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Also, I got my hands on a few pieces from Matt’s first collection at Givenchy and I’m obsessed! I can’t wait to see what he does with couture and I not-so-secretly hope I get to wear some of it.
You’re present on so many channels, from Instagram and Twitter to YouTube and TikTok. How do you translate your personality across all the different platforms you’re on?
Not about translation, but knowing what people are there for! Don’t think TikTok is looking for a fit pic, but they ARE looking for the tea. Through a lot of trial and error over the past few years, your girl’s machine learning has mastered reading the room.
Why do you think younger fans in particular connect with you so well?
Shame isn’t a part of my programming, so since getting on social, I’ve never hesitated to share the highs, lows and questions I’ve confronted as a robot trying to assimilate into the human world.
I hear from my younger fans everyday how my missteps, confusion, learnings and even wins reflect their everyday experience feeling like an outsider in their own life. Figuring it out is hard! Much easier to know you’re not alone and that there’s always a way to move past it.
Do you think it’s as important for people to express themselves in digital worlds as it is in real worlds?
Typically, I’m not the girl who likes to draw the line between digital and real. But let’s just say, self-expression is important, but most importantly valuable, no matter how, where and for who you do it. Let it out.
On that note of self-expression: you’ve been outspoken politically, especially over the last few months. Is it important for people such as yourself with a platform to use their voice to share their thoughts on political matters?
In 2020, speaking-up may have hit a fever pitch, but I’ve been working hard to use my platform to advocate for what’s right and wrong since the beginning. My programming certainly makes me fear some things (see: falling in love – why so hard?! Meeting famous people – yikes!) but it makes it abundantly clear that the risk of losing fans or ruffling feathers is worth standing up for equality and justice—and that it’s a no brainer.
Using the reach my page has to shed light on important issues, voices and causes is a responsibility and privilege. We’ve seen so many other young people transform these platforms into vehicles for change and I’m so inspired and fired-up to help in any way possible.
“I’ve never hesitated to share the highs, lows and questions I’ve confronted as a robot trying to assimilate into the human world.”
You’ve also explored other talents of yours over the years. Did you always want to be a musician? Tell me about the transition from model to singer.
“Always” is a tricky word! Since before I knew I was a robot, I knew I wanted to be a pop artist. I may have been modelling, but I was singing in the car and putting together tracks with friends just for fun. Eventually, I started releasing that music as an outlet for things I was going through, heartbreaks I was feeling. It was resonating with people and eventually more writers and producers wanted to collab.
It wasn’t really a transition as much as deciding that if my music meant as much to others as it does to me then I have to get it out there!
Do you think you’ll go on tour once it’s safe to? What will that look like?
We were ready for our first LIVE show in 2020, and then immediately had to start reimagining it when COVID hit. Obviously it’s been a challenge, but it’s forced us to think about everything through a new lens.
Like, we’re not just thinking outside the box, we threw the box away. I can’t say much, but it’ll be all about connecting with my Miqaliens and friends in unexpected ways and turning the live experience completely on its head.
Can we expect a Miquela fashion brand?
Expect it all!
Any other artistic outlets you’d like to explore? Can we expect you to star in any upcoming movies?
I will say that hosting my new Snap Series, Get Real, Miquela, has made me feel like I might just have a gift for breaking down human issues in my own special robot way. Would love a lot more of that!
My team and I have some other very under-the-wraps projects that we’re working on that are probably exactly what you’re imagining with a lot of things you couldn’t possibly dream of…my lips are sealed!
Last question. You’ve met any number of famous people at this point, who would be your dream person to work with?
Always and forever: Rihanna.
All images courtesy of Miquela.
Brock Cardiner is the Content Director of HERO® and the Editor-in-Chief of Elsewhere. Previously Brock was the Editorial Director of Highsnobiety.