The 21-year-old influencer Natalia Novak appears to live a lavish lifestyle.

The extremely buxom blonde model likes to hang out at the beach, go shopping, and pose for Instagram glamour shots with her friends.

But there's one glaring thing that sets her apart from most other influencers: she doesn't actually exist. Natalia's entire likeness is the product of an AI image generator, a figment of the imagination of a machine learning algorithm. As such, everything about her feels comically exaggerated for the male gaze — her figure impossibly curvaceous, her hair preposterously lustrous, her outfits ludicrously crisp and revealing — and yet she's picking up tens of thousands of adoring fans on social.

The folks behind virtual influencers like Novak, in other words, have fully embraced the advent of powerful generative AI tools to create entire feeds of attractive internet personalities — and surprisingly, perhaps, some are getting actual traction. We decided to talk to one of them, resulting in a fascinating chat with the creator of Natalia, a 20-something software systems engineer named Pierre.

"I usually just call myself her manager," he told us. "The reason for this is of course that I'm playing a character and people don't want to know so directly who's behind it, even if they could piece it together if they want to. Does that make sense?"

We'll let readers decide on that point. But what is clear is that Pierre is at the vanguard of something strange and new — and possibly, for good or ill, a glimpse of the future of the internet.

It's not just Pierre creating AI-generated personas from scratch. There's an entire cottage industry on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, as we've reported previously. In other words, it has the feeling of a growing scene.

"Interestingly, but maybe not so surprisingly, it seems that a lot of us have backgrounds in either marketing or tech," Pierre said. "To successfully create an AI influencer you have to get what both worlds are about."

To grow a loyal following, "you just have to obsess over everything and make a lot of time for it," Pierre added. "You have to constantly try new things, have an itch that doesn't let you give up."

The results, unlike the CGI-rendered virtual influencers of the past, can be strikingly photorealistic — despite classic AI tells like the odd unrealistic hand shape and repetitive backgrounds, that is.

In fact, many commenters on Natalia's posts make no mention of the fact that she's generated by AI, raising fascinating questions. Are they role-playing that she's real? Mindlessly scrolling through their Instagram feeds, did they not even notice?

But according to Pierre, it's definitely not about misleading people.

"Most of us have some form of disclosure, like saying we're 'virtual' or outright AI, because as much as it is fun to play on the novelty and confusion around AI, deception isn't the point of it nearly as often as people might think," he told Futurism, adding "I'm looking at you, DailyMail!"

After our initial reporting on the topic, the tabloid published a story about "sexy AI-generated influencers" who are "silently swarming social media with fake names and backstories" and looking to "con desperate men."

The reality appears more nuanced. It is true that some creators are attempting to monetize their creations, but signs of scamming are sparse. Instead, many are selling monthly subscriptions to "behind the scenes" or overtly sexual imagery on OnlyFans and Patreon. Pierre himself is working on a group called the Rebel Runway Agency that's looking to flesh out a business case for the whole thing.

But by and large, it's hard to believe anybody is creating an AI influencer at this point to make easy money.

"I think because it takes a lot of investment and work, people who do this usually have reasons of personal expression or artisic value behind it," Pierre said. "I want to counter the easy, misleading narrative that some try to spread, that this whole thing is a grift to trick men out of their money."

It's also, just for the record, it's not entirely men crafting impossibly beautiful women, though that does appear to be the main thrust of the scene. There are also accounts sharing images of attractive AI-generated men, and further diversifying the trend, some real influencers are now looking to enhance their own likeness using AI.

"I've heard rumors of models interested in using AI," Pierre told Futurism, "and I personally have a policy of taking the time to help anyone who wants to use AI whether they're a virtual personality or a 'real' one that wants to jump on the new wave."

Beyond the glamour of running a high-profile virtual influencer account, others have seemingly jumped on the bandwagon for other reasons — like roleplay, notably.

"I wouldn't necessarily use the word 'kink' (not as far as anything that's been shared with me) but there seem to be people who want to identify as women through their persona that might not be," Pierre said.

"There are people who get into relationships with someone else's persona using their own, which I know because they're public about it," he added. "I've seen it a couple times."

After all, it's more than just a stream of images — it's selling, both figuratively and sometimes literally, a hyperrealistic and often hypersexualized character. In that charged environment, it would almost be weird if there wasn't an element of fetish, or at least identity experimentation.

"The reason most of us aren't screaming off the rooftops 'this is AI' (some of us are, even) is because it is supposed to be a fantasy, so a balance has to be found," Pierre said. "How do you sell a fantasy without deceiving anyone?"

Pierre says he drops "clues" that take various forms, from "hashtags, to terminology, to intentionally placed bad hands," he said.

At the end of the day, whether Natalia's many fans even care if she's real is beside the point, according to Pierre.

People who point out in her comments that she's an AI "don't have any real perspective of how little people actually care whether an attractive image of someone online is AI or not."

In short, it's a fascinating new avenue of self-expression and human creativity, wrapped up in a cutting-edge layer of AI abstraction.

It's also a timeless reminder that not everything we see online is rooted in reality, whether a given piece of content was generated by an AI or meticulously orchestrated by a human influencer.

"Most people know they're never going to meet Natalia in real life in either case," Pierre said, "but the visual allows them to fantasize about it whether she's real or not."

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