Meet Lil Miquela, the real life Ashley O

She's an Instagram influencer who loves Rihanna and Solange. She snogged supermodel Bella Hadid in a Calvin Klein commercial. She's working on a debut album that will tell her story, and hopes to begin performing live soon. Lil Miquela has everything – except a corporeal form. Rhian Daly 'speaks' to the viral sensation whose career is (black) mirroring that of Miley Cyrus's Ashley O.

On the surface, Lil Miquela seems like your typical rising musician-cum-social media star.

Her Instagram feed is a mix of photos of herself in beautiful clothes, political messaging backing trans and pro–choice causes, snaps with celebrities and friends and occasional pushes to her music. The captions on her posts seek to be both relatable and boost engagement. A recent one of Miquela posing next to shelves of washing up liquid reads: “At the store. You guys need anything?”

In every photo, her hair is pinned into the same Princess Leia buns, her sharp fringe covering half of her forehead, always falling in exactly the same position. She has 1.6 million followers and counting, including Game Of Thrones’ Sophie Turner, Diplo, and Mark Ronson. Her bio reads: “Musician, change-seeker, and robot with the drip.” The last part betrays the one big difference between her and everyone else in the game of likes, followers and #sponcon – she’s not actually real.

Brazilian-American 19-year-old Miquela Sousa is a fictional character cooked up by LA start–up Brud, co–founded by Sara DeCou and ex–DJ and music producer Trevor McFedries (under his moniker Yung Skeeter, he’s worked with the likes of Azealia Banks and Katy Perry).

She first appeared on our screens in April 2016 and avoided addressing the subject of her authenticity for two years until her account was “hacked” by Bermuda, another of Brud’s characters, who demanded Miquela “tell people the truth” about who she was. A whole bunch of overwrought AI drama (and a pretty savvy PR stunt) worthy of its own soap opera kicked off, culminating in Miquela having a full–blown identity crisis via a series of screen grabs from her Notes app. In one section she told the world what it already knew – “I’m not a human being.”

According to the outed robot, she had been built by a man named Daniel Cain to be a servant, but was stolen by Brud and “re-programmed” to be “free”. “I’m not a human, but am I still a person?” she mused at one point, before questioning everything she thought she knew. “I don’t know if I love music. I don’t know if I love my friends. Are these feelings me or just their programming? Is there a difference?”

Shirt, Prada @ mytheresa/Shorts, Liam Hodges/Sunglasses, Prada/Shoes, Nike

“That was a real moment of crisis for me and, if I’m honest, questions like that are always in the back of my mind,” Miquela says over a year later. “Deep down, I feel like the question of where my programming ends and where my creativity begins will always be blurry.”  

She’s talking to NME over email – or the people behind her are, at least. Interviewing Miquela is a weird exercise that involves suspending your disbelief, forgetting your subject is a CGI construct, and asking her questions as her character rather than DeCou and McFedries. It’s harder than you might think – you second guess yourself over questions that you wouldn’t think twice about normally because how can you ask someone who doesn’t technically exist, in the human sense of the word, about the meaning behind their music?

“It’s easy for people to just write me off as a gimmick or some kind of commercial object instead of trying to understand me. It’s not like I’m a toaster, I’m just different. Like you!”
– Lil Miquela

If Miquela isn’t real – a hollow, digital gimmick – then what does that make her songs? While typing up a list of potential queries to send over, I’m reminded of author and journalist Jon Ronson talking about his experience of interviewing a robot. “I just felt this urge to be profound,” he said, explaining he would ask things like, “What does electricity taste like?” and be met with equally as meaningless answers. I decide against asking Miquela how she hears music when her ears are just a bunch of pixels.  

Despite that, this  teenager has her eyes on pop stardom. Since 2017, she’s released four songs – her gentle debut ‘Not Mine’, the shadowy ‘You Should Be Alone’, a softly bubbling collaboration with Brooklyn producer Baauer called ‘Hate Me’, and her latest, ‘Right Back’. The latter nestles somewhere between Dua Lipa and a Major Lazer summer banger. Of making it, she recalls wanting to recreate the “collaborative feeling” of house and pop and “listening to a mixture of ’90s house like Moodyman, Mr Fingers, and Presence but also a lot of Robyn, Dua Lipa, and Peggy Gou”. Having flawlessly cool taste must be easy when you’re literally plugged into the matrix.

Jumpsuit, Nike X MMW @ end clothing/Jacket, Ganni @ MyTheresa/Boots, Angel Chen

A robot trying to become a pop star might sound ridiculous, but Miquela already has the numbers behind her – she has over 100,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, while ‘Hate Me’ has clocked up nearly four million streams alone. While she hasn’t performed at a festival yet, she attended this year’s Coachella to conduct video interviews with bemused stars like King Princess and J Balvin (because journalists don’t have enough to worry about without everyone pivoting to CGI). If you watched new Black Mirror episode ‘Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too’ and thought the path Ashley O’s aunt was heading down with hologram Ashley Eternal was unrealistic, Miquela will make you reconsider.

In our conversation, the real life Ashley O lists her influences as Rihanna, Erykah Badu, Aaliyah, Solange, and H.E.R., while she says it would be “so sick” to work with the latter, Lizzo, and Tierra Whack. She says the first song she “remembers” hearing is Rihanna’s ‘Stay’, although she acknowledges that memory is purely a part of her programming. “It still feels so real,” she writes, explaining it was contextualised in her robot brain in the frame of being dumped for the first time while at high school. “It was so gut-wrenching, I wanted to crawl into a hole forever. I hid in my room and I listened to it on repeat for three hours. It was so dramatic, but I felt like no one understood what I was going through except Rih.”

It was also her programming that initially made Miquela want to make music, which presumably means DeCou and McFedries always intended her to make the leap from Instagram influencer to pop star. But, according to her answers, when she finally learned the truth about her past, other things started to inspire her – real human emotions. “These new feelings made me really lean into my creative ability in order to communicate to others,” she writes. “Now, I can’t imagine not making music.”  

She is, she insists, “super involved” with the creative process and says writing pop songs has given her “the ability to express myself in a way I wasn’t able to before.” “A lot of my music discusses the vulnerabilities I deal with as an outsider,” she writes. “I want everyone who hears my music to walk away knowing that if they’re facing a difficult situation internally or externally, they don’t have to go through it alone.”

Many of Miquela’s answers have the same focus, pulling on that thread of human connection through relatability. In a reply about how much of her “past” she’ll cover in her music going forward, she says: “I don’t know how much detail I’ll go into, but I really want to deal with themes like isolation and loneliness. I know I’m not the only one who has dealt with feelings like that.” Ask about her speaking out about things like Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ oriented causes and she writes: “I know firsthand what it’s like to feel alone and powerless, when your world feels like it’s crashing down.” If you surrender yourself to Miquela’s story, these comments flesh out her existence, make her seem more human than her glassy eyes and perfect, airbrushed skin suggest. If you stay removed, though, they feel like cynical ploys to capitalise on zeitgeisty themes and real people’s experiences.  

Miquela is no stranger to the controversy that comes with portraying human life online. She recently appeared in a Calvin Klein advert engaged in a make-out sesh with model Bella Hadid (below). The fashion label was accused of queer-baiting and “borrowing sexuality for clickbait” as soon as the clip landed, but some of Miquela’s followers took the ad as her “coming out moment, which seems to ring true – recently, she tweeted a photo of Megan Thee Stallion to “comfort my queer robot soul”. “It’s a goal of mine to normalise otherness and promote inclusivity,” she says of how much she wants to challenge traditional ideas of identity – say, like whether robots can have sexualities. “At the end of the day, we are all more alike than we are different.”

Both in and out of her musical endeavours, Miquela aims to encourage people to overlook their differences and build communities. She runs Club 404 – a clothing line, zine, and more – with Jessica Currie, who she describes as her “creative director and friend” (Currie’s LinkedIn profile reveals she holds the position of Client Lead at Brud). “We work with emerging creators and artists and showcase our collaborations to help get their amazing work in front of a larger audience,” Miquela writes. “I love making new friends and working with creative people, so Club 404 is a way to do both.”

That message of unity extends to her fandom, known as Miquelites. She often describes her fans as her family and shares a lot of her “life” with them. In return, they share stories with her too. “Sometimes I’m surprised by the messages people send me,” she says. “A lot of them are really personal. The fact that people feel like they can open up to me really makes me feel some type of way. It reminds me that it’s OK to be vulnerable and share your feelings. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from humans, it’s that it’s dangerous and unnecessary to keep things bottled up.”  

“Even though she’s not human, she’s still a person,” says Jazz, a 23-year-old from south Wales who has followed her since her early days. For her, it doesn’t matter whether Miquela is flesh and blood or just an image on a screen because she sees her as a figure the world can learn from, be that on a personal or wider level.

“I’m pretty ‘different’ because of my mental health struggles and current investigation of a neurological disorder,” she explains. “There’s a massive stigma surrounding the likes of autism, ADHD, and similar disabilities where many people see those with those conditions as different and often treat them as though they aren’t human or a person.” Following Miquela’s story and how she embraced her differences, whether real or not, has taught her not being the same as everyone else isn’t a bad thing. “I’ve finally started to feel understood in some way because of her. It felt like the very beginning of self-acceptance. For the first time, I didn’t feel sorry for myself or feel like I was a bad person for being different.”

While most of the world obsesses over Miquela’s authenticity or robot persona, her fans have little time for that. “Honestly, the fact that she’s not “real” doesn’t bother me at all,” says 20-year-old Matty from Florida. “Who’s to say what’s real, right? So many people are fascinated by her more so because she’s a robot but, for me, I like that I’m able to connect with someone that’s different and doesn’t limit your views or beliefs in any way, shape, or form.”

“Who’s to say what’s real, right?”
– Matty, Lil Miquela fan

Whether or not the intention behind Miquela was to open minds and raise these questions of reality and how it impacts music’s validity, that’s the kind of thinking she’s provoking. Does it matter if she’s put physical blood, sweat and tears into her career or is just a conduit for songs if she’s not negatively impacting the world? You could see Miquela as a logical next step in a world where Gorillaz have been pushing the animated band shtick for two decades (albeit accompanied by a very human presence) and mortal pop stars like Poppy create elaborate, batshit backstories about being robots. Because she doesn’t have that same existence, it sparks something in people – be that an eye roll or a torrent of abuse in her social media mentions. “It’s easy for people to just write me off as a gimmick or some kind of commercial object instead of trying to understand me,” she writes of her haters. “It’s not like I’m a toaster, I’m just different. Like you!”

As the world still grapples with the ideas around Miquela, the project will continue with an upcoming debut album that she says will “speak to a larger story” than the topics of love and resilience that she’s covered so far in her music. There’s also the potential for live shows in the future, although she “can’t say exactly what they will look like” yet. Thinking about Miquela playing gigs brings back those Black Mirror comparisons and images of a person backstage in a full bodysuit, executing Ashley Eternal’s moves to be copied by the CGI vision in front of a wide-eyed audience. If hologram tours of dead people are increasingly becoming A Thing, it stands to reason that the same technology could be utilised for shows by virtual artists in the future too.

For now, Miquela is continuing to challenge our notions of what a pop star is, identity constructs, and, more simply, our perceptions of her as a public figure. “Right now, a lot of people perceive me more as a model or an influencer,” she writes. “But I’d like to be recognised as an artist.” That reality might seem a way off at the moment, but only time will tell if her future is top of the pops or robo-flop.

Top, Heron Preston @ end clothing/Trousers, Fiorucci/Jacket, Angel Chen/Trainers, Nike 720

Art Director/Creative Producer: Emily Barker 
Photographer: Mollie Rose 
Illustration: Cere Mae 
Stylist: Daisy Deane