Q&A with iYANDA

We chat to the Kardashian endorsed, award-winning TV personality, MC and speaker Ayanda Thabethe who's cyber alter-ego iYANDA is South Africa's newest Virtual Influencer 

Photo: Instagram/iYANDA

Award-winning TV personality, MC and speaker Ayanda Thabethe is the epitome of multi-faceted. Hailing from South Africa her reach and influence is truly worldwide. Time Out (USA) magazine recently identified her as one of the top twelve Black tastemakers in beauty, hip-hop, food and fashion. Alongside Kim Zulu she was one of only two African inclusions. It seems odd to me that Africa be so starkly under represented on the world stage in discussions of Black influence. Social media represents a unique opportunity to connect the diaspora and connect us all to the Motherland which is the root of so much of the culture that makes the world tick. Enter iYANDA. Ayanda's digital avatar and the brainchild of herself and THE AVATAR COMPANY. The company who birthed Kim Zulu, South Africa's first digital influencer, who has gone on to front a campaign for Kangol and grace the pages of Forbes magazine USA, ELLE Magazine (China) and VOGUE. Not bad for a 1 year old. A lot is made of social media influencers and their role in shaping young women's perceptions of themselves. I remember first seeing Lil Miquela and to be honest my initial reaction was being really creeped out. There's also a debate to be had about the fast paced consumerism catalysed by the need to keep up with social media trends. The financial strain, mental health issues like body-dysmorphia and the impact fast fashion has had on the environment are all damning indictments of influencer culture. Not to mention my belief post watching Ex-Machina that everyone just needs to stop romanticising AI lest we all fall victim to devious (albeit sexy) androids. All that considered I am glad I pushed through my apprehensions to see the potential good that iYANDA and virtual influencers like her could offer. That potential is perhaps best outlined in the words of digital maverick Lebo Kambule

“iYANDA follows in Kim’s digital footprint and whilst she is inspired by her real-life muse,
Ayanda Thabethe, she is her own ‘person’ - a young-minded model and actress with
aspirations of one day contributing globally through her many talents and with the big aim of
becoming a real role model for young girls across the continent”

Virtual influencers actually create the capacity for a more honest form of idolisation. Ultimately young people will always look up to those they admire as a barometer of who they should be. Before social media platforms there were adverts, films and fashion magazines creating beauty standards. The problem with seemingly "real" people being the vessel of these beauty standards was that it made their carefully sanitised constructed public persona seem humanly attainable. "If I just buy this make-up, if I just lose that 8lbs, if I dye my hair this colour - that could be me". Setting up young people who don't understand showbiz (or have endless resources) to have their self esteem damaged. One could argue avatars became commonplace the day social media platforms became the norm, because the version of ourselves we put out is constructed whether we admit it or not. iYANDA, Kim Zulu and Lil Miquela aren't new concepts, they're just honest manifestations of a concept that's become commonplace in society under our noses. The gamification of life and everyone having an avatar. Where likes are currency and increased follower counts are the "next level". With a CGI influencer however, there's no expectation that a young person actually look that way. So followers can take the elements they like, see if they can implement them in their own life, and then move on with no expectation that they "measure up" to anything. To me that seems much healthier and it was my pleasure to speak with Ayanda more about this exciting journey.

Photo: Instagram/iYANDA

Hello Ayanda thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us! For anyone who's been living under a rock and doesn't know you, how would you describe your journey so far?

Thank you for the opportunity! Well - Where do I start? Lol! I’m mostly known for my TV host gigs. I’m also an actress, model and an entrepreneur. I was born in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, but I’m based in Johannesburg. Education is very important to me I graduated with a BCOM Communication Management degree from the University of Pretoria (2007) and later an Honours Marketing degree from the University of South Africa (2011). As a millennial, I also adopted social media quite early in life and its been quite a relevant platform in both my personal and professional life. So I do have quite a strong digital footprint with an over 2M following in IG and Twitter. 

Your virtual twin and fellow influencer iYanda has just launched. Do you see the two of you as separate entities or do you see iYanda as an extension of yourself? 

iYANDA is an extension of me, we do share some similarities but she’s definitely got a personality and characteristics of her own. As my digital twin, iYANDA will help me in extending my online reach to a broader, younger and more tech savvy audience beyond geographical boarders and what I can do physically.

Female empowerment and the will to inspire young girls is key to who you are as a person and an influencer. There's a lot of debate about the beauty standards that social media creates. Do you think it's possible that computer generated avatars could create more impossible beauty standards for young women or on the other hand do you think it might be a good thing that it'll be clearer to young women looking up to iYanda that they're not supposed to look like her because she's not supposed to be a real person? 

I have a couple of social issues close to my heart – women empowerment and easy access to education especially for young girls  are  certainly the closest  to me – with that said… brand Ayanda can only communicate these important social issues to a certain extent as a human influencer. I believe iYANDA can and will extend the conversation further more especially with the younger female audience.  With her online/digital reach iYANDA can do much more  to reach this  younger demographic through their preferred digital channels. So  conversations around beauty, the definition of it, it's diversity, etc will be best communicated through iYANDA, high on the  priority list for the team behind iYANDA is to communicate clearly who she is that she is a robot interacting with humans in their world – ideally that tone will start highlighting that we are all different and that’s what makes us beautiful and unique.

You're very well educated (a double graduate no less!). How have you found balancing academia with your burgeoning career and worldwide popularity? 

I have a very supportive family structure which I’m grateful for, that and the love I have for what I do. In the beginning it wasn’t always easy to find that balance but with the many years of experience you sort of grow into the role you have chosen… that is why my recently celebrated birthday was very important to me – I've grown into my own space. Me as a person, my career and now for my brand Ayanda Thabethe and it's quite an exciting time. 

Young girls (and some boys too) have always played with dolls and used them as vessels to experiment with what they imagine womanhood to be. Do you see avatars as the modern version of that, or is this new phenomenon something separate altogether? 

I think it’s a bit of both for now…  it's forever changing. I feel like the younger generation doesn’t want a complete package anymore, they want to co create with the product, brand or content. They want to be part of the story and not be told the story, we can start the brand story or conversation but we can no longer dictate where it ends… It's now shared creative power with your audience.

Having Africa's first virtual influencer is a massive accolade! Do you think that more virtual influencers across Africa, representing different cultures, could help to shape Africa's future in the youth's cultural imagination? 

Oh yes! Africa’s story needs to be told and by Africans – so the more virtual influencers across different regions of the continent the better. We know this is possible, in the past couple of years we’ve seen many Africans on the global stage in film /TV industry, music, pageantry, etc Africa is very rich not only in minerals but in its people too and I think this is the time for Africa’s youth to take up space!

Article written by Martyn Ewoma

Follow Ayanda on Instagram and Twitter

Follow iYANDA on Instagram and Twitter


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