Real-life brothel owner Antonia Murphy and her on-screen counterpart Rachel Griffiths
Real-life brothel owner Antonia Murphy and her on-screen counterpart Rachel Griffiths

Pop CultureJuly 6, 2024

Meet the real-life Madam who inspired a new local sex work comedy

Real-life brothel owner Antonia Murphy and her on-screen counterpart Rachel Griffiths
Real-life brothel owner Antonia Murphy and her on-screen counterpart Rachel Griffiths

Alex Casey chats to Antonia Murphy, whose experience opening an ethical brothel in Northland became the subject of Three’s award-winning new comedy-drama Madam. 

The incensed motel guest rang the manager, concerned that there was prostitution going on in the room next door. “There was just so much sex!” they barked down the phone. “There was just sex all night long!” Calmly, the manager asked how late the disturbance occurred, and the guest said around 2 o’clock in the morning. “No it didn’t, the last booking was at nine o’clock” the manager replied. “How do you know?” asked the guest. 

“Because it’s my escort agency,” the manager replied. “It’s a legal business here in New Zealand, so maybe you should just get some ear plugs.”

Antonia Murphy was the manager on the phone that day, running an ethical brothel in a motel in Northland – a job that would later inspire Three’s new comedy-drama series Madam. The latest show to come out of Te Puna Kairangi, the premium fund also responsible for After the Party and Dark City: The Cleaner, Madam has already won the Golden Nymph for Best Creation at the Monte Carlo TV Festival, Best Comedy Series in Berlin, and been hailed as a workplace comedy we’ve never seen before.

Rachel Griffiths and the cast of Madam. (Photo: Supplied)

So who is the real life madam behind Madam? Born in Northern California and later moving to New York, Murphy told The Spinoff that her attitude towards sex work had been “curious” enough that she very nearly signed up to work at an agency herself in her 20s. “I was making eight bucks an hour at a crap job showing apartments at the time, so I rang one of these numbers in the Yellow Pages and a really rough, chain-smoking, heavy New York accent said ‘call back on Wednesday, ask for Esther’.”

But when Wednesday rolled around, Murphy says she lost her nerve. “I wasn’t scared of meeting men and being charming for money, or even having sex for money, I was really scared of getting assaulted and not having recourse to the cops,” Murphy said of the decision she made in New York, where sex work was illegal in the 1990s (and still is). Still, she said the idea was seeded in the back of her mind while she went about other life business – getting married, writing books, sailing boats and working in children’s theatre. 

It was when she made the choice to move to New Zealand in the late 2000s that the seed planted all those years ago started to germinate. Murphy had lived here for two years when she stumbled upon a Dominion Post article in 2010 about how sex work was decriminalised. She had been researching for a book about New Zealand culture, and rang up several brothels to see if she could interview anyone about legalised sex work. “Most of them were like ‘fuck off’,” she laughed, “but I finally found one place that allowed it.” 

The place she visited was called The Establishment, a high end brothel operating in a “beautiful, clean, sun-filled” suburban Auckland villa. She spent time chatting to the ladies working that day, and came away with her expectations of a “dark, dirty, seedy place” totally shattered. “They were really honest about it – sometimes it sucks, sometimes you get a real creep. Sometimes the clients are super hot, sometimes they’re not. But most of the time, it’s just work. It’s just like any other job under capitalism,” she said. 

Antonia Murphy and Rachel Griffiths on the set of Madam (Photo: Supplied)

Also during this time, her youngest son Silas was diagnosed with a chromosomal microdeletion. “It means there’s just a tiny little typo on one of his chromosomes,” Murphy explained. Still eager to enrol him in a mainstream school, the family moved to Purua, an hour out of Whangārei, where he could attend a small country school and the family could house sit a lifestyle block that needed an owner for a year. That “ridiculous rural fantasy” formed the basis of Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer, Murphy’s first memoir. 

It was in 2014 that the sex industry came back into her mind. “My kids were getting a bit more autonomous and I was looking for something new to do,” she said. “What if I were to open a place in Whangārei like the Establishment in Auckland that could be safe and supportive of women? And is that even possible to do?” 

She reached out to similar businesses operating in Auckland but struggled to get a reply from anyone. It was only when she was put in touch with Madam Vivian* in Wellington that the pieces began to fall together. “She is on the forefront of human rights-based sex work,” Murphy explained. Heading down to Wellington to shadow Madam Vivian for two weeks, Murphy learned everything she needed to start her own business up north. 

While learning the little industry secrets like “condom sizes and best brands of lube”, Murphy was taught about the complexities around consent and sex work, and how different models take away agency from the workers. Traditional brothels, as depicted in episode one of Madam, usually feature “line-ups” where customers can pick the women they want for the service. This means that some women can do a full shift without ever getting a booking, and often don’t have the choice to decline if they are picked. 

The sweethearts of Madam (Photo: Supplied)

Murphy preferred an agency-based model, where customers could ring up and request a particular woman, but the booking hinged on her availability and her approval of the client. She also guaranteed that they had the right to withdraw consent at any time. “I would pay them out regardless,” she explained. “That was important, not just for the dudes who tried to do a runner, but just if it was starting to feel really creepy, or gross, or it was just not working for her for whatever reason, she could leave and not feel pressure to stay to pay the bills.” 

She admits she was “idealistic” in the beginning. It took a year to find a place to open the business, due to the stigma around the profession. “Everyone still had this idea that sex work means ties with gangs and drugs and problems, and the real estate agents did not want anything to do with that.” As depicted in the series, Murphy’s business did really end up operating out of a failing motel – a business she also had to manage alongside the brothel. “That had not been part of the plan,” she laughed. 

Another accurate detail in the show was that Murphy’s business The Bach (“I wanted it to feel like a beach house where you can leave your worries behind”) was also next to a kindergarten. She began to get complaints and letters from the council but, thanks to a thorough read of the Prostitution Reform Act and help from a pro bono lawyer, found a loophole. “It stated that a brothel is any place that provides commercial sex work except a place that already provides commercial accommodation, as long as the bookings are made off site.” 

They moved their office to an offsite garage, which meant “we stopped being a brothel and started being a motel where sex work happened to occur,” Murphy chuckled. In Madam, Mack is seen asking for a bank loan, only to have the bank manager (played by Josh Thomson) furrow his brow and mutter something about a morality clause. That was true in real life too, says Murphy. “I asked around pretty much every bank in Whangārei about getting eftpos machines, and none of them would accept my application.”

Her insurance was more expensive, her job listings weren’t allowed to be run on Trade Me or through WINZ, and her posts kept getting taken down by Instagram. “Even though it is decriminalised, you still feel like you really have to fly under the radar.” Finding staff was also difficult, until a story in the NZ Herald titled Inside An Ethical Brothel, which detailed Murphy’s commitment to free childcare and $150 an hour rates, saw two women apply who ended up working at The Bach for all three years it was in operation. 

Rachel Griffiths plays Mack, a character inspired by Murphy (Photo: Supplied)

Murphy stressed that all types of people get into sex work. “One of those women put herself through a nursing degree,” she said. “At one point, over half the women who worked at The Bach were either currently or previously had been nurses, caregivers, hospice workers. It’s a very nurturing job.” The woman who made the most money was an “incredibly kind and nurturing” 50-year-old single mother. “She’d make her $1,000 a day with her regulars and then she’d go home. We never even had to advertise her.” 

Those same prejudices which stereotype sex workers as “this untouchable fantasy of a courtesan, or a helpless, downtrodden victim” also apply to the clientele. “I think people think of them as being sickos and pervs, or jerks who are cheating on their wives,” she said. “Sickos and pervs were rare, mostly it was lonely men who were not having any kind of physical touch at all, let alone sex.” Being in a small community like Whangārei, there was also the occasional awkwardness – one woman’s client turned out to be her dad’s fishing buddy. 

At the peak of operations for The Bach, they had 15 women on their books and a rolodex of regulars including some that would make the three hour drive up from Auckland. While the business was superficially discreet – the workers would arrive at the motel room in an overcoat – most people in town knew what Murphy did for work. “But the great thing about Kiwis is they won’t tell you if they have a problem with you, they’ll just whisper behind your back,” she laughed. “They’ll never say anything to your face.” 

Murphy’s co-madam, Madam Foxx* took over the business in 2019 when the lease came up for renewal. “She really tried to find a new venue and get it off the ground somewhere else, but she confronted all the same prejudices that I had.” Murphy’s son Silas also tragically passed away not long after that, and the family spent the year in France in 2020. When Murphy returned to Auckland in 2021 she struggled to find work anywhere, despite having run a successful small business for three years.

“I explored all kinds of things, only to find out that having ‘I ran an escort agency for three years’ on your CV isn’t the best look.” Unable to get a callback from any potential employers, she threw herself back into writing. When The Huffington Post re-shared her article about being an ethical pimp in 2021, the TV world started calling. “It turned out to not be a scam, and one thing led to another, and now here we are,” she laughed. 

Murphy wrote a book about her experience called Madam, due out in October, but was less involved in the television adaptation. The makers “mined my brain and my notes” and interviewed former workers from The Bach, and Murphy got to spend time with her onscreen counterpart in Academy Award nominated actress Rachel Griffiths. “She is amazing. I feel like we have a very similar dark, cerebral vibe, and several people have said it’s kind of weird how much she’s like me,” laughed Murphy. “She could not have been better.” 

Murphy also praised the “fantastic” dynamic between the sweethearts of Madam. “That was the most important thing I saw early on: the girls hanging out, relaxing and laughing between bookings.” She says the different motivations also ring true. “Some are doing it to put a new roof on their house, and some are doing it to buy designer handbags. Lots of solo moms trying to make ends meet, and some people are doing it to feed a drug addiction. But really, people go to an office job for all those same reasons as well.”

She is also grateful for the onscreen representation of her son, who is played by young disabled actor Quinn Ashton. “It ends up being sort of peripheral, because sex is more titillating, but there’s also the story of disability and the stress that you feel as a mother of a child with disabilities,” she said. “That kind of visibility meant a lot to me, and I think it’ll mean a lot to people in the disability community. It’s an important and radical story, even if it does get a bit overshadowed by the sex.”

While no book or TV show will change attitudes towards sex work overnight, Murphy thinks that Madam might help to move the needle. “The taboo against sex work is as old as sex itself, but this may open people’s eyes to other possibilities,” she said. And with the global interest in Madam already growing, she hopes it will inspire other countries to follow in Aotearoa’s footsteps. “If we can get more of a conversation going and nudge people further towards decriminalisation and the New Zealand model, I would be all for that.” 

Click here to watch Madam on ThreeNow

*Not their real names

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