The 'Times' Gets a Scent Critic
NEAL CONAN, host:
The New York Times new critic deals in high praise: the hypnotic smell of absolute desiccation. And in sharp critique as well: It smells like laundry detergent. Times perfume critic Chandler Burr made his debut over the weekend. He writes a new column called Scent Strip for T Magazine, The New York Times' style and beauty magazine that comes out every Sunday. He joins us now on the phone from his office in Manhattan. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. CHANDLER BURR (Perfume Critic, The New York Times): Thank you very much. Nice to be here.
CONAN: And if you have questions for the perfume critic of The New York Times, give us a phone call, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
And let me anticipate the most often-asked questions. How do you get a job as a perfume critic?
Mr. BURR: You actually wait for the Eurostar on the Gare du Nord in Paris, and the thing is late, and you start talking to the guy next to you.
CONAN: And he turns out to be...
Mr. BURR: He turns out in my case to be - this was January 5, 1998. I was actually a correspondent before the - contributing editor to U.S. News & World Report. I was doing a piece on Tony Blair. I mean, I should say I have a master's degree from Johns Hopkins SAIS in international economics and Japanese politics. This is the last thing I thought, you know, I'd be doing. I was doing a piece on Blair, and I was waiting for the Eurostar. And this guy - I started talking to this guy because the Eurostar was late, and he turned out to be a genius of biology who works in human olfaction, and a genius of perfume.
And I wound up writing a book on him called The Emperor of Scent. It came out, David Remnick read it, asked me to do a piece for The New Yorker. I spent a year doing that, on the creation of a perfume at Hermes behind the scenes. That came out, and I got put in touch with The New York Times.
CONAN: And well, hilarity ensued when your column came out yesterday.
Mr. BURR: Exactly.
Mr. BURR: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Did you ever think that you'd be, you know, giving - handing out stars for various perfumes?
Mr. BURR: I never - I actually I wrote an e-mail to a friend earlier this morning. I said if you'd ever told me I'd be A, writing on perfume, and, B, being a columnist in the Times, I would've said you were crazy.
CONAN: Now you give - the reviews I'm seeing, you gave one three stars, one two stars, and one four stars. The two-star, just let me read a little bit of it. Because of the way Malone composes her scents, each built to accommodate the others, no single scent will ever reach the level of artistry of a single scent by Kurkdjian - am I pronouncing that right?
Mr. BURR: I'm sorry?
Mr. BURR: Kurkdjian, Kurkdjian, he's the (unintelligible)...
CONAN: whose robust, complex compositions are meant to stand alone by design. Pomegranate Noir merits only two stars, but two lovely stars; this scent is like spraying a layer of twilight on your body. Nicely done.
Mr. BURR: Thank you very much.
CONAN: But it still gets two stars?
Mr. BURR: It gets two stars, as I said, for a very specific reason. Jo Malone -I actually met Jo. You know, she's left the company now. I had breakfast with her here at The Four Seasons, and I though, oh God, you know, one of these -sorry about that - creative types, and it's going to be silly, it's going to be superficial. She turned out to be absolutely profoundly involved in her perfumes, which not all of them are. I have to tell you, one of the best-known designers has absolutely nothing to do with his perfumes at all.
CONAN: And are you going to name names?
Mr. BURR: No. Not in this case. I will in others. She really is involved, but she has a philosophy that in my system means that by definition she has to be marked down a little bit. She believes in mixing scents.
Classic perfumery, classic French perfumery in particular, believes that every scent is a work of art. It must stand on its own, and it must be involved in its experience from top to bottom as an independent piece of art. Jo's scents can be mixed, they can be blended. That's fine, but it means that there are -each one is slightly less than these great vast works of art that Guerlain, for example, put out - Shalimar, Mitsouko, L'Heure Bleue. These things are huge and complex and are meant to actually evolve over time, and they're actually spectacles that you watch unfold on your skin.
CONAN: We're talking with Chandler Burr, the new perfume critic of The New York Times, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I have to ask, one of the perks of being a critic, if you read a lot of books, well books arrive in the mail. Does perfume arrive in your mail?
Mr. BURR: Oh my God, every day. I have this Korean laundry downstairs that takes my packages for me, and I think they're getting completely sick of me.
CONAN: How many packages of new perfumes do you get in a week?
Mr. BURR: Well, I have sitting here my latest, and guess what it is. You'll never guess - Hilary Duff. The name of the perfume is, I think it's With Love, Hilary Duff. You know, it's actually very interesting. The celebrity perfumes -some of them are really terrible. Now I'll start to name names. The Shania Twain scent really simply should be banned. It's god-awful.
The Antonio Banderas scent, which I understand was a financial success, is void of anything. It reminds me of a perfume that I actually review, and I won't tell you the name just because it's coming out in The New York Times. I write in T, which is The New York Times' style magazine, and it's coming out in about - I think the next one's coming out in three weeks. And I said this perfume -smelling this perfume is like smelling fresh insecticide while locked in an aluminum cell. And I think that Shania is maybe a little bit below that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BURR: But the fact of the matter is Paris Hilton's perfume is not bad.
CONAN: Well, we have to ask the question, though, what about Derek Jeter's?
Mr. BURR: You know, it's absolutely vapid. It's nothing. It's a complete masculine cliché that's - you know, nobody should buy it; nobody should wear it.
CONAN: All right. Well, not having sniffed it at all, I'm just willing to say you're wrong. Anyway, let's get a caller on the line. This is Carol(ph), and Carol's calling us from La Grande in Oregon.
CAROL (Caller): Hi there.
CONAN: Hi there.
CAROL: I had a comment about perfume in general. I've been under the impression, at least maybe here in Oregon, that perfume is actually kind of passé. There's too many smells in the environment. We have it in our soap and we have it everywhere, and it's mostly just nauseating.
Mr. BURR: Yeah. I mean, somebody said to me something once. They said, well you know, when people are in the elevator and they're playing their iPods really, really loud, you can basically hear what they're listening to. You can actually make out lyrics. If you put on too much Angel or Chanel 5, it's exactly the same thing. You have to watch the volume. But perfume is really a wonderful thing, and you can get scents - and there are scents being made today that are absolutely astonishing. I think Light Blue - I'll choose that as an example.
Light Blue is a scent that is absolute, virtually perfection. It is something that takes your skin - and if you smelled somebody in it, you don't think wow, that's a great perfume, you simply think you smell wonderful. There is a perfume called Sake by Fresh, which is one of the LVMH brands, and it is one of the most wonderful scents. And I described it in a column in the Times as saying - or an earlier piece in the Times - as saying this is the scent that our bodies have in heaven.
CONAN: That's not bad.
CAROL: No, and that sounds maybe what perfume should be, but what happens is people take a bath in it.
Mr. BURR: Yeah, well they take a bath - this is the other thing. They use things that are inexpensive. It doesn't have to be very expensive to be good. There are absolutely moderately/reasonably priced scents that are really terrific. People need to choose their scents with the same care with which they choose their clothing. But I've got to tell you, people have very bad taste in clothes and they'll always have bad taste in perfume.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BURR: One of the marks of a good perfume is the thing smells great in the first 30 seconds, and it smells great after three hours.
CONAN: Carol, good luck when you go to the perfumery there in La Grande.
CAROL: Thanks very much. Bye.
CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. And, Chandler Burr, good luck with the column. Thanks for your time today.
Mr. BURR: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Chandler Burr is the new perfume critic for The New York Times, and he joined us by phone from his office in Manhattan. His column will appear in T Magazine, The New York Times' style and beauty magazine.
In Washington, I'm Neal Conan, and this is NPR News.
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