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February 1, 2009

"Celebrity" By Luca Turin

"Celebrity" By Luca Turin

Perhaps more as a wishful thought than a sober one, I have so far taken the view that celebrity fragrances could be no worse than average, which is to say pretty bad. I was shocked to find out recently that I was wrong: a UK tabloid journalist arranged a smelling session of all the latest ones, and it was instructive to smell them one after the other. They were uniformly awful, cynically cheap compositions in ugly packaging, the saddest, cheesiest objects this side of the girl’s section in a toy store. They were also unusually bad value for money: twenty euros’ worth of celebrity fragrance gets you a fabric softener stink, while twice the money gets you the smallest-size Guerlain, a leap equivalent to going from The Eagles to Beethoven.

In the UK at least, celebrity fragrances have simply become as bad as any fragrance ever gets. But then, celebrities themselves have taken a turn for the worse. I have never understood the educated surprise at the fame of athletes, actors and explorers, since it dates back to antiquity and by now we should have gotten used to it. What is new and remarkable is that celebrity has become sexually transmissible, as if some spirochaete were responsible. We are now dealing with the wives, and in some cases the husbands of famous people: footballers have girlfriends, the girlfriends have names, the names become brands and pretty soon some thirteen-year-old girl in Sunderland steals two tenners from her mother’s purse to smell terrible.

But on reflection, that’s not new either. In some ways the famous now embody all the absurd eminence of aristocracy: complete independence from talent, transmissibility by name, elevation by marriage, ready convertibility of prestige into cash, automatic admittance to the demi-monde. They trade the elusive quality of being, as opposed to merely having. The rich want fame, and the famous want cash. It is arguably more common to be rich and obscure than poor and famous, and in any event fame can be converted into money more easily than the other way around: consider what Paris Hilton had to endure to go from stinking rich to stinking famous.

After all, if Prince Charles makes Duchy Originals biscuits, why should Wayne Rooney’s girlfriend not make a fragrance? And when you smell them all and discover that the only ones that don’t make you retch are by Jennifer Lopez and Sarah Jessica Parker, is that not a reflection of the fact that the US is charmingly middle class, with stars that can act, sing and dance, that care about their image and oversee their products?

On this side of the ocean, the celebrities do not concern themselves with such trivia: they are content to merely exist, and for little pieces of their lifestyle to be traded like fake relics of the saints. When the tabloid wrote up the piece, they came back to me to ask what I thought of No. 5. They seemed to think it was Nicole Kidman’s celebrity fragrance. Mademoiselle Chanel would be amused.