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If you stroll down a cosmetics aisle, you might mistake the perfume collection for the guest list at a high-falutin' Hollywood party. Customers bought more than three million bottles of celebrity fragrances from department stores last year. And we wondered, what's the appeal?

NPR's Brian Reed sniffs around among the celebrity scents.

BRIAN REED: Nowadays there are more new fragrances released in a year than there were in the 1970s and '80s combined - more than 500 of them. So, perfuming is a competitive game. And as of this week, it has a formidable new player: rapper 50 Cent.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

CENT: Folks, I'd like to thank everybody for coming out. I really enjoyed the process of creating the fragrance, Power by 50. I really feel like it's the smell of success.

REED: Success is wafting through the air at Macy's in Midtown Manhattan. Fans stream out the door and around the block. If they buy a bottle of his new cologne, they get to take a picture with 50.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORE)

LAQUANA BOOKER: Laquana Booker, I'm from New Jersey. I've been waiting here since Friday, like, one o'clock.

REED: It's now five o'clock.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORE)

REED: Why?

BOOKER: Because I love 50. You know, he's a great businessman of our time and he's young and he's a great inspiration for me.

CHANDLER BURR: Here's the thing about perfume. It is the single best tool for monetizing celebrity that's ever been created in the history of the world.

REED: Chandler Burr is the scent critic for The New York Times. Yes, The New York Times has a scent critic, and he's spraying perfume on me.

BURR: You want to put some on?

REED: Sure.

BURR: Okay.

REED: We're sniffing, and I'm wearing a Britney Spears' scent: Midnight Fantasy.

BURR: Smell that. It's a very sweet perfume. It's a luscious perfume. It is a wink at itself. And it's sort of funny because if you took Britney Spears and you added about five pounds of quality, this is what you would get.

REED: Burr says fragrances like Midnight Fantasy are the best way to capitalize on celebrity. Better than clothes, music, even movies. That's because the cost of creating a perfume can be relatively low. The perfume house doesn't have to pay for the juice - that's industry slang for the stuff inside the bottle. A different company - a fragrance manufacturer develops it for free. Then the two firms share the profits. Now, celebrity scents aren't necessarily bestsellers. They account for just about 10 percent of fragrance sales. Their value, though, is in publicity. Carlos Timiraos is vice president of celebrity brands at Coty Prestige, a perfume house based in New York.

Coty develops perfumes for Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani and Sarah Jessica Parker. And Timiraos says having one of those names on a bottle saves millions of dollars in advertising.

CARLOS TIMIRAOS: The beauty of a celebrity, unlike a designer brand, is there is consumer knowledge of this brand or product from the moment you hit the counter.

REED: Even so, Timiraos thinks the celeb scent craze may not live for much longer. He still gets about 20 new pitches a year. But there are only so many celebrities. And not all of them possess enough olfactory gravitas.

TIMIRAOS: I mean, I love Tony Curtis. He is a great movie star certainly. "Some Like It Hot" was one of my favorite movies. We turned that project down.

REED: Back at Macy's, however, the smell of celebrity doesn't seem to be fading any time soon. Remember Laquana Booker, the 50 Cent fan?

(SOUNDBITE OF STORE)

REED: I saw you come here through once already. What are you doing?

BOOKER: I bought another bottle.

REED: And you're coming back?

BOOKER: Of course.

REED: She's grinning like a young girl in a candy shop.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORE)

REED: So, this is a pretty good business idea for him, then, right? People like you are buying two bottles in a day.

BOOKER: I think that whatever he touches is going to turn into gold. It's him, it's not the perfume. I can't explain it. It's like an energy you carry. And people love that.

REED: Booker says any product 50 Cent comes out with, she will buy it.

Brian Reed, NPR News, New York.

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