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Fake beauty queens charm judges at the Miss AI pageant

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Fake beauty queens charm judges at the Miss AI pageant

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.

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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, sexy 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.

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

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.”

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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.

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“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 Anne Kerdi

Miss AI finalist, the AI model Anne Kerdi.

Anne Kerdi

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Anne Kerdi

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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.

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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.

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Miss AI finalist Seren A

Miss AI finalist Seren Ay.

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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. 

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“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.

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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.”

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The late 'Jeopardy!' host Alex Trebek will be honored with a U.S. postage stamp

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The late 'Jeopardy!' host Alex Trebek will be honored with a U.S. postage stamp

Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek is seen during a 2012 rehearsal. Next month, the U.S. Postal Service is releasing a Forever Stamp honoring Trebek, who died in 2020.

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The U.S. Postal Service for 73 cents, please.

A new Forever Stamp set to be publicly released by the agency next month will pay tribute to longtime Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, who died in 2020.

The stamp resembles the blue-and-white clue panel on the iconic trivia show, with the following prompt: “This naturalized U.S. citizen hosted the quiz show ‘Jeopardy!’ for 37 seasons.”

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Underneath and upside down is the answer written in the show’s signature interrogative format: “Who is Alex Trebek?” (Trebek was born in Ontario, Canada.)

The stamps will be sold as a set of 20 that resembles the TV program’s game board, with categories including “entertainment” and “famous Alexes,” alongside a photo of Trebek himself.

The USPS will issue the stamps beginning on July 22 at 4 p.m. Pacific time. A sheet of 20 will cost $14.60.

Forever Stamps are set to jump in price from 68 cents to 73 cents in July.

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Current Jeopardy! host Ken Jennings announced the new stamp Friday during the show.

The philatelic tribute comes as Jeopardy! celebrates its 60th year on air, after debuting on March 30, 1964.

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Want to be fearless? Try this fierce Zen priest's belly button method

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Want to be fearless? Try this fierce Zen priest's belly button method

If there are many paths up the mountain that is spiritual self-discovery, writer, strategist and Zen priest Cristina Moon is on one with an especially steep incline. “I think the majority of paths have a lot of switchbacks, but some people want straight up the mountain,” she said. “That works for them, it worked for me.”

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Shelf Help is a new wellness column where we interview researchers, thinkers and writers about their latest books — all with the aim of learning how to live a more complete life.

In her new memoir “Three Years on the Great Mountain: A memoir of Zen and Fearlessness,” (Penguin Random House) Moon details a spiritual journey that led her from working as a human rights activist in Burma (now Myanmar), to running marketing for a corporate mindfulness training group in the Bay Area, to ultimately living at Daihonzan Chozen-ji, a Zen temple and martial arts dojo in Hawaii known for its monastic intensity.

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She eventually became a Zen priest herself, and continues to live at the temple today, where she trains in a particularly rigorous form of Japanese swordsmanship called kendo. She also instructs students in martial arts, ceramics and other Japanese art forms to aid them in the discovery of what Japanese Zen Buddhists call the “true self” — a version of oneself that is happy, free and beyond fear and any self-imposed limitation.

Moon knows the arduous path she chose is not for everyone, but her hope is that by writing honestly and vulnerably about the challenges and growth she experienced in her first three years at Chozen-ji she will inspire others to seek teachers and communities that will best help them meet life’s obstacles with fearlessness.

“In training hard, it is possible to find your way home,” she writes in the book’s introduction.

Moon spoke to The Times about her transformative experience at Chozen-ji, what it means to face challenges with “your belly button facing forward” and how all of us can work towards living life with less fear.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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One of the goals of the Zen Buddhism you practice is to cultivate fearlessness, which feels very relevant right now, given that, between war, climate change and political turmoil, there’s a lot to be afraid of in our world. What does fearlessness mean to you and how can we work to achieve it?

Photo of Cristina Moon

Cristina Moon (Michelle Mishina Kunz)

In a very practical sense fearlessness is simply: Can I figure out how to live my life without hesitation? If I see an opening, if I see an opportunity, can I just go for it 100% without being held back by fear? And, can I inspire or transmit that to other people as well?

Overcoming my fear at the beginning of my time at Chozen-ji was really straightforward stuff, like not ducking and getting small when someone was about to hit me over the head in [the Japanese martial art] kendo, or not being afraid of being uncomfortable and being in pain while sitting for long periods of meditation.

But for anyone doing any kind of physical training or exercise, it’s the same thing. When you push yourself through the moment of doubt, when you’re running up a hill, and you think, I’d love to give up now and walk up this hill, but I know I’m almost there. There’s something about doing it physically that allows you to do it in other parts of your life emotionally, mentally and interpersonally.

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In your time at Chozen-ji you studied kendo — the way of the sword and chado — the way of tea. Can you describe these disciplines and what they had to teach you?

“Do” is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word “tao,” which is sort of a universal energy, a universal truth. When you append that word to a discipline or an art, it basically says that you can take this martial or fine art and use it as a way of training that will shape who you are.

“Ken” means sword, and “do” means way, so kendo is the way of the sword. It’s a traditional Japanese martial art form that is pretty intense and aggressive. Back when samurai actually existed it was done with metal swords, but now we use bamboo or wooden swords. In our approach to kendo we don’t learn any defensive maneuvers. We train in how to go forward and cut straight.

The goal is that you are cutting more down the center, faster and with less hesitation then your opponent, so even in the face of attack, you’re the one landing the hit first. That particular kind of training cultivates fearlessness so that you don’t mind getting hit. You can face the hit and still move forward and do what you have to do.

“That particular kind of training cultivates fearlessness so that you don’t mind getting hit. You can face the hit and still move forward and do what you have to do.”

— Cristina Moon, on the Japanese martial art of kendo

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Chado, or the way of tea, is very different. Chado is remarkable because it incorporates philosophy and all the art forms — cooking, calligraphy, aesthetics, the tea itself and the sweets, ceramics — it really is a whole integrated space when you are in the tearoom. What I didn’t realize before I started training is that male samurai were the original people who trained in tea ceremony. It was something that was done as a counterpoint to their lifestyle and livelihood — a brief moment of peace.

What they both have in common is the cultivation of what’s called “kiai,” or the vital energy. The ideal is that the separation between kendo opponents, between the person and the sword, between the tea host, the utensils and the guest — all those boundaries disappear. It is an opportunity to experience the interconnectedness and the oneness of everything.

Your book details how difficult training at Chozen-ji can be. In addition to the physical exertion of long meditation sittings and martial arts, your teachers were constantly correcting you. Did you have to build a tolerance to being told you’re doing something wrong?

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Book jacket for "Three Years on The Great Mountain A Memoir of Zen and Fearlessness" by Cristina Moon

(Courtesy of Shambhala Publications)

In Hawaii we call it scolding. You get scoldings for all sorts of things, and it’s one of the first things anyone who comes to train at Chozen-ji has to figure out how to deal with. Sometimes the feedback is very warm, but it’s jarring for people when it’s sharp. We’re always reminded that if the scoldings and feedback stop, that’s actually when you should get concerned because it means people have given up on you.

We don’t do anything because it’s precious or holy. So, how you hold your hands, how you walk, how you tie your hakama [traditional Japanese martial arts training clothes] — all of those things are meant to help you learn how to pay attention and also, heighten your senses.

I love this phrase in your book: “approaching life with your belly button facing forward.” What does that mean to you?

It means tackling the challenges and opportunities in life head-on rather than trying to find a sneaky or clever way away around things. It means honesty and integrity, and in particular when things are hard, to be willing to face it.

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You titled one chapter in your book: “2-1=3.” Can you explain that?

That’s a formulation I have to credit to one of the teachers here, Kangen Roshi. It’s this idea that when you let go of something you can free up all this energy and space to have an understanding that is so much more transcendent than the everyday understanding we have about the world being zero sum and how things are supposed to work.

He also gave me a copy of “Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins. In the end of that book a couple of characters die and they are at this way station to figure out if they are going to go to heaven. The test is that you weigh your heart on a scale against a feather and only the hearts that are lighter than the feather go to heaven. The idea is that you have to have let go of all of your baggage. You have to let go of everything.

The book details the first time you did sesshin, an intense week of training where you only get four hours of sleep a night. One of your teachers said, “Stop feeling bad for yourself, and wasting all that energy.” Why was that a breakthrough moment for you?

Sesshin is an extreme situation where you have to figure out how to let go of your baggage and the things that are holding you back. The conditions make it so that you don’t have a choice.

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On that first sesshin I was preoccupied with how tired I was. I had this monologue in my head that was like: “I’m so tired. I can’t do this. I don’t think I can make it.” For me, the most effective scolding was to be told: You are young, you are healthy, you’ve been doing this every day for six months. And look around you at all these people who are not in as good shape as you, who don’t know what they’re doing, who don’t have as much experience as you, and what impact are you having on these people by being so down.

TAKEAWAYS

From “Three Years on the Great Mountain”

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After that, every time that voice started up that said, “I’m so tired,” I would just sort of say, “No!” and put more energy into whatever I was doing. Very quickly I realized that I had more energy.

The really painful and difficult realization coming out of that was that for my entire life I had been leaving something on the table.

Most people are probably not going to leave their jobs and homes to live and train at a dojo in Hawaii for three years. What are some things they can do in their everyday lives to challenge themselves, like you did?

My experience at Chozen-ji is really abnormal. Ninety-nine percent of the people who train here don’t live at Chozen-ji; they have jobs, they have families, they live on Oahu and they come here one or a couple days a week. But my advice to other folks is to find the dojos that exist in your communities. A great place to start is the martial arts dojo or the boxing gym. It’s something that is accessible for people who are ready to rethink how they want to approach their life.

I know that after an eight-hour workday and an hour commute it’s tempting to just drink a beer, eat dinner, watch four hours of Netflix and go to bed. But how is that preparing you for the things that are inevitable that you are going to face in your life — the best and the worst, the hardest moments?

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A lot of people are experiencing fear and anxiety about the future. What have you learned that might help someone overcome those particular fears?

The real answers are not the rational ones we are seeking. Even beyond something like climate change, we can be certain that everyone we love is going to die and so are we, and there’s something that comes from embracing that in a certain way that can lead one to actually be free and happy and to cherish the life that we do have. The worst thing we can do is become depressed or nihilistic or give up, knowing that’s the outcome for all of us.

It’s actually a pretty amazing opportunity to be able to live, knowing that that’s coming. Maybe every moment matters. Maybe what I’m doing right now matters. How can I make it matter?

I’ve read a lot of Buddhist memoirs and self-help books over the years and I’m struck that yours is the first one I’ve read written by an Asian American woman. Have I missed others or have there not been others?

There are a few. Sharon Suh wrote “Occupy This Body: A Buddhist Memoir,” but I think that was a very small press. Chenxing Han published the memoir “One Long Listening” about her experience in Buddhist chaplaincy and also about losing her best friend to leukemia. Those are the two I know of that are very recent.

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As much as my book is very much a Buddhist book, I did try hard to make it relatable and read more like a mainstream memoir. And that was for exactly this reason: Our stories aren’t out there. I think there is a greater movement toward representing the Asian American people in the Buddhist space generally, but we still have a long ways to go.

A tray with a Japanese tea set and a cherry tree branch with blossoms

(Maggie Chiang / For The Times)

Shelf Help is a new wellness column where we interview researchers, thinkers and writers about their latest books — all with the aim of learning how to live a more complete life. Want to pitch us? Email alyssa.bereznak@latimes.com.

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It's too hot. Our sundress season of discontent isn't helping

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It's too hot. Our sundress season of discontent isn't helping

A woman on TikTok asked: What is a sundress? Ten million views later, the debate is still raging. Above, Four models in summer dresses in 1972.

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“What is a sundress?” wondered a young woman in plaintive tones on TikTok. “I own every dress. Which is the sun one?”

Nearly 10 million views later, that burning question continues to light up social media. Reaction videos included an influencer in Atlanta spelling out how “sundress season” in her Black community means Skims-style dresses that are long and tight, rather than flowy skirts with a fitted bodice. A good-natured, self-described mansplainer admitted that, although no expert in women’s fashion, he knows what he likes. Specifically, what he called “milkmaid style” dresses, preferably in yellow. “Cause we are simple,” he says. “Yellow, sun.”

Taylor Swift in a sundress at The CMA Music Festival on June 13, 2010 in Nashville, Tenn.

Taylor Swift at The CMA Music Festival on June 13, 2010 in Nashville, Tenn.

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Which cuts to the crux of the sundress stakes. It’s not just what a sundress is, says Vox writer Rebecca Jennings. It’s who a sundress is for.

“Some men were complaining that women aren’t wearing sundresses ‘like they used to,’” Jennings notes. “Which feels like a very reactionary response to changing gender dynamics.”

Models Endy Cartnell (left) and Selina, on the King's Road, Chelsea, London in 1973.

Models Endy Cartnell (left) and Selina, on the King’s Road, Chelsea, London in 1973.

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Jennings traced the early days of what we now call the sundress in an expansively researched essay called “The sundress discourse, explained.” The garment, she wrote, became a summer staple in the postwar period, popularized by pioneering female sportswear designers such as Claire McCardell and Carolyn Schnurer.

“They’re dresses that were meant to be worn without these fussy undergarments,” she explains, meaning without girdles or even pantyhose. The designer Lilly Pulitzer, known for her bright prints and boutique-y brand, helped make sundresses, at first a style associated with children, respectable even for grown women.

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A mother and daughter in 1955.

A mother and daughter in 1955.

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The sundress as male fetish object joined the cultural conversation through the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Jennings says. In a 2010 episode, the resident toxic male creep does a whole bit about sundresses. And since then, the mainstream cultural discourse around the sundress has changed accordingly, as reflected in some of the TikTok videos responding to the original query.

Disputes over sundresses right now are really about contemporary concerns, Jennings suggests, ranging from fast fashion to obsessions over gender norms. But, she adds, none of this should stop sundress fans from reaching for that lightweight little frock in the closet designed with hot weather in mind. “It’s not the sundress’s fault,” she points out, with a laugh.

American actress, singer and dancer Marpessa Dawn pictured on a balcony on June 1, 1960.

American actress, singer and dancer Marpessa Dawn pictured on a balcony on June 1st, 1960.

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Edited for radio and the web by Jennifer Vanasco.

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