London-based fashion and beauty photographer Cameron-James Wilson—who’s shot major faces like Gigi Hadid and Pia Mia—got his biggest break recently when the Instagram account of Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty re-posted his image of the dark-skinned black model, Shudu, supposedly wearing lipstick from the collection. It’s a big deal, considering that Fenty was named one of Time’s Best Inventions of 2017 and is a roaring commercial success.
After the Instagram repost, Wilson and his images of Shudu started receiving critical comments—which may seem strange, considering that Shudu is exactly the kind of woman Fenty embraces: a woman long-neglected by the beauty industry.
But the problem is that Shudu isn’t a real person. She is a CGI creation made through the 3D modeling software program DAZ3D. Wilson, a white man, called her an “art piece” in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar. “I am just a creative person, and to me she is what the most beautiful woman in the world would look like,” he said.
The criticism pointed to the fact that Wilson is a white photographer designing an idealized (and fake) black woman conceptualized in his view of female beauty. What’s more, critics noted, as a professional photographer, Wilson should devote the time and resources he spends on Shudu (each image takes three full days, he claims) to cast and shoot real dark-skinned models and promote their beauty and careers.
There is a demonstrated need for this: In February 2014, feminist blog Jezebel noted that only 9.75% of the models walking down the runway at Fall 2014 New York Fashion Week were black. In 2016, only 29% of the cover models of magazines were non-white.
Nonetheless, Wilson and fans view Shudu’s design as an act of flattery. A white male photographer sets off to “create” the most beautiful woman in the world, and she is not a blonde Farrah Fawcett doppelgänger—this is admiration and not disrespect. Wilson says he was inspired by Lupita Nyong’o, Alek Wek, Duckie Thot, and the South African Princess Barbie—all dark-skinned beauties, only one of whom isn’t a real person.
“It’s only trying to add to the kind of movement that’s out there,” he told Harper’s Bazaar. “It’s meant to be beautiful art which empowers people. It’s not trying to take away an opportunity from anyone or replace anyone. She’s trying to complement those people.” He also added that, because we live in world of Instagram filters, we’re already blending fantasy with reality on a daily basis— and that he is not trying to make money off Shudu’s image.
Ultimately, Wilson says, he’s just bringing fantasy closer to reality.