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Meet Fashion’s New It-Girl: The Stylish DJ Memphy Highsnobiety

In this FRONTPAGE story, we manage to pin down Memphy, a DJ and girl about town who is already rubbing shoulders with the likes of Beyoncé and Madonna.

Memphy doesn’t mind if you call her an it-girl. “I just love that term. I can’t even lie,” she tells me one September afternoon. A self-identified “model-slash-DJ,” the 22-year-old finds the descriptor — used to capture the otherwise uncategorizable effervescence of personalities like Alexa Chung and Chloë Sevigny — to be powerful and so strong. She’s no fan of the less glamorous “influencer,” which she feels “cheapens you a bit, no shade.” But it-girl? She vibes with that. “You don’t have to be a model or a DJ or whatever to be an it-girl. You can just be cunt and be an it-girl, and I feel like that’s so empowering,” she says. “You’re just that girl. Period.”

Memphy’s embrace of the term makes sense. Though much of her childhood was confined to the 13-mile stretch that makes up the island of Manhattan, the model has recently been enjoying the sort of enviabled jetset life early 2000s tabloids were designed to obsessively track. “I just got back from London two days ago, and now, I’m here,” she tells me, outlining her latest itinerary. “I DJed Tory Burch last night, had this shoot today, and tomorrow, I fly to San Francisco to DJ a rave with Juliana [Huxtable]. The next day, I fly to LA, and the day after that, I’m in Paris.”

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What is she doing at all these stops? In New York, she walked in Kim Shui’s SS24 show and starred in a campaign for buzzy label Marshall Columbia. In London, she made her British runway debut for Di Petsa just hours before DJing Mowalola’s much-hyped after-party. And by the time she’s left Paris, she will have had an Ottolinger double-whammy: walking the brand’s runway show and debuting as one of the faces for its latest campaign. This particular recipe of compressed chaos may simply be a symptom of the international traveling circus known as fashion month, but as Memphy acknowledges, much about her life is just different now.

It’s one of the last official days of summer, and Memphy and I are huddled together at a table inside a small photo studio in East Williamsburg. She’s halfway through an eight-look photoshoot, and while on lunch break, alternating between bites of a salad and a bowl of mac-and-cheese that is much larger than she was anticipating. (She insists that I fetch a fork and dig in to help her finish it.) She’s admittedly a little tired, but feeding off the on-set energy, is chipper and energetic as she talks about her new normal. “For me, being cocky is a new thing,” she says shortly after our dissection of the it-girl. She’s always been confident. (“My mom was super outspoken. She was like, ‘Bitch, do your thing!’”) But she’s evolved. “Only within the past year or two have I gained the confidence to be like, You know what? I am that bitch.” 

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Memphis Murphy was born in 2000. A born-and-bred New Yorker, the only child of a single mother spent her early years in and around Spanish Harlem (“real, real New York”), moving almost every two years. When her mom “made some coin” in Memphy’s teens, they moved downtown — first, to 23rd Street, and later, to “bougie” Greenwich Village — where Memphy transferred from a uniform-mandatory educational institution that was “Catholic school, basically” to a public school where she felt “the freedom to express myself and explore my personal style.”

Memphy describes this style, which she still embraces, as quintessentially New York. “A fresh pair of Air Force 1s, always in the closet; Timberlands, always in the closet,” she laughs. Right now, she’s obsessed with Alpinestars biker boots, which she uses to elevate otherwise simple outfits (“It’s just so cunty to me”), and “super-duper mini ruffle skirts,” which she tends to pair with full-sized shirts up top. But, as she stresses, “NY street style will always be there for me.”

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With all the diversity downtown, Memphy also began to accept her transhood. “I started meeting other trans people and [seeing] that you don’t have to be this one specific type of person. And regardless, in New York City, you will find your people because there are so many fucking bitches here,” she says. Living her truth could sometimes still be intimidating, “because bitch, every queer person gets bullied.” But she had chutzpah and a supportive mother. “It was me realizing that I’m just not going to be put down. It was like, be fucking insecure and scared for the rest of your life, or fight back and just be that bitch. My mom’s a Leo, so, like, she fought back.” (For the record, Memphy is a Scorpio sun, Capricorn moon, and Sagittarius rising.)

One of her earliest trans friends was Gia Garrison, a DJ who spotted a 17-year-old Memphy one day at Tompkins Square Park. “She was like, ‘Girl, what are you doing sitting around all these skaters? Come over. Let’s kii,’” Memphy recalls. So she followed Garrison to her house, where the pair bonded over a mutual love of techno. Just a few hangouts later, Garrison was teaching Memphy the basics of DJing. Already immersed in New York’s nightlife, it didn’t take much for Memphy to start picking up occasional gigs, and by the time she was 18 and living on her own in Bushwick, she was regularly playing local hotspots like Mood Ring and Bossa Nova Civic Club. It wasn’t profitable (“I used to DJ for $200 an hour, literally”), but her passion for the form was enough.

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Around this same time, Memphy also started to model. It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. “I was just around fashion all the time,” she says of her youth. Her mother, who represented fashion photographers and stylists for well over a decade, was something of a hoarder. “We had closets and closets. There were fur coats, crazy designer looks. I’d always play dress-up and be like, ‘Oh, I want to be a model.’” But she never thought it was a possibility. “The examples that we had seen, especially in 2008, ‘09, ‘10, were super skinny, super white.”

And yet, since signing with LA and NY Model Management, Memphy has walked for brands like Dion Lee, Area, and Mugler; appeared in editorials for the likes of Interview, Autre, and Cosmopolitan China; and starred in campaigns for Hood By Air and Heaven by Marc Jacobs. Last year, she landed her first magazine cover, for Elle Denmark, and this year, she was tapped by Olivier Rousteing for a collaboration between French couture house Balmain and Beyoncé.

Only within the past year or two have I gained the confidence to be like, You know what? I am that bitch. – Memphy

As a Black trans woman, this all still feels inconceivable. Despite the recent growth of trans models, Memphy remembers when, “I’d go to all the same castings as white trans women, do the walk just as good, serve just as much, but they’re chosen because it’s the digestibility of it all.” Now, she’s elated to be part of “the rise of the dolls” across the industry. “I feel like I was one of the first girls in lingerie for Savage x Fenty who was trans and portrayed in a beautiful light,” she tells me. “It’s like no one thought a trans girl could be seen or portrayed as beautiful before that.” Coincidentally, through modeling, Memphy can actually track her transition. “When I shot with Savage x Fenty, I was only two years on hormones. I didn’t have my boobs yet,” she recollects. “To see the progress and evolution, especially through these images, it’s so crazy.”

The whole thing is a “pinch-me” moment. “It’s like, Is this really happening? It’s crazy, because growing up, especially being trans, you’re taught that you’re undesirable. You’re never going to find a man. You’re never going to get married. No one wants to fuck you because you’re a…” (She concludes her thought with the t-slur.) “So being celebrated in those ways is so liberating and freeing. Sometimes, it feels unbelievable. It’s like, Okay, maybe I am meant to find love. Maybe I am worth being seen as sexy. It’s just cool to see that that shit can actually happen.”

***

“I was still doing sex work two years ago,” she admits, now reflecting on her winding journey up to this point. Back when she was living off $200 DJ gigs, the side-hustle was necessary — emblematic of what she labels her “survival state-of-mind” as a trans woman. But even then, “I always knew that at some point it would pay off, that I wouldn’t have to be doing sex work anymore,” she says. “You have to have that mentality or else you’re not going to succeed. Literally.”

And proving that it-girls do indeed have “talent,” Mempy’s success is multi-faceted. Beyond the runways, she has emerged as one of electronic music’s most exciting DJs, a crucial player in the wave of trans DJs Honey Dijon recently told Pitchfork are “making space, unapologetically and fiercely.” Applauded for her playful meshing of genres, Memphy says she and her cohort “have our own flavor” of mixing. “I grew up on the Pussycat Dolls, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, The Whole 9. Just lyrics in general,” she explains. “Every bad bitch listened to those girls, so it’s like, why would I not want to mix that in with a cunty techno beat?” She admires artists like Kelis, whose 2010 album Flesh Tone — with its daring pivot from her established “super early 2000s sound” to something “electronic and synthy” — changed the game, in her opinion.

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“Thank god for music and DJing,” she stresses. “Otherwise, I would be so much more broke and depressed focusing on these stupid-ass brands and going into castings that may or may not [want me].” Instead, she’s getting chances to meet her idols — as was the case earlier this summer, when she opened for Beyoncé’s record-breaking Renaissance Tour in Arizona, or during Pride 2022, when she played Madonna’s Drag Race-filled party at Terminal 5. “DJing, it’s like, yes, people are seeing me for my image, but people are also like, Is this bitch any good? Can she DJ?” she says about the respite she finds away from fashion. “That’s the bottom line, versus how I look and present myself. That’s so comforting and honestly makes shit bearable.”

***

Before production rushes Memphy back into hair and makeup, I want to know what it feels like to be 22 and on top of the world. “I grew up with a mom who was like, ‘Work hard. Constantly. No breaks,’” she says. “I never really had the parent that was like, ‘Just chill and do nothing.’ Especially being a New York City kid, it’s almost normal to be so young and have all these accomplishments. You work your ass off, that’s just what you’re supposed to do. Sometimes, when people are like, ‘I can’t believe you’re 22 and doing so much,’ I’m like, ‘Damn, you lazy!’ I’m sorry!”

“But I also hate that part of myself because the flipside is that it’s hard for me to find time to chill,” she continues. “When I’m not doing anything, I feel like I need to be doing something. I never find myself cutting out time to have a mental health day and go to a spa. But I also realize that there are always going to be those slow moments regardless. Right now, though, we’re focused on the bag.” Looking into the future, Memphy can’t tell when she’ll want to stop grinding: On one hand, she’d like to be “chilling and doing nothing by the time [she’s] 40 or 50.” But on the other hand, “I feel like I’ll get there and still have so much energy and still want to do stuff.” Ultimately, she explains, “It’s more about being selective.” Of course — what it-girl isn’t?

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