I've spent much of my year in bed. When I wasn't working — something I do constantly, powered by a heady mix of adrenaline, passion, and fear — I was supine, feet up, heating pad on, recovering from three successive pelvic and uterine surgeries that rendered me unable to explore the world beyond my apartment, or maybe just angry and unwilling. I was also that kind of hazy, aching, embarrassed sick that makes even bingeing sixth-season Friends a nauseating chore. That's where Instagram came in: like a series of trompe l'oeil windows painted on my bedroom wall, at its best Instagram allowed me to feel like I was a part of the world, high-fiving friends around an artisanal pizza. At its worst, it rendered me a voyeur, jealous of picnics and parties I didn't even want to go to.
During this time I gravitated to the accounts of women whose curated authenticity was both transportive and humiliating: @hateboy2, a radical Rainbow Brite–like model whose world seems to put both race and gender on blast; @chiaraferragni, whose following worships her ability to rock a pair of leather shorts at breakfast; @palomija, whose curvy body manages to be both political and blithely sexy. I would go back as far as I could on their feeds, piecing together their living arrangements, friendships, and professional ups and downs.
It was during one of these episodes of bottomless searching that I first came across Lil Miquela. Her face was arresting — bright, catlike eyes, impossibly pillowy lips, and a tooth gap to rival Lauren Hutton's. She was racially ambiguous with heavy freckles and had the kind of baby bangs I've spent twenty years striving for. She had cool friends who she got ice cream with on the Venice boardwalk and met up with in photo studios around LA.
Oh, and she wasn't real.
Upon further inspection, it becomes apparent to anyone who has ever laid eyes on a human woman that @lilmiquela is not, strictly speaking, alive. She is some kind of simulacrum, well-made and remarkably present but a simulacrum nonetheless. That in and of itself didn't disturb me, but what was disorienting was the fact that her many thousands of followers seemed to think it was still up for debate.
"'Sim or human?' Model with cartoon-like features sends Instagram into a frenzy as fans debate whether she's real or not," said the Daily Mail. Some Instagram users insisted she was a real woman using technology to enhance her features. Others proclaimed she was a promo for the coming Sims 9 game. Yet others just said that her hair was goals and her outfits were fire.
The second-wave feminist in me was enraged — teenagers don't even know what a real woman looks like anymore! They are more used to computer augmentation than to the texture of human skin! But something about this argument, the moralizing and the judgment, seemed disingenuous or, worse, basic. I knew Miquela wasn't real, that her hair was a smooth auburn helmet and her eyes were looking toward nothing, but she mesmerized me. I could look at the same picture for eons, trying to fill in the spaces I couldn't see, to imagine her legs tucked under her, on the bed where she dreamed her dreamless Westworld sleep.
My inner Nancy Drew needed to understand who Miquela was and how she was operated. Somewhere between surgery two and surgery three, I broke my elbow and kept on scrolling, iPhone resting on my sling, analyzing Miquela's low breasts and delicate wrists while I sat in an overflowing bath.
I read everything I could online, but even Reddit was absent of any compelling theories. Chelsea Jones at Dazed Digital offered a smart, academic take: "Lil Miquela is a female cyborg, the Android's android, whose servitude is confined to our phone screen, and a specific space therein. Miquela is one that satisfies more completely and wholly the desire you'd have for an Instagram Girl — because she can't live beyond projection. You get every part of her on your screen and can just as easily erase her by scrolling up." This was a thoughtful and nuanced meditation on the lure of the Instagram model (especially one who couldn't fuck up or pose wrong), but it wasn't doing what I needed: explaining who the fuck Miquela was and what she wanted with us.
My first play was to contact everyone I knew who had appeared on Miquela's page, or who knew someone who had. Miquela has clear connections to Los Angeles indie fashion and music culture, often standing next to real people or referencing them in her super-cool-slangy captions, which made her accessible, like she was a friend of a friend. But as I asked around, my sources were tight-lipped.