Bieber in a Bottle
The exploding market of celebrity perfumes.
The Smell of Money
Just-launched Dazzle is Paris Hilton’s 16th fragrance since she first started churning them out in 2004, and according to Women’s Wear Daily, they’ve thus far made $1.5 billion. Hilton’s perfumes and colognes have names like Heir, Heiress, and Passport St. Moritz, and they attempt to evoke wealth and exotic locales. Depending on your perspective, Dazzle is either the smell of Paris Hilton, who happens to be rich, or the smell of Paris Hilton getting rich off you.
What do riches smell like? Marketing savvy. Hilton belongs to a special club of celebrities who just keep churning out the scents, many of them sequels, or “flankers,” that milk the success of an original. Britney Spears, who’s about to release her 11th scent, is quite fond of spinoffs—Fantasy spurned such fevered sequels as Midnight Fantasy, Hidden Fantasy, and Circus Fantasy. Jessica Simpson has 13 fragrances, seven of which have the word dessert in the title. Jennifer Lopez has 19 fragrances, according to Fragrantica, with her latest, Glowing, launched as a tribute to Glow, her first scent from 10 years ago.
Hilton’s perfumes tend to be sweet floral fruities, with more or less vanilla, sweet like Bieber’s scents if just a hint sexier. Dazzle smells like a cherry cupcake. Promotional materials for Dazzle suggest Hilton’s newest scent represents Hilton’s relaxed, down-home side—“inner beauty … without the need for bling.” But the perfume is bottled in a glittery pink diamond, lest anyone forget precisely what Hilton is selling.
The Smell of Post-Coitus
There are girls who wear Jessica Simpson, and there are girls who wear Lady Gaga, and they are not the same girls. Lady Gaga’s first scent is due out later this year, and she’s done her best to encourage self-selection among potential customers. She reportedly promised her fragrance would smell like an “expensive hooker” and said it was inspired by blood and semen. When photos of Lady Gaga's Fame were released, the perfume box indicated that it actually smells like “tears of belladonna, crushed heart of tiger orchidea with a black veil of incense, pulverized apricot, and the combinative essences of saffron and honey drops.” If it’s not semen-scented, exactly, it’s a fair bet this will not smell like cupcake. A wonderful new black-and-white video shows Fame being made by gorgeous, half-naked men in a sort of mad scientist's lair, and in a new ad, Gaga is depicted as naked and holding her perfume with tiny men crawling all over her.
The Bad Girl category of fragrance is a small subset of celebrity scents that aims for something sexier and more provocative than mere pear and jasmine. Rihanna’s second scent, Rebelle, out last winter, comes in a bottle that Kevin Marshall, a packaging design expert at Marc Rosen Associates, described to me as an “inverted stiletto.” Its notes include ginger, coffee, and patchouli—sweet but spicy, with a hint of something burnt. Not candy, for sure, and not a delicate floral either. Nude outtakes from a recent photo shoot for Rihanna’s next scent, appropriately titled Nude, suggest she’s sticking with the scent of provocation.
And Madonna, without whom Rihanna and Lady Gaga would not exist, came out this spring with her very first scent, launched with a whiff of scandal when ABC had to ask for less breast from one of her ads. The press materials accompanying Truth or Dare rather loftily promised “darkness and light, innocence and deceit.” Heavy on gardenia and tuberose and inspired by a perfume Madonna’s mother used to wear as well as by the eponymous '91 documentary, Truth or Dare wants to be some sort of retro-sexy-virgin-slut amalgam, an homage to Madonna in her heyday.
Whether it succeeds is another matter. Reviews for Truth or Dare have been tepid. The best have described the scent as “sophisticated and elegant,” while the worst have described it as “bingo night in a garden in a rest home.” As one reviewer explained, “one person’s modern tuberose is another person’s old-lady-perfume nightmare.” But it’s worth wondering whether everything Madonna does reads as anticlimactic these days, no matter its merits. Might Truth or Dare read as coyly sophisticated if it were packaged in a pink diamond and sold by Paris Hilton? As Justin Bieber implied when he joked recently that a little bit of his sweat went into each bottle of Girlfriend, people buy celebrity scents in great part to get closer to their beloved’s DNA.
In which case smell may be somewhat beside the point.
Related Slide Show: A Curious, Glowing Array of Celebrity Perfume Ads
Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.