How Carolyn Murphy Became the 'Invisible Supermodel' and Built a Career Spanning Three Decades

"I think there's a level of self-deprecation and humility, knowing where you came from; I don't wanna get too big for my britches."
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In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

When it comes to '90s supermodels, there are many whose lives outside of the industry — whether it was rockstar boyfriends or outlandish statements about supposed paychecks — made them frequent front page news, wonders who were known in the press by a first-name basis: Cindy, Christy, Naomi, Kate. 

Carolyn Murphy was not one of them. Instead, she became a kind of "invisible supermodel": someone who, by her own account, was happy to just show up and be a part of the creativity in a way that enabled her to make a living. No doubt that has roots in her beginnings as an outdoorsy Florida girl who split time between beaches on the Gulf of Mexico and a family farm in Virginia. In her mind, her upbringing was a far cry from the lives of the women she saw on screen as a teenager in the '80s.

"Seeing George Michael's video with all the supers — I was just gobsmacked. I mean, they were just the most incredible women I had ever seen," Murphy says. "Of course, I never thought that I could be one of those women, and then my mom put me in a finishing school — I was super shy, kind of a tomboy — and the rest is kind of history."

"Kind of history" may just be putting it lightly: Murphy would go on to establish a career spanning three decades, tucking gigs with every major photographer, designer and publication under her belt along the way. Her contract with Estée Lauder has now lasted over 20 years, the longest-ever for the brand. And she's still going today, appearing in shows and campaigns for brands spanning the globe, like The Row, Burberry, Moschino and Off-White. 

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Murphy has also married her modeling career with her passion for getting folks back to nature, serving as ambassador to organizations like Surfrider, The Wellness Foundation, Animal Haven, Edible Schoolyard NY, Ocean Unite and No More Plastic. But don't call her an activist: She prefers calling herself an advocate instead — a better match for her gentle personality.

"As an advocate, if you have the facts, you can impart that wisdom," she explains. "It's a way of encouraging positivity and I think that's the biggest part. Rather than going to the negatives, just use the positives to encourage and to educate, shedding light on positive solutions."

We caught up with Murphy to hear how she built a strong modeling career in the era pre-dating social media, why it's important for her to stay humble and where she sees her career going next. 

Carolyn Murphy attends the Animal Haven Gala 2019.

Carolyn Murphy attends the Animal Haven Gala 2019.

What first got you interested in fashion?

My nana was the biggest influence. Both of my grandmothers were very stylish — they lived in the D.C. area — but my mom's mother, my nana, was very put-together. She was also her own designer, in a way: She would sew these incredible gowns and linens, she would knit these sweaters, and she'd put in these labels that said, 'Made With Love by Nana.' They'd also host these parties that were themed, so she always had these amazing looks. Then she'd go out to the country and have all these looks for when we went to her family's farm. I started sewing at a young age because of that. I remember sewing Care Bear appliqués onto the back pockets of my jeans when I was like 8, because I was obsessed with Care Bears. I had one bear on each pocket. 

I would style looks. I would go to all-day Saturday skate at the skating rink and have my Gloria Vanderbilt jeans, angora sweaters. I actually became more insecure as a teenager — like most teen girls, of course, who are looking at magazines, but I was super insecure. I also became more of a tomboy, so I was into men's Levi's, Hanes white T-shirts and cowboy boots. It was the '80s, so dressing up at that time was putting on a blazer and some turquoise silver hoop earrings to add the femininity. 

Your career path by now is kind of legendary, but give me a brief overview of how you got started and how that took off for you.

It was just by happenstance. There were agents from all over the world at the end of the eight-week [finishing school] course, and you had to do this cheesy little fashion show and choose one look that represented yourself and one evening look. My day look was, of course, the jeans, the T-shirt, no makeup. Everyone was like, 'Are you sure?' Because all the other girls are in Laura Ashley, or something like that. I was kind of a rebel. For evening, I went straight for a Robert Palmer look: slick black dress, red lip.

It was kind of shocking the next day when my number kept coming up on the screen. I thought that maybe it was a mistake, because I wasn't really a conventional [height] — maybe 5’8.5”, not so tall. It was a shock to everybody. 

I went to Paris my senior year in high school. I was more enthralled by being in Paris and the architecture and the history that I would get in trouble for not going to all the appointments. I was just lost in the whole art and history and literature, which is what I loved and really wanted to study in school. I went back home and just wanted to be 'normal' and go to high school. I felt really intimidated by the whole scene, and I was insecure, truth be told. I just didn't feel like I fit in. It took a while. 

When I started modeling, I was in my twenties — twenty, twenty-one. I was attending college, commuting between my grandparents' place in D.C. to New York, paying for school. I started working more, but it did take a couple years. My career didn't start taking off until '93, '94. I had every hair color under the sun in a manner of those two or three years, which was part rebellion but also just really loving the creativity and the artistry in the fashion world.

It just takes one person, or a couple people, to really believe in you, and that's it. There were a couple photographers that saw in me what I didn't see. Carine Roitfeld wanted to put me on the cover of French Vogue and make me look like the actress Romy Schneider, and that was that. That's where it all began.

Carolyn Murphy with her 2005 'Sports Illustrated: Swim" cover.

Carolyn Murphy with her 2005 'Sports Illustrated: Swim" cover.

It's interesting that you saw that iconic George Michael video and thought you could never be one of these women. When did you realize that you could be?

Oh, I don't think I've ever realized that! I think there's a level of self-deprecation and humility, knowing where you came from; I don't wanna get too big for my britches. In fact, my agent, he still gets onto me to this day — he would always say, 'I wish you had an ounce of the Madonna Syndrome. Just be fabulous.'

I was uncomfortable, to be honest with you, with the notoriety when my career started taking off. But I really enjoyed the success on a personal level, because I was raised to work hard, so that was a benchmark for me. The notoriety felt uncomfortable, but the success was the benchmark that I was doing my job and I was working hard. 

Somewhere in '97 or '98, Newsweek did an article on the top ten supermodels, and I was shocked because I was like, number four. It was such an honor to be grouped with those women, but I was just scratching my head, going, 'Really? I'm such a dork.' I'm not like Christy and Cindy — they're so glamorous — and Amber and Shalom, who were so cool, even though we were the same age, they had at least five years on me. And Kate, who was always so cool. In that article, I was referred to as the Professional. Which I was like, 'God, I'm just so boring.'

There was never a particular formula in evolving my career. It was about trusting my agent, using my instincts and having that common sense from my upbringing, which was to be polite and respectful. There was an instinctual part of that in handling my career — oftentimes to my agent's dismay, when it got to be too much — I would back off. I moved off grid to places like Costa Rica or my farm upstate. A lot of that was for my own sanity, but it also felt right to not always be caught up in the machine. 

The '90s were a raucous and passionate time. There was much more artistry. People were having fun rather than it being so corporate. I didn't have a conscious level of being a businesswoman until much later in my career — probably after I became a mother and came to my senses more.

As you gained that success, how you were able to guide your career in a way that was fulfilling to you personally?

Well, it wasn't easy, because like I said, there were just times when I really had to cut out, and it didn't always make sense. I did a movie with Barry Levinson, which was a big deal, and next thing I know, I have publicists and managers and scripts. I used my instincts, and I had to trust that — and not in an ungrateful way. For me, always feeling a little bit of an outsider and not really belonging, I had to harken to those instincts. Not everybody agreed with that, not everybody understood that, because at that time, building a career, I think in the '90s everyone was winging it. It was much more guided by passion and art. There was this real integration of art and music and fashion. I mean, look at Marc Jacobs, look at the photographers, look at the style at that time. 

There was a natural evolution to my career, but I think also having a great agent — which I was super, super lucky to have joined IMG in the beginning. I had my agent, Ivan Bart; we were super close and sometimes agents know more than you, and I think he knew more than I did. He saw things in a way that I didn't see, so I was following his guidance. 

I did fight [being] commercial, because I liked the anonymity of being a Vogue girl in the '90s. I never wanted to brand myself, because I worked from the base of being an artist, so I didn't really understand that and it was not easy to navigate. It wasn't until my early 30s that I realized my own strengths of being the all-American model, that I had a personal style that was consistent, that I could speak articulately. Then I signed with Estée Lauder, I had done the movie with Bill Levinson, and there were a couple Sports Illustrated covers. It was imperative to evolve my way of thinking as the space was changing: There was more corporate involvement, and there was this word in the early 2000s that was being thrown around — 'global.' It was becoming a global economy and the outreach was there. 

Once I really grasped that and the concept of being a businesswoman, left the '90s behind, went into the 2000s, was a new mom, I was able to tailor my career and be a little more strategic in the move, still with some reserve.

These days, it's all about models using social media to build a platform of their own, which obviously didn't exist in the late '90s and early 2000s. How were you able to build that platform for yourself?

I think building the platform and my success took teamwork with my agent. It also took following my own path, which didn't always work in terms of being available. I was a single mom and I was the mother/father/breadwinner in my family. I really had to work with my agents, and I was also supported in that way, too. It took realizing my own strengths — which came later in life when I had been a mother — and using those assets. It was an instinctual, but also a natural evolution.

I really think it's also having a sense of self, which we all grow and evolve in our own pace. Had I been in my twenties and had the pressures of social media, I don't think I would have been able to survive, because it's such an added layer that I really struggle with — and it's not because I'm old or resistant. I'm kind of a luddite; I like tactile things. 

Carolyn Murphy at the 2000 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards.

Carolyn Murphy at the 2000 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards.

When did you realize that you could use your modeling career as a springboard for issues that were important to you?

I've never felt entirely comfortable standing on a soapbox or preaching. However, if I can come from a space of positive intention and flip it on its axis, it becomes more useful information for someone in a way of paying it forward, and they can take it or leave it. The biggest part of any issue we face is that we're all learning as we go, that's part of being human. In advocacy, it's taking the information as we go and integrating it as we go. We're all learning, we're all sharing. That's more of my approach. 

In the early '90s, when I realized I could use my position as a model to springboard those issues, one of the first interviews I did was for the cover of a magazine out of London called Frank Magazine. I was speaking about GMOs and genetically modified foods because that's when we started learning about them, and I was really concerned about the long-term repercussions in our health and the broken food system in America, in regards to agriculture, organic foods, processed foods and fast foods. I was concerned that we were fucking with nature. I was concerned about the health not only of us, but also our children and impoverished communities. I really started paying attention.

I spoke of other things as well — the Waldorf education to counteract this fast-track of technology and gadgets, how that was going to affect children's health and development — but again, from my experience. I'm a surfer, so I would share experiences of being in the ocean and dodging plastic bags. It's really imparting the wisdom from experience, and then the information and integration.

How do you choose your modeling jobs today?

I think I'm having more fun with modeling now than ever! I'm not really sure why. Maybe it's because my daughter has fled the coop and I have more time on my hands, and I get to work with the people I love. I've developed and built such incredible relationships over almost 30 years and it's such a joy to work with some people. It's not always rainbows and unicorns, because I also need to make money and I'm still supporting my family. But a job I just did in New York, it was just really sweet. 

I love meeting the new models — I love this new generation, I love getting to know them. I love revisiting some friends. I was just with my dear friends Shalom and Helena Christensen. It's just more about having fun now. I think there's a little bit less pressure, in a way.

Carolyn Murphy walks the Michael Kors Collection 40th Anniversary show.

Carolyn Murphy walks the Michael Kors Collection 40th Anniversary show.

How have you seen the industry change since you started out?

Oh, wow — I mean, it's changed so much. I think that in the '90s, it was raucous, it was passionate. Then in the 2000s, it became a little more global and more corporate. The changes that I love are the inclusion and the diversity and the disruption, in a way, for the better. It's so fascinating to see the evolution. I'm obviously intrigued by social media, by the younger girls, watching them — I'm like, 'Oh my god I need to learn how to take a selfie!' [laughs]

I think there's a lot of positives in the industry because there are parameters now and everyone's banded together. There's a lot of speaking up now, and I think that's really wonderful, because this next generation, there's a level of professionalism that's really admirable.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

Well, I'm most proud that I'm still doing it. There was a time when, if you were 48 years old, you would have been washed up a long time ago. But I think I'm most proud of my contract with Estée Lauder. I have been so supported by them, and growing up with that brand, dreaming of that brand — to have that contract for twenty years, I'm so proud. It's really a partnership. I really just love my Estée Lauder family. I'm proud that I've been with my agency for 26, 27 years. I'm so proud of the relationships that I have had in my career and that they're still so strong. Also, I would say that I'm proud that I was supported. I'm proud the industry supported me being a single mother. It wasn't always easy, and I was able to balance it. I was supported in that balance.

What's something that you wish you had known before starting out?

I wish I would have known to be more of a businesswoman at a young age, to take the emotion out of it and to treat it more [like a] business, to make a plan. I saw Giselle Bündchen do that, I've seen Karlie Kloss do it — these are women that I'm actually friends with and I admire them greatly. Cindy Crawford was one of those women from the generation prior.

What advice would you give someone looking to follow in your footsteps?

Definitely listen to your heart, but again, think long-term and make a plan. Set goals. Have a dialogue with your agents. Be realistic. I say that to my daughter: Here you are with school, what's your one-year goal, what's your two-year goal, what's your five? Following my footsteps, I would say don't follow them completely — be a little bit more thought-out in that way. Use your heart, but also your mind.

What's your ultimate goal for yourself?

I feel that I've been so blessed in my career that honestly it has exceeded any of my wildest dreams. I feel so content in that way. My ultimate goal, obviously, is health and happiness. If I could see myself doing more, it would be working with children, working with animals and horses, having my farm, creating my art — really quite simplistic in a way, to be honest with you. I would love to just be hands-on with animals and children and gardening and painting. That's my goal for myself, and always has been my goal, actually. 

I really do feel like it kind of goes back to where I started. There was the resistance at the beginning of my career because I was like, 'I just want to be normal.' I didn't want to be famous. I just wanted to do my job. I feel like I've been so blessed, but I love just getting my hands dirty. I love working with children and animals. Hopefully that will happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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