Forever young, beautiful and scandal-free: the rise of virtual influencers in South Korea

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She has over 130,000 followers on Instagram, where she posts photos of her world-traveling adventures. Her makeup is always impeccable, her clothes look like this from the catwalk. She sings, dances and models – and none of that 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 spanning 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 bringing in multi-billion dollar profits for the company in the advertising and entertainment worlds.

Since its launch in 2020, Rozy has landed brand deals and sponsorships, walked the catwalk in virtual fashion shows and even released two singles.

And she’s not alone.

The ‘virtual human’ industry is booming, and with it a whole new economy in which the influencers of the future will never age, be scandal-free and digitally flawless – raising 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 are using it to create realistic non-human characters in movies, computer 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 images. Other times, it puts its head on a human model’s body, such as when she’s modeling clothes.

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

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

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

older generations might consider the interaction with an artificial person somewhat strange. But experts say virtual influencers have struck a chord with younger Koreans, digital natives who spend a large part of their lives online.

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

Rozy followed her back and sometimes commented on her posts, and a virtual friendship was formed — one that lasts even after Lee discovered the truth.

“We communicated as friends and I felt comfortable with her, so I don’t consider her an AI, but 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 doesn’t just allow virtual influencers to build a fan base – it’s where the money pours in.

Rozy’s Instagram, for example, is littered with sponsored content promoting skincare and fashion products.

“Many big companies in Korea want to use Rozy as a model,” said Baik Seung-yup, the CEO of Sidus Studio X. “This year, we easily expect more than two billion Korean won (about $1.52 million) in profits, just with Rozy.”

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

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

Models are in high demand as they help brands reach younger consumers, experts say. Rozy’s clients include a life insurance company and a bank – businesses that are typically considered old-fashioned. “But they say their image has become 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 make an image of their stars, and from two days to a few weeks for a video commercial. That is much less time and work than necessary to produce a commercial with real people — where weeks or months can be spent exploring locations and preparing logistics such as lighting, hair and makeup, styling, catering, and post-production editing.

And, perhaps just as importantly, virtual influencers never age, never tire or spark controversy.

Lotte chose a virtual influencer when she thought about maximizing her “show hosts,” Lee said.

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

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

A question about beauty

South Korea isn’t the only place where virtual influencers have been embraced.

One of the most famous virtual influencers in the world is Lil Miquela, created by the co-founders of an American tech startup, which has supported brands like Calvin Klein and Prada and has more than 3 million Instagram followers; Lu of Magalu, founded by a Brazilian retail company, with nearly 6 million Instagram followers; and FNMeka, a rapper created by music company Factory New, who has over 10 million TikTok followers.

But there’s one big difference, according to Lee Eun-hee, a professor in Inha University’s Department of Consumer Studies: Virtual influencers in other countries often reflect a diversity of ethnic backgrounds and beauty ideals.

Virtual people elsewhere have a “uniqueness”, while “those in Korea are always made beautiful and beautiful…(a reflection of) each country’s values,” 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: Sidus Studio X

And in South Korea — often called the “plastic surgery capital of the world” for its thriving $10.7 billion industry — there are concerns that virtual influencers could further fuel unrealistic beauty standards.
Younger Koreans have begun to push back against these ideals in recent years, sparked a move in 2018 called “escape the corset”.

But ideas about what is popularly considered beautiful in the country remain limited; for women, this usually means a slender figure with big 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 slender jaw and a perky nose. Rozy has full lips, long legs and a flat stomach that sticks 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 the demand for plastic surgery or cosmetic products among women who want to emulate them.

“Real women want to be like them, and men want to date people with the same looks,” 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: Thanks to Lotte Thuiswinkelen

The makers of Rozy and Lucy reject such criticism.

Lotte representative Lee Bo-hyun said they had tried to make Lucy more than just a “beautiful image” by creating an elaborate backstory and personality. She studied industrial design and works in automotive design. She writes about her work and interests, such as her love for animals and kimbap: rice rolls wrapped in seaweed. In this way, “Lucy strives to be a good influence in society,” Lee said, adding, “She is giving the public a message to do what you want to do according to your beliefs.”

Baik, the CEO of Sidus Studio X, said that Rozy is not what “everyone would call beautiful” and that the company had deliberately tried to make its appearance unique and deviate from traditional Korean standards. He pointed to the freckles on her cheeks and her wide-open eyes.

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

‘Digital black face’

But concerns go beyond Korean beauty standards. Elsewhere in the world there is discussion on the ethics of marketing products to consumers who do not realize that the models are not human, and also: the risk of cultural appropriation in creating influencers of different ethnicities – labeled by some as ‘digital blackface’.

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

“Like any disruptive technology, synthetic media has the potential for both good and evil. 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 – ranging from the metaverse and virtual reality technologies to 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: Sidus Studio X

Lotte hopes Lucy will transition from advertising to entertainment, perhaps by starring in a television drama. The company is also working on a virtual human that will appeal to shoppers between the ages of 40 and 60.

Sidus Studio X also has big ambitions; Rozy will launch its own cosmetics brand in August, as well as an NFT (non-fungible token), and the company hopes to create a virtual pop trio to take the charts.

Baik points out that most fans don’t meet real celebrities in person, but only see them on screens. So “there’s not a big difference between virtual people and the real celebrities they like,” he said.

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



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