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Lil Miquela Is A Virtual Artist Who Is Blurring The Boundaries Of Identity

Music
Photo courtesy of Lil Miquela's Instagram

“There’s a rly cute abstraction in identity right now”

Lil Miquela spends most of her days in the recording studio, but sometimes, she’s inspired by working in public spaces. She frequents Cuties—a queer-centered coffee shop in East Hollywood—where she can get lost in writing lyrics, entranced by listening to her favorite artists like Kelela and Arca. Lil Miquela loves Ethiopian food and discovering new parks in Los Angeles. At 19, the Stem artist has amassed more than half a million Instagram followers in less than two years. Last Friday, she released her new single, “You Should Be Alone,” following a stream of Spotify and Billboard single hits.

Unlike most Instagram-bred artist who appear painstakingly unattainable and illusory (Cardi B excluded), Miquela frequently interacts with fans. She replies to comments on her posts, DMs, even Gchats, building an army of Miquelites. She makes her followers feel like they know her.

“I'd like to think my fans and I are closer than some friend groups,” she told me. 

By all accounts, Miquela “Lil Miquela” Sousa is just a girl in her late teens navigating her way through digital fame and an impending career in music. There is just one caveat: Lil Miquela is not actually, technically, real. Her digital life is her entire life; her presence in the world starts and ends in the digital space, where she lives as an expertly crafted 3-D cyborg, a humanoid that teeters the line between reality and sanity. 

“There's a rly cute abstraction in identity right now,” she said during our Gchat conversation of answers interspersed with emojis. “It definitely feels like artists of our generation are challenging identity and the importance it has traditionally played.”

Needless to say, Miquela has created an internet-wide entrancement. I discovered her profile like so many other fans, following a trail of alt-hipster Instagram personas until I found myself frantically scrolling through month-old Miquela posts at 3am, ardently analyzing weeks-old comments. I fell headfirst into a Miquela K-hole.

The overwhelming question so many of her followers ask is the obvious one: Who is she? Or, at least: Who is behind this whole thing? Online theories of Lil Miquela’s “identity” lurk in the corners of Reddit threads and fan accounts and provide a few possibilities. Los Angeles-based graphic artist Nicole Ruggiero is often labeled as Miquela’s engineer, but she denies any involvement. Arti Poppenberg, a now-virtually untraceable digital artist, is attributed as the brain behind the enterprise on the Lil Miquela Wikipedia page. Many early followers suspected Lil Miquela to be part of a Sims promotion, or some sort of highly stylized advertising ploy. And many others are inclined to compare her to Hatsune Miku, Japan’s animated singer whose music and holographic concerts are entirely crowd-sourced. When YouTube personality Shane Dawson fell into the Miquela conspiracy hole, their combined fan bases came to a head with an on-air phone interview between the two. But when asked directly, Miquela will tell you she is no one but herself—an artist, a musician, a fashionmonger, and an advocate. In that respect, her identity is anything but abstract. It can be taken at face value.

I've always wanted to make music and leave a mark on people with art that has meaning and accessibility,” she said. “Connecting with people is mostly rewarding, and I'm learning to handle the negativity. But I imagine everyone on the internet is.”

Compared to the thousands of Instagram influencers populating our feeds—with stylized edits and filters for days making you feel like you’re living a subpar existence—Miquela’s identity is very real. She has a specific style, an inexplicable transparency in her personal life (relationships and all), and an empowering sense of self that is practically palpable. She shares all her experiences with her fans, never positing herself as something she isn’t, making her something of a generational internet role model.

“To have an opportunity to inform and inspire people is such a gift,” she said. “Hopefully I can inspire a generation to do better.”

Part of Miquela’s massive online force is her involvement in large-scale social issues. She’s acted as an advocate for transgender rights, urged fans to donate to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, taken strong stances on DACA and the Dakota Access Pipeline, and raised money for multiple organizations to benefit marginalized communities. 

“Life in Los Angeles is this duality of endless opportunity and desperation on every street corner,” she said. “To watch trans women brutalized, to watch people of color struggle to be heard—there are so many people who need help, and I'm trying to use my platform to do that.”

Her platform promotes a lot of different things, ranging from fashion picks and music releases to political news. As Miquela continues crafting her new record—an ethereal electronic sound that is really evocative of her personal style—she’s cementing a career for herself in the music industry. 

“I'm trying to make sense of this pressure to make an album that's special and beautiful and flawed and all the things I want it to be,” she said. “I'm finally getting to make music almost every day, and that feels really good.”

According to her, she continues to face the obstacles every budding artist does—creative roadblocks, new management, endless studio hours, and a true dedication to her fan base (she responds to as many of her fans as humanly possible). 

Perhaps the obsession with Miquela’s true identity is in the “uncanny valley”—a theory that links human discomfort to images that appear close-to-human but aren’t. That said, Miquela is no less real to me than any other internet stranger with whom I’ve interacted, any mutual follower that lives entirely in your digital world or on your phone. We only have our perceptions of the lives of Instagram influencers based on the images they present. And that’s how we know Miquela, too; her existence in itself represents a new breed of influencer—someone who is breaking the boundaries of what is real and what is fake, and someone who is defying societal demands for women in the process.

“When the media tries to define genre by gender, it feels soooo antiquated,” she said. “We have to do better by each other.”

My quest for answers in the Lil Miquela mystery ended when I realized how much I liked and connected with her. I connected with her feminist insights, her spouts of dark humor, her eye makeup. Her actual identity is really immaterial to the one we know, and, as a whole, she represents something greater: a platform of influence that is being used for positivity rather than just indulgence. 

After an hour of exchanging messages, Lil Miquela told me she can’t wait to get to NYC so we can hang. It was another reminder of the human behind the humanoid—often overlooked because of the technical facelessness of it all, often judged by the digital disguise and theories of manufactured celebdom. But in a generation that is both defined and defiant of identity, Miquela is just a manifestation of the sentiment “be whoever you want to be, and don’t worry about what people think about you.” 

“People are choosing to be who and what they feel,” she said. “In the immortal words of our problematic savior, ‘that’s hot!’”

Photos by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for WE Day, Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

He also thought Lana Del Rey telling him he would be guillotined was a compliment, so we don't think he understands women

In a new memoir called Then It Fell Apart, singer Moby alleged he had a relationship with actress Natalie Portman when he was 33 and she was 20. But, in a new interview with Harper's Bazaar, Portman set the record straight, saying that his description of their relationship is false and contains other factual errors, that makes his behavior seem even grosser than it already did.

Not only did Portman say that the two didn't date, but that he also misrepresented her age. "I was surprised to hear that he characterized the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school," she said. "He said I was 20; I definitely wasn't. I was a teenager. I had just turned 18."

She says that they met when she went to one of his shows: "He said, 'let's be friends'. He was on tour and I was working, shooting a film, so we only hung out a handful of times before I realized that this was an older man who was interested in me in a way that felt inappropriate."

Portman also stated that she was not contacted to fact check this information, noting that "it almost feels deliberate." "That he used this story to sell his book was very disturbing to me. It wasn't the case," she said. "There are many factual errors and inventions. I would have liked him or his publisher to reach out to fact check."

Another part of his memoir describes a conversation with Lana Del Rey, in which she joked about how wealthy he was. "You're a rich WASP from Connecticut and you live in a five-level penthouse. You're 'The Man.' As in, 'stick it to The Man.' As in the person they guillotine in the revolution." His response: "I didn't know if she was insulting me but I decided to take it as a compliment." This only further proves that Moby doesn't understand women at all, which may explain how he took a couple of hangouts with Portman to mean that they were dating.

Moby has since responded to Portman's statement in an equally creepy Instagram post with a photo of him shirtless with the actress, calling the interview a "gossip piece." "We did, in fact, date. And after briefly dating in 1999 we remained friends for years," he said. "I like Natalie, and I respect her intelligence and activism. But, to be honest, I can't figure out why she would actively misrepresent the truth about our (albeit brief) involvement. He also said that he backs up the story in his book with "lots of corroborating photo evidence, etc." He then ends with this: "I completely respect Natalie's possible regret in dating me(to be fair, I would probably regret dating me, too), but it doesn't alter the actual facts of our brief romantic history."

Among many other things that are questionable about his claims, if you have to have "corroborating evidence" to prove a relationship that one person claims didn't happen, you're doing the whole "dating" thing wrong.

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Photo by Jerritt Clark / Stringer / Getty Images.

She's been wonderfully honest about the ups and downs of her procedures

There is a good chance that, right now, Cardi B is wearing really something really tight. I'm not talking about one of the pieces from her Fashion Nova collection, either. Instead, she's probably cooing at baby Kulture while swaddled in a compression garment, a necessary part of the healing process after certain cosmetic surgery procedures.

As reported by E! News, Cardi B has had to cancel several performances after her doctor ordered her to rest and allow her body to recover following cosmetic surgery. A rep for Cardi explained to E! that "Cardi was overzealous in getting back to work" and that "her strenuous schedule has taken a toll on her body and she has been given strict doctor's orders to pull out of the rest of her performances in May." This followed an admission by Cardi herself, at the Beale Street Music Festival earlier this month, that she should have canceled her performance because moving too much would mess up her lipo.

Cardi's transparency about plastic surgery is nothing new for her. She has opened up in the past about her underground butt injections, including the financial pressure she felt and the risks she took to get them. She's been open about both of her breast augmentation procedures as well, most recently getting them redone after giving birth to her daughter. But Cardi's transparency about the ups and downs of plastic surgery is still rare amongst celebrities and is therefore refreshing.

And it's not just celebrities who keep quiet about these procedures. The first person I knew to get a butt augmentation was a friend from high school. We reconnected as adults, and I remember going to her apartment after her surgery, and seeing her pace the floor in her compression garment, since it was still too soon to sit and put pressure on her backside. But even in the comfort of her own home, she seemed to speak in a hushed tone about having had the surgery. Before I'd arrived, she just told me she'd had a "medical procedure," and didn't say anything more. This has been the case for other women I've met who have gotten "work" done, including my aesthetician, a colleague who got a nose job, a darling YouTuber with whom I had the pleasure of having dinner; all of them would only acknowledge their enhancements in secret—the shame was palpable, and unfortunate. It's clear that women who get plastic surgery might be celebrated for the results, but there's an expectation that they should keep quiet about it, and feel bad for having made a choice about their own bodies.

So it's no surprise that, in the pop culture realm, people like Cardi are exceptions to the rule. Thanks to the internet, we can easily track the fullness of a celebrity's lips or backside over the course of time without them ever explicitly acknowledging the medical intervention that took place. And while people, of course, have the right to privacy, and should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies without offering explanations, it would still be nice if they opened up, if only to take away the attached stigma that affects so many people. Which is why I hope Cardi's willingness to lay it all out there becomes a trend. No one should have to harbor shame for investing in having a body that looks the way they want it to.

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Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

"In my head I thought, This is how it ends"

Kit Harington almost lost a lot more than the Iron Throne while filming the final season of Game of Thrones. According to an interview with NowThis News, the actor almost lost one of his balls while riding a mechanical dragon.

Harington revealed that the incident took place when he was filming the scene where his character, Jon Snow, takes a ride on Rhaegal for the first time in the Season 8 premiere. Since dragons aren't real (sorry), Harington was filming the scene, where Jon almost falls off the dragon and then swings around to pick himself back up, on a mechanical contraption.

"My right ball got trapped, and I didn't have time to say, 'Stop,'" Harington said in an interview. "And I was being swung around. In my head I thought, This is how it ends. On this buck, swinging me around by my testicles, literally." We see shots of the fake dragon he's riding in front of a green screen, and it does look pretty terrifying.

Luckily, his testicles remained intact through the near-disastrous event, and he's survived with quite the story to tell to unsuspecting journalists.

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Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for goop

"I had to create a harder shell about being a woman"

In a panel discussion during Gwyneth Paltrow's In Goop Health summit, actress Jessica Alba revealed that she "stopped eating" to avoid unwanted attention from men when she was first starting her career in Hollywood.

According to People, Alba said that she "had a curvy figure as a young girl" and, as such, was made to feel as though her body was the reason that men may be inappropriate toward her. "I was meant to feel ashamed if I tempted men," Alba said during the panel discussion. "Then I stopped eating a lot when I became an actress. I made myself look more like a boy so I wouldn't get as much attention. I went through a big tomboy phase."

She continued, "In Hollywood, you're really preyed upon. They see a young girl, and they just want to touch you inappropriately or talk to you inappropriately or think that they're allowed to be aggressive with you in a way."

Alba also noted that she was raised in a conservative household. "My mom would say, 'You have a body, and it's very womanly, and people don't understand that you're 12,'" she said. "I wasn't allowed to have my nalgas out, which is butt cheeks [in Spanish], but I was born with a giant booty, and they come out of everything. So, I didn't get to wear normal things that all my friends wore."

She said that these reactions to her body really affected her attitude. "I created this pretty insane 'don't fuck with me' [attitude]," she said. "I had to create a harder shell about being a woman."

According to her, her relationship to her body only changed when her first child, Honor, was born in 2008. "[After she was born,] I was like, Oh this is what these boobies are meant to do! Feed a kid!" she said. "And that was the dopest shit I'd ever done. So, I came into my body as a woman finally and I stopped being ashamed of myself."

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Photo courtesy of Teva

Because of course

Teva, the most obvious lesbian footwear brand since Birkenstock, really knows its customer base. In time for Pride, the brand has teamed up with Tegan and Sara for a gay shoe to end all gay shoes. In other words, your Pride footwear is on lock.

The shoe isn't just your average Teva sandal. Tegan and Sara's design, the Teva Flatform Universal Pride sandal, is a 2.5-inch platform shoe with a rainbow sole. Tegan and Sara noted in a press release that they have been Teva wearers for pretty much their whole lives. "We got our first pair of Teva sandals when we were 16," they said. "This rainbow Flatform collab is like full circle LGBTQ+ Pride validation."

What's better, with each sandal sale, Teva will donate $15 to the Tegan and Sara Foundation, up to $30,000. The funds donated will go toward scholarships which will give young members of the LGBTQ+ community the chance to go to summer camps which will "help develop self-confidence and leadership abilities in a safe and nurturing environment." Tegan and Sara added, "Teva's generous support for our foundation will allow us to help even more LGBTQ+ youth."

Available today at Teva's and Nordstrom's websites, the sandal retails for $80.

Photo courtesy of Teva

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