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Shrimpie, Shudu and the Uncanny Valley

Updated: Mar 19

'I was gawky and tomboyish, more like one of the ponies I loved as a girl, with a lot of leg, a lot of hair and a lot to learn. I was known as 'Shrimpie'. I didn't wear lipstick. I made up my eyes rather heavily and untidily, and wearing a pale blue mac with a fur collar and patent pumps I set out to conquer London like some female Dick Whittington.'

David Bailey was the first photographer to capitalise on Jean's unique qualities, catapulting her to stardom with the cool, quick snick of his Rolleiflex. The pair became London's 'it' couple in the early 1960s,

Aged 18, Shrimpton rapidly found herself entwined with the East End 'snapper'- 'He was a larger-than-life character. He still doesn't give a damn about anything. But he's shrewd, too. He made a lot of money out of me. I'm not bitter but I'm irked. That's all. Bailey was very important to me. I'm sure today's models are a lot more switched-on than we were. Image rights didn't exist back then.'

David Bailey had taken the raw material that was the young Jean Shrimpton and created the 'Shrimp'.

Jump forward 50 years to 2017 and another photographer - Cameron James Wilson; the 'snapper' that took the fashion world by storm with his model 'Shudu'.

Her impact was extraordinary. Shudu stormed to fame on a Tsunami of publicity and editorial intrigue; who was this amazing-looking woman?

Where had she come from - and where did Wilson find her?

Shudu featured in Vogue and countless other fashion magazines across the world.

On social media she was seen gracing her first red carpet at the 2019 BAFTA film awards wearing a gown by the designer Swarovski. By the same year she had attracted more than 200,000 Instagram followers; she seemed for many to be just impossibly beautiful.

...But Shrimpton once said that 'Fashion is full of dark, troubled people; it's a high-pressured environment that takes its toll and burns people out. Only the shrewd survive; people like Warhol and Bailey...'

Photographer turned 3D designer, Cameron James Wilson appears to be one of those same very shrewd characters

...Shudu isn’t just any model. She's unreal, literally.

After keeping her identity secret for over a year Cameron finally revealed that Shudu is not a real person... Which left the fashion world in shock; the revelation terrified the industry - although her creator, Cameron James Wilson, hardly looked like a Dr Frankenstein.

But he does have what some in the fashion industry may see as monstrous ambitions.

"Fashion is boring and stuck in the past," says Wilson. "3D models bring a bit of fun back into it. I want to create a story and world that's a graphic novel, where rather than super heroes, you have supermodels."

Man or superman? Koffi in the surf...

Shudu has company. Along with the impossibly sculpted Koffi, Wilson has made six more virtual models and set up his own all-digital modelling agency.

"...O brave new world that has such people in it"

And in breathing life into each of them, Wilson is intent on making them as human as possible. As a virtual designer, he has had to add imperfections to make Shudu and her stablemates look as human as possible- 'As soon as you start to retouch a photo, it becomes fantasy, it’s not real - photoshop is all about taking away the realism whereas 3d is all about adding it'

Cameron Wilson talks about 'The Uncanny Valley' - that common unsettling feeling people experience when androids or humanoid robots and audio/visual simulations closely resemble humans in many respects but aren't quite convincingly realistic.

And then there is the question of race - is Wilson exploiting Shudu? -

"...A white photographer figured out a way to profit off of a black women without ever having to pay one!!!" shouts a Twitter user... Wilson defends himself, saying- 'Everything she’s done up to this point has been off of my own back and a labor of love for me,'

But he does see Shudu partnering with brands. And from a brand’s perspective, Shudu could be excellent for a long-running ad campaign; she can age backward, forward or not at all.

photo by John French

Jean Shrimpton was at the top of the fashion tree for a decade. She was the world's first supermodel. And then she abruptly retired to Cornwall, where she has lived ever since.

Jean at 72

She is now in her eighties and, despite, as she puts it, having done 'precisely nothing' to preserve her looks, she is still a striking woman. She has allowed herself to grow old gracefully.

Shudu will never age. With constant upgrades, she could outlive her creator and the age she was 'born' in.

Shrimpton has no regrets about turning her back on the world of fashion and the glamorous life she once led. She loves the raw, wild beauty of her Cornish world...

'...In retrospect I don't know how I had the nerve. But that gauche rather scruffy girl was me. The real me and not a carbon copy of someone else. I believe that unless you are prepared to have faith in your own individuality, and your own style, and then project it, you have no chance. You are just a puppet, full of tricks and poses.

And Shudu, what do you say?

...Shudu - are you there??

I guess not.

Blog copyright Matthew Whiteman March 2024

Images strictly the copyright of their respective estates and the Diigital Agency

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Apr 09

I love Bailey's photos of Jean Shrimpton

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