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Fake beauty queens charm judges at the Miss AI pageant

 Aiyana Rainbow, a Romanian-made AI model, is one of the Miss AI finalists.
Aiyana Rainbow, a Romanian-made AI model, is one of the Miss AI finalists.

Beauty pageant contestants have always been judged by their looks, and, in recent decades, by their do-gooderly deeds and winning personalities.

Still, one thing that’s remained consistent throughout beauty pageant history is that you had to be a human to enter.

But now that’s changing.

Models created using generative artificial intelligence (AI) are competing in the inaugural “Miss AI” pageant this month.

The contestants have no physical, real-world presence. They exist only on social media, primarily Instagram, in the form of photorealistic images of extremely beautiful young women — all of it created using a combination of off-the-shelf and proprietary AI technology.

Some of the characters can also be seen talking and moving in videos. And they share their "thoughts" and news about their "lives" mostly through accompanying text on social media posts. 

In one video, Kenza Layli, created by a team from Morocco, speaks in Arabic about how happy she is to have been selected as one of finalists for Miss AI.

"I am proud to receive this nomination after only existing for five months, especially since this invention is Arab and Moroccan 100%," the AI model said.

In another, the Brazilian entry, Ailya Lou, lip-synchs and bops around to a song.

Even though these beauty queens are not real women, there is a real cash prize of $5,000 for the winner. The company behind the event, the U.K.-based online creator platform FanVue, is also offering public relations and mentorship perks to the top-placed entry as well as to two runners-up.

According to a statement from the organizer, a panel of four judges selected 10 finalists from 1,500 submissions. This is the first of a series of contests for AI content creators that FanVue is launching under the "The FanVue World AI Creator Awards" umbrella. The results for Miss AI will be announced at the end of June.

"What the awards have done is uncover creators none of us were aware of," said FanVue co-founder Will Monange in the statement. "And that's the beauty of the AI creator space: It's enabling creative people to enter the creator economy with their AI-generated creations without having to be the face themselves."

New technology, old format

The organizers of Miss AI are touting it as the first such competition involving AI. Beauty pageants already exist elsewhere in the digital realm, for example on the online platform Second Life.

But in the real world, beauty pageants are fading. They are no longer the giant cultural draw they once were, attracting tens of millions of TV viewers during their peak in the 1970s and '80s.

The events are controversial, because there’s a long history of them feeding into harmful stereotypes of women. 

Indeed, all 10 Miss AI finalists fit in with traditional beauty queen tropes: They all look young, buxom and thin.

The controversial nature of pageants, coupled with the application of cutting-edge AI technology, is proving to be catnip for the media and the public. Simply put, sexy images of fake women are an easy way to connect with fans.

"With this technology, we're very much in the early stages, where I think this is the perfect type of content that's highly engaging and super low hanging fruit to go after, said Eric Dahan, CEO of the social media marketing company Mighty Joy.

In an interview with NPR, beauty pageant historian and Miss AI judge Sally-Ann Fawcett said she hopes to be able to change these stereotypes "from the inside" by focusing her judging efforts on the messaging around these AI beauty queens — and not just on their looks.

"Because they are all beautiful, I want somebody that I would be proud to say is an AI ambassador and role model giving out brilliant and inspiring messages, rather than just saying, 'hello, I'm really hot!' " said Fawcett.

Like real life pageants, the Miss AI contestants' social media feeds talk about the good causes the character supports. For example, the French avatar Anne Kerdi is a brand ambassador for the ocean conservation fund Océanopolis Acts, and Romania’s Aiyana Rainbow is described as an LGBTQ advocate. 

Miss AI finalist, the AI model Anne Kerdi.
Anne Kerdi /
Miss AI finalist, the AI model Anne Kerdi.

But Fawcett said she wishes there was more variety in the submissions for this contest.

"I would like to see somebody of a different gender, somebody larger, somebody older, somebody with flaws," Fawcett said. "There's such a big scope. But I think because it's the first year, everyone's adhering to that typical stereotype of beauty."

Artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose work explores the intersection of technology and feminism, said she is baffled by the degree to which the AI creators for this contest stuck to traditional beauty pageantry tropes.

"The AI world has such a range of possibilities to consider for attractiveness," Hershman Leeson said in an interview with NPR. "And they've chosen to just look for some kind of surface resemblance to what's always been considered a winner in this kind of competition. It doesn't go beyond the stereotype of the stereotype."

A digital marketing opportunity disguised as a beauty pageant

The Miss AI contestants aren't just being judged according to their looks and messaging. There are two more unconventional criteria in play not traditionally found in beauty pageant judging: the skill with which the AI creators employ AI technology to make their models look hyperreal, and how deeply and quickly these avatars are engaging audiences on their social media feeds.

Creating a photorealistic human is no easy feat. And, maybe more importantly, Miss AI isn’t a beauty contest at heart. It's really about showcasing AI as a marketing tool — specifically in the realm of AI influencers.

Most social media influencers are human beings. The influencer market is worth more than $16 billion, according to one estimate, and is growing fast. According to a recent Allied Market Research report, the global influencer marketplace is expected to reach $200 billion by 2032.

AI influencers like the Miss AI finalists are starting to gain traction within this realm — especially if they can look and act like humans. 

One of the world's most successful AI influencers, Aitana Lopez, earns her creators — who are part of the Miss AI judging panel — several thousand dollars a month in income from brand partnerships.

That's a small amount compared with the millions top human influencers, like Kylie Jenner and Charli D'Amelio, currently make in cosmetics, fashion and other deals. But it may not be too long before AI influencers start to catch up.

Miss AI finalist Seren Ay.
Miss AI finalist Seren Ay.

Mohammad Talha Saray, a member of the team in Ankara, Turkey, that created one of the Miss AI finalists — the red-haired, green-eyed Seren Ay, said they came up with the AI model five or six months ago as a brand ambassador for their jewelry e-commerce company because human influencers they approached cost too much money and were too demanding. Saray said his AI avatar is cheaper, more flexible and doesn’t talk back. 

"With the AI, there's no limit," Saray told NPR. "You can just do whatever you want. Like, if you want to just do something on the moon or on the sun, whatever you want, you can just do it — all with your imagination."

Saray said his jewelry business has grown tenfold since Seren Ay came on board. Her social media videos garner millions of views.

"Our goal for Seren Ay is to position her as a globally recognized and beloved digital influencer," said Saray. "Winning the Miss AI competition will be a significant step toward achieving these goals, allowing us to reach a wider audience and seize more collaboration opportunities."

He said AI influencers do not have the ability to move people as much as their human counterparts can.

"People are always going to know that it's an artificial intelligence," Saray said.

Yet he said he's constantly astonished by the number of people commenting on Seren Ay's posts on Instagram who seem to mistake the AI character for a real human being. 

"People say they have feelings for Seren AI," said Saray. "They're congratulating her. They're saying they hope she wins the prize."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.