As a makeup artist in the adult film industry, Melissa Murphy’s paramount task is to transform flesh into fantasy. “Before and after” photos, often transfixing in any context, offered her a means of showcasing that metamorphosis — and, crucially, her talent in cosmetology. But when her Instagram account—replete with these images—went viral, clients accused her of exploiting them for monetary gain.

In a post on Tuesday, Tech Insider’s Melia Robinson details the decade Murphy has spent working intimately with adult actresses to ready them for the set, cultivating close friendships along the way. From TI:

“We talk about our love lives, our problems. I can’t watch you have sex after this,” she tells a client. “To me, you’re my sweet little girl who I make into a pinup doll.”

However, these women are not dolls; they are professionals who hold unique perspectives on the ways their images should be circulated. And their consent to being photographed and featured on Instagram enables Murphy to sustain her business. For the most part, both parties are satisfied with the transaction. Robinson continues,

“In order to drum up more business, Murphy started staging behind-the-scenes photoshoots with the actresses and shared the results to Instagram. Her account only served to showcase her talent and make herself even more visible to photographers. And it worked...

...Most of the actresses loved Murphy’s social media schtick. She often photographed them in their street clothes, rather than skimpy lingerie, and in natural lighting. Many would use the after photos as their profile pictures on social media. Others retweeted the posts with praise.”

But Instagram, even its public accounts, yields a much smaller viewership than venues like The Huffington Post or Buzzfeed. And because Instagram allows the media to embed photos posted to the site, blogs did not need to ask Murphy’s permission before sharing them. When, in March 2013, reddit user trollboll shared 93 of the pictures on imgur, news of Murphy’s work spread rapidly, blog posts proliferated, and she faced fierce condemnation.

“A small, but vocal, handful of adult actresses attacked Murphy on social media for betraying them. They accused her of selling the images to the press, and doing so without their permissions. According to their smears on social media, Murphy exposed them in their most vulnerable moments, saying Murphy was the only one with something to gain by showing the world the actresses’ bare faces. The hashtag #MakeupArtistNoList attempted to blacklist Murphy from the industry.”

Other porn stars did defend Murphy, and Murphy herself emphasized that she had neither sought out the press nor received payment for the photos being shared across the internet.

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Still, the impact was pernicious. Buzzfeed’s Ryan Broderick remarked that “these [photos] prove that just about anybody can ‘look like a porn star,’” but of course it is not the responsibility of adult actresses to expose themselves to buttress that hypothesis. Regardless of her intentions, these women—understandably—felt exploited, and Murphy was “threatened with legal action.” Moreover, many photographers ceased working with her, not willing to hazard the risks.

Nearly two years later the ire has abated, Tech Insider reports that Murphy is again working steadily. She also continues to post before/after shots to Instagram which may seem foolhardy. But Murphy is confident in her decision.

“‘It isn’t about showing my work anymore ,’ Murphy says. With rouge-stained hands, she pulls up Instagram on her phone and scrolls through the comment threads. Countless followers have left messages of not only admiration, but gratitude.

‘I see how flawless the women in magazines and on TV are, and I constantly have to fight the thought that I’ll never be able to compete,’ one aspiring actress writes. ‘We can all be stars with help from artists as talented as you.’”

Despite the positive responses, the message nonetheless seems underpinned by the enduring message that women must always physically supplement themselves to compensate for innate lack. And yet, given some of the messages Murphy receives these days, that’s perhaps too pessimistic a view:

Says another aspiring actress, “Thank you for promoting self-love!”


Contact the author at rachel.vorona.cote@jezebel.com.

Top Image via Getty. Embedded Video via YouTube.