The Celebrity Perfume Is Back NPR's Ailsa Chang speaks with Jenna Rosenstein, senior beauty editor for Harper's Bazaar's, about celebrity perfumes and their peculiar history and place in popular culture.

The Celebrity Perfume Is Back

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In 1991, Elizabeth Taylor did something really special - not on camera but in retail. She released a perfume called White Diamonds.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: White Diamonds, the intriguing fragrance from Elizabeth Taylor.

CHANG: Taylor was not the first celebrity to do this, but she was the first truly successful one. White Diamonds continues to be one of the best-selling celebrity fragrances in the world to this day. Who knew? Celebrity fragrances have multiplied and flopped over the years. But now they're making an unexpected comeback. Here to tell us about this is Jenna Rosenstein, senior beauty editor for Hey, there.


CHANG: So what did White Diamonds smell like? What kind of women was Elizabeth Taylor trying to sell to?

ROSENSTEIN: Elizabeth Taylor was trying to sell to women like her who wanted to have a lifestyle like her, so it was a very elegant fragrance, but elegant in a way that fragrances were in the early '90s. It was a scent for older women.

CHANG: So something more floral, less fruity is what I'm imagining.

ROSENSTEIN: Exactly. Elizabeth Taylor's fragrance was definitely floral. However, younger consumers have always been drawn to fruity, juicy, candy-like scents.

CHANG: I want to smell like bubblegum.

ROSENSTEIN: And it's true. They love candy. And so you can see that there is definitely discrepancy there between, you know, what somebody older might want to wear and what the younger generation was looking for and are still looking for today.

CHANG: OK, but then the next big celebrity fragrance after Elizabeth Taylor didn't come from an actress. It came from a singer.


BRITNEY SPEARS: Do you dare?

CHANG: OK, I'll let you do the honors here. Who is this alluring voice?

ROSENSTEIN: That is none other than Miss Britney Spears.

CHANG: And what was so captivating about this particular scent? It just skyrocketed.

ROSENSTEIN: It did. So her first perfume came out in 2004, and she has two that really, really took off out of her portfolio of 23 fragrances.

CHANG: Twenty-three?

ROSENSTEIN: Twenty-three. She has 23 fragrances. And she has been massively successful. Her first fragrance, Curious, followed up by the second fragrance, Fantasy, have done hundreds in millions of dollars in profits over the years. And it was just Britney Spears's first fragrance totally changed the industry for years to come.

CHANG: What was her magic formula?

ROSENSTEIN: Nobody else was talking to young women in the fragrance market. Nobody was really making something for young girls. And she captured the essence of sort of the fun, fruity, body splashes you could get at the mall but packaged it in this beautiful, colorful bottle that you wanted to keep on your vanity.

CHANG: So then the weird thing was that, after Britney Spears had this incredible success, other celebrities tried to replicate what she did and it didn't go too well. What happened?

ROSENSTEIN: Well, there were so many celebrity fragrances that came after Britney Spears, and a lot of them were successful - I mean, even Rihanna, Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift. It seemed like if you were a celebrity, you had to have a fragrance.

CHANG: Was the market just too saturated for any one fragrance to stand out?

ROSENSTEIN: Exactly. That's exactly what happened. It came to a point where every single person was releasing a scent. And I think also consumer tastes were changing. They were craving authenticity. Social media was really taking off. And they knew that these celebrities weren't really behind the scents. They knew that the One Direction band members were probably not in the lab working with the noses on their scent.

CHANG: OK. And then in 2017 we see another shift. Reality TV star Kim Kardashian West jumped on this bandwagon and released her own perfume, and it caught fire. Why would Kim Kardashian be able to sell perfume better than, say, all those other celebrities you just listed?

ROSENSTEIN: Well, Kim Kardashian approached perfume in 2017 in a completely different way. And you could tell that she had a hand in every single element of that perfume.

CHANG: How do you show that as a celebrity?

ROSENSTEIN: It starts I think at the bottle. Consumers today are not as interested even in what it smells like. As long as it's an unoffensive scent, they're down. Like, they will buy it. But it's really all about the bottle in the age of Instagram. And so Kim Kardashian quite literally copied her body, so she is in it and deeply involved.

CHANG: So all these women are clicking buy on this perfume and they don't even know what it smells like?

ROSENSTEIN: Nope. They have never smelled it. They're not available in department stores. She is selling direct to her consumers, and they are buying it, and then afterwards they can decide whether or not they like it. But at least they could take a picture and post it on social media saying, I had one of the Kim Kardashian fragrances.

CHANG: Have men been attempting to break into this field?

ROSENSTEIN: David Beckham has a line of fragrances. Jay-Z has had a fragrance. Pitbull has had a fragrance. But the problem is that they haven't struck any longevity in the industry, but I do think there is opportunity here, but nobody has done it yet. I do think we're in the age of streetwear brands. I think a Yeezy fragrance or Kanye West would do spectacularly well. It's something I think a lot of streetwear brands could do. They just haven't done it yet.

CHANG: Jenna Rosenstein is the senior beauty editor for Thank you for being with us today.

ROSENSTEIN: Thank you so much.

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