In the early ’90s, when Carolyn Murphy started modeling, there were two camps: the glamazons (Cindy, Christy, Linda, Naomi), with their minuscule hemlines, and the broody waifs (Kate, Amber, Shalom), all gangly limbs, slip dresses, and Adidas Gazelles.
Blond, blue-eyed, and most at home in Hanes T-shirts, vintage Levi’s, and cowboy boots, she didn't square neatly with either. “I just remember being like, ‘Where do I fit in?’ ” she recalls over an almond-milk cappuccino at a West Village café in N.Y.C., where she lives. “I would show up, and my agency would say, ‘Can you put on a black dress and some heels?’ ”
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Today, in a white T-shirt and denim cutoffs, Murphy is still the picture of all-American style—only now the country’s idea of cool has come around to meet her. “The look wasn't stylish then, but it is now,” she says. “It was just so easy and very basic. If you threw in a sterling silver cuff, it was a big deal.”
Her love of hardworking, well-crafted basics and natural, no-fuss beauty couldn't be more au courant. “I probably could have capitalized on that more in the beginning of my career, but that’s just not the way I thought,” she says. “I was genuinely just trying to pay for college, living with my nana.”
Murphy is still surprisingly low-maintenance for a model. She has no team of handlers, besides the one agent she’s had for the past 22 years. Her Instagram feed consists of off-duty shots of her gardening; riding her horse, Doc; and getting ready for dinner in a parking lot after a day of surfing. When she’s working, she can transform into whatever you want—a sophisticated sex bomb for Tom Ford, a Park Avenue royal for Oscar de la Renta—but as she’s sitting across from me, her posture pitched forward and her expression open, everything about her seems to say, How can I help you? “Everyone calls me Mamma Murphy,” she says. “It’s been my nickname forever.”
It’s also the name of the website she’s launching this fall: Mammamurphy.com will take a back-to-basics approach to lifestyle, featuring stories along with a curated shop of items made in America. “Right now I feel there is a great disconnect because of technology—or having this need to move on to the next thing,” says Murphy of our mile-a-minute times. “Whether it’s dating apps or 50 different toothpastes in the pharmacy, it can be very overwhelming.”
Murphy’s mix of patriotism and naturalism can be traced to her parents. She was born in the Florida Panhandle, where her father was stationed in the military, and spent a good chunk of every summer on her family’s farm near Lynchburg, Va. She describes her dad as the “most predictable person I know,” while Mom was a bohemian who went to Woodstock. “It was an interesting combination,” she says (they divorced when she was 7). Murphy boasts the “typical and annoying” awkward-teen model origin story: She had braces, glasses, frizzy hair, and an older brother she used to pal around with in his Plymouth Duster, nicknamed Old Yeller. “I was going to do whatever it took to not be like the other girls and wear Laura Ashley,” she says. “So if it meant being more of a tomboy and not that interested in beauty, then that’s what it was.”
That attitude prompted Murphy’s mom to send her straight to a very unbohemian charm school when she was 16. She frequently played hooky to hang out with a boyfriend who “thought he was Jim Morrison,” but an agent scouted her at a school event and soon it was off to Paris for the summer before her senior year. Murphy was miserable.
“I called home crying a lot,” she says. So she returned to Florida to graduate from high school and then enrolled in community college in Virginia with plans to save up and transfer to university. She modeled part-time in New York until she was 21, then went all in. “I said, ‘I’m gonna commit to this.’ ” Cut to streaking through the halls of Le Bristol Paris hotel with Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Shalom Harlow, and Amber Valletta, after drinking Champagne all day backstage at the shows. “We were a sisterhood,” says Murphy, who went on to star in campaigns for megabrands such as Prada, Tiffany & Co., Versace, and, for 16 years and counting, Estée Lauder. “It was like being in a band on tour.” And they partied like rock stars. “There were nights in the Versace mansion where I’d be dancing with Stella Tennant, watching a certain hairdresser who we know is gay make out with a model and going, ‘That’s never gonna work!’ And there are some dirtier tales that I would not like to repeat.”
Still, Murphy never overcame her sense of wonder. “At the end of the day, when you’re a small-town girl and meeting people like Madonna and Michael Hutchence and Sting and Bono, and you’re sitting at a dinner with them or on a first-name basis with people like Kate and Johnny [Depp], of course there are gonna be a lot of ‘holy sh—!’ moments,” she says. “I will never lie and say I always felt like I was meant to be there, or ‘Oh, so-and-so is my best friend.’ It’s still like that.”
But it’s not bold-faced names she admires most. When asked who are her American heroes, she says, “The people who are the backbone of this country. People like my parents, who are in the military, or farmers and teachers. I’m very passionate and hypervigilant about supporting our workers, blue-collar especially, because I think they’re so overlooked.”
Murphy tries to live by her motto: Do something. In 2010 she partnered with e-commerce platform OpenSky to curate a selection of U.S.-made products, but things really clicked in 2013 when Bruce Weber, the legendary photographer and her good friend, asked her to join him on a shoot in Detroit for a young company named Shinola, which was trying to bring manufacturing back to the city by producing watches, bicycles, and leather goods there. “I got off the plane and thought, ‘This is it,’ ” she says. “It was wonderful, that spirit of optimism.” Tom Kartsotis, the company’s owner, saw the same in her and hired her as the women’s design director, a role that has her developing products and creating a print magazine, Argonite, débuting this fall.
Despite her passion for progressive ideals, Murphy doesn’t want to come off as preachy, especially on her website. She promises an integrated, “real” approach, but for some, even the mention of GMOs and probiotics can set off an eye roll. “I could spiel about these things for hours,” she says, laughing, “but I will do it in a way that is so straightforward, because we all need a little help sometimes, whether it’s with weight or aging or being overtired.”
In her own life, Murphy makes time to connect by cooking dinner most nights for her 16-year-old daughter, Dylan (Murphy and Dylan’s father, surfer Jake Schroeder, divorced in 2002). “It’s a really great bonding experience for us,” Murphy says. “I believe in some of those old-fashioned rules.” As for her romantic status, Murphy is currently single. “It takes a lot of energy to date, but I’m open!” She’s also still modeling, and walked the fall shows for Dries Van Noten and Michael Kors this past spring.
“We’re working much later than you would ever have predicted 20 years ago. If you were 40-something, you were done, over with.” Still, she worries about getting older like the rest of us, pointing to a cluster of sunspots along her jawline that had been annoying her just the other day. “It’s going to happen whether you like it or not,” she says with a laugh. “It’s more of a mind-set. Dance on the table or have a shot of whiskey—do things that make you feel alive and happy and young.”
Fashion editor: Laura Ferrara. Hair: David Von Cannon for The Wall Group. Makeup: Romy Soleimani for Streeters. Manicure: Gina Edwards for Kate Ryan Inc. Set design: Viki Rutsch for Exposure NY.