Forever young, beautiful and scandal-free: The rise of South Korea’s virtual influencers

She has more than 130,000 followers on Instagram, where she posts photos of her worldwide adventures. Her makeup is always impeccable, her clothes look straight off the runway. She sings, dances and models – and none of it is real.

Rozy is a South Korean “virtual influencer”, a digitally rendered human so realistic that she is often mistaken for flesh and blood.

“Are you a real person?” asks one of her Instagram fans. “Are you an AI? Or a robot?”

According to the Seoul-based company that created her, Rozy is a mix of all three that straddles the real and virtual worlds.

She is “capable of doing everything humans can’t … in the most human-like form,” Sidus Studio X says on its website.

That includes raising profits for the company in the multibillion-dollar advertising and entertainment worlds.

Since her launch in 2020, Rozy has landed brand deals and sponsorships, strutted the runway in virtual fashion shows and even released two singles.

And she is not alone.

The “virtual human” industry is booming, and with it a whole new economy where future influencers never age, scandal-free and digitally flawless – raising alarm among some in a country already obsessed with unattainable beauty standards.

This is 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 films, video games and music videos.

But it has only recently been used to create influencers.

Sometimes Sidus Studio X creates a head-to-toe image of Rozy using the technology, an approach that works well for her Instagram photos. Other times it superimposes her head on the body of a human model – when she’s modeling clothes, for example.

An image of Lucy, the Korean virtual human used by Lotte Home Shopping.

An image of Lucy, the Korean virtual human used by Lotte Home Shopping. Credit: Courtesy Lotte Home Shopping

South Korean retail brand Lotte Home Shopping created its virtual influencer – Lucy, who has 78,000 Instagram followers – with software normally used for video games.

Like their real-life counterparts, virtual influencers build a following through social media, where they post snapshots of their “life” and interact with their fans. Rozy’s account shows her “travelling” to Singapore and enjoying a glass of wine on a rooftop while her fans compliment her outfits.

Older generations could consider interacting with an artificial person somewhat strange. But experts say virtual influencers have struck a chord with younger Koreans, digital natives who spend much of their lives online.

Lee Na-kyoung, a 23-year-old living in Incheon, started following Rozy about two years ago, thinking she was a real person.

Rozy followed her back, sometimes commenting on her posts, and a virtual friendship blossomed—one that has endured even after Lee found out the truth.

“We communicated as friends and I felt comfortable with her — so I don’t think of her as an AI, but a real friend,” Lee said.

“I love Rozy’s content,” Lee added. “She’s so beautiful I can’t believe she’s an artificial intelligence.”

A profitable business

Social media doesn’t just enable virtual influencers to build a fan base – that’s where the money rolls in.

Rozy’s Instagram, for example, is littered with sponsored content where she advertises skin care 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 Korean won (about $1.52 million) in profit, just with Rozy.”

He added that as Rozy became more popular, the company gained more sponsorships from luxury brands such as Chanel and Hermes, as well as magazines and other media companies. Her ads have now appeared on television and even in offline spaces like billboards and the sides of buses.

Lotte expects similar profits this year from Lucy, which has brought advertising deals from finance and construction companies, according to Lee Bo-hyun, the director of Lotte Home Shopping’s media business division.

The 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 – businesses that are typically seen as old-fashioned. “But they say their image has become very youthful 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 commercial. It is far less time and work than is required to produce a commercial with real people — where weeks or months can be spent on location scouting and preparing logistics such as lighting, hair and makeup, styling, catering and post-production editing.

And perhaps just as important: virtual influencers never get old, tired or invite controversy.

Lotte decided on a virtual influencer when she considered how to maximize her “show hosts,” Lee said.

Lotte Home Shopping hires human hosts to advertise products on TV — but they “cost quite a lot” and “changes will happen as they get older,” Lee said. So they came up with Lucy, who is “forever 29 years old.”

“Lucy is not limited to time or space,” he added. “She can appear anywhere. And there it is no moral issues.”

A question of beauty

South Korea is not the only place that has embraced virtual influencers.

Among the world’s most famous virtual influencers are Lil Miquela, created by the co-founders of an American tech startup, who has endorsed brands including Calvin Klein and Prada and has more than 3 million Instagram followers; Lu of Magalu, created by a Brazilian retail company, with nearly 6 million Instagram followers; and FNMeka, a rapper created by music label Factory New, with more than 10 million TikTok followers.

But there is a big difference, according to Lee Eun-hee, a professor at Inha University’s Department of Consumer Science: virtual influencers in other countries tend to reflect a diversity of ethnic backgrounds and beauty ideals.

Virtual people elsewhere have a “uniqueness,” while “the ones in Korea are always made beautiful and beautiful … (reflecting) the values ​​of each country,” she added.

An image of Rozy, the virtual influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea.

An image of Rozy, the virtual influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea. Credit: Star Studio X

And in South Korea – often dubbed the “plastic surgery capital of the world” for its boom 10.7 billion dollars industry — there is concern that virtual influencers may further fuel unrealistic beauty standards.
Younger Koreans are beginning to push back against these ideals in recent years, sparked a movement in 2018 called “escape the corset.”

But ideas about what is popularly considered beautiful in the country remain narrow; for women, this usually means a petite figure with large eyes, a small face, and pale, clear skin.

And these features are shared by most of the country’s virtual influencers; Lucy has perfect skin, long shiny hair, a slim jaw and a perky nose. Rozy has full lips, long legs and a flat stomach that peeks out from under her crop tops.

Lee Eun-hee warned that virtual influencers like Rozy and Lucy could make Korea’s already demanding beauty standards even more unattainable – and increase demand for plastic surgery or cosmetic products among women who seek to emulate them.

“Real women want to be like them, and men want to date people who look like them,” she said.

An image of Lucy, the Korean virtual human used by Lotte Home Shopping.

An image of Lucy, the Korean virtual human used by Lotte Home Shopping. Credit: Courtesy Lotte Home Shopping

The creators of Rozy and Lucy reject such criticism.

Lotte representative Lee Bo-hyun said that they had tried to make Lucy more than just a “pretty picture” by creating an elaborate backstory and personality. She studied industrial design and works in car design. She writes about her job and her interests, such as her love for animals and kimbap – rice rolls wrapped in seaweed. In this way, “Lucy strives to have a good influence in society,” Lee said, adding, “She gives a message to the public to ‘do what you want to do according to your beliefs’.”

Baik, Sidus Studio X CEO, said that Rozy is not what “anyone would call beautiful” and that the company had deliberately tried to make her appearance unique and turn away from traditional Korean norms. He pointed to the freckles on her cheeks and her wide eyes.

“Rozy shows people the importance of inner confidence,” he added. “There are other virtual people who are so beautiful … but I made Rozy to show that you can still be beautiful (even without a conventionally attractive face).”

‘Digital blackface’

But concerns go beyond Korean beauty standards. Elsewhere in the world there is debate about the ethics of marketing products to consumers who are unaware that the models are not human, as well the risk of cultural appropriation when creating influencers of different ethnicities – labeled by some as “digital blackface.

Facebook and Instagram’s parent company Meta, which has more than 200 virtual influencers on its platforms, has acknowledged the risks.

“Like any disruptive technology, synthetic media has the potential for both good and harm. Issues of representation, cultural appropriation and freedom of expression are already a growing concern,” the company said in a blog post.

“To help brands navigate the ethical dilemmas of this new 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 is clear: the industry is here to stay. As interest in the digital world grows — right from the start metaverse and virtual reality technologies for digital currencies — companies say virtual influencers are the next frontier.
An image of Rozy, the virtual influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea.

An image of Rozy, the virtual influencer developed by Sidus Studio X in South Korea. Credit: Star Studio X

Lotte hopes that Lucy will move from advertising to entertainment, perhaps by appearing in a TV drama. The company is also working on a virtual human that will appeal to shoppers in their 40s to 60s.

Sidus Studio X also has big ambitions; Rozy is launching her own cosmetics brand in August as well as an NFT (non-fungible token), and the company hopes to create a virtual pop trio that can conquer the music charts.

Baik points out that most fans don’t meet real celebrities in person, only see them on screens. So “there’s no big difference between virtual people and the real-life celebrities they like,” he said.

“We want to change the perception of how people think about virtual people,” Baik added. “What we’re doing is not taking away people’s jobs, but doing things that humans can’t, like working 24 hours or making unique content like walking in the sky.

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