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Voices

Scent of a celebrity

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / March 5, 2009
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Aside from making fun of those ridiculous soft-focus Elizabeth Taylor commercials for White Diamonds, I had never thought much of celebrity fragrances until I heard last week that Celine Dion was about to introduce her sixth (!) fragrance, Halle Barry and Queen Latifah have fragrances coming soon, and adult film star Jenna Jameson has a new perfume of her own. Jenna Jameson? Isn't this getting a little out of hand?

"Getting out of hand? How many fragrances does Jennifer Lopez have?," asks Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, a New York consulting firm. "There's an entire generation of consumers out there that only knows about celebrity fragrances and doesn't know about the classics. Now it's stack 'em high and watch 'em fly."

Once upon a time, all we had was the classics. Scents like Chanel No. 5 and Shalimar sat in the boudoirs of women across the country. There were celebrity fragrances - hello, Mae West - but not every pop star, soccer player, and Hollywood starlet West of the St. Louis Arch inked a deal to develop a fragrance. If you'd like to blame someone for the onslaught of celebrity fragrances, please lift your hands and point your fingers in the direction of Jennifer Lopez.

"We're in the middle of an explosion of celebrity fragrances," says Chandler Burr, New York Times perfume critic and author of the book "The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York." "There's a single woman who created the celebrity boom. Her name is Catherine Walsh, and she's at Coty. She signed Jennifer Lopez."

Lopez's fragrance, called Glow, was such a massive success in 2002 that it prompted beauty houses Coty, Estee Lauder, L'Oreal, LVMH, Clarins, BPI, and Proctor & Gamble, to seek out more celebrities to boost the $2.68 billion high-end fragrance market in the US. Celebrity fragrances accounted for $170 million of that market last year, according to market research company the NPD Group. As a result, Christina Aguilera the fragrance, Kylie Minogue's Showtime, and Jessica Simpson's Fancy are finding their way to stores.

According to award-winning perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, who has developed fragrances for Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren, only a small percentage of celebrities are actively involved in developing their fragrances. Sorry to disappoint, but this means that Celine Dion probably did not don a white coat and toil for weeks in a secret lab to develop her modestly named Sensational.

"I'd say there are about 5 to 10 percent of celebrities who are actively involved at all stages," says Laudamiel. "There is another 45 percent who will come in a few times during the process and offer their opinions. The rest, another 45 percent, come in at the end and choose between two or three scents that have already been developed."

It's easy to see the appeal of bringing in celebrities to sell a fragrance. They have a built-in fan base, which means that less marketing is necessary. For the celebrity, it means free promotion and the cache of teaming with a leading beauty house. There's nothing bad about celebrities adding their names to perfume and cologne. In fact, according to Burr, it's the same thing that fashion designers have been doing for years.

"Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan are basically celebrities, and they're lending their names to perfumes," Burr says. "It's not automatically absurd."

But with beauty houses eager to repeat the success of Glow or White Diamonds, we have been assaulted with strings of celebrity smell-a-like perfumes. How else can you explain Britney Spears's four fragrances?

"It's like Hollywood," says Boston-based perfumer Neil Morris. "If there's a hit, they start developing a sequel instead of creating something new. So you're left with a string of scents that smell similar. These companies are spending millions, so they're less willing to take chances."

Lest you think that I'm being a snob about celebrity fragrances, I went on a smelling mission and found that some of them were quite good. True, Tim McGraw's McGraw smells like a damp wool sweater that was left in a compost pile and Minogue's Showtime smells like a carnival exploded in a bottle. But there are some, such as Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely, which are gorgeous.

"J.Lo's Glow is quite good," Burr says. "And Britney Spears's Fantasy is also excellent. It's all about who they partner with. Shania Twain's perfume is horrific, Christina Aguilera's is pretty bad, and Jessica Simpson's collection is for 12-year-old girls in the Midwest."

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.

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