Carolyn Murphy was born in Panama City, Florida to parents who were in the Air Force and separated shortly after her birth. She grew up mainly in Northwest Florida, with brief periods in England and Maryland, as a result of her parents’ divorce. Her career began when at the age of 16, her mother enrolled her in a modeling school. Soon, she was modeling locally in Florida, as well as abroad in Japan and Paris. After graduating from Choctawhatchee High School in 1991, Murphy enrolled at the University of Virginia, while modeling part-time. Mario Testino shot her for French Vogue, Missoni, Et Vous, and Gucci. In 1994 she was hired for Prada and appeared in major magazines like Harpers Bazaar and Vogue. Anna Wintour had Steven Meisel shoot her for American Vogue in 1995 and he began to use her for campaigns like Dolce Gabbana, Max Mara, and Calvin Klein.
In 1998, she was named VH1/Vogue's "Model of the Year".Barry Levinson chose her for the role of "Dubbie" in his film Liberty Heights. She was presented on the November 1999 Millennium cover of American Vogue as one of the "Modern Muses".". and considered a muse by Calvin Klein, landing a contract for the perfume "Contradiction" with fellow Liberty Heights costar, Justin Chambers. She was offered roles in "Pearl Harbor" and many others to follow. Also in 1998, during a photo shoot for Elle magazine, the photographer noticed her resemblance to the actress Gene Tierney and Elle dubbed Murphy "The blonde Gene Tierney".
In 2001, Estee Lauder signed Murphy to an exclusive contract. Her first advertising campaign for the brand’s “Defining Beauty” began appearing in 2002. She continues to appear in the advertisements today, recently posing for Estee Lauder’s new fragrance, Sensuous. She shot campaigns for Missoni, Versace and Tiffany & Co. In 2005 she was featured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.