Celebrity perfumes are all the rage these days.
Almost everyone has had a crack at the whole perfume thing, from Ariana Grande (whose fragrance Cloud is actually pretty popular), Kim Kardashian, Michael Jordan, Lady Gaga, Bruce Willis, Anthony Hopkins, and even Donald Trump.
It makes sense why celebrities love to release perfumes – it’s a great way to capitalize on one’s brand in an increasingly celeb-crazy culture.
But celebrity perfumes are nothing new. In fact, celebrity-backed ‘fumes have been around since at least the mid 20th century, and have been a phenomenon for quite a while longer than that.
But what was the first?
What the first celebrity backed fragrance was will depend on your criteria. However, one of the earliest and most popular celebrity fragrances was Elizabeth Taylor’s trailblazing White Diamonds, released in 1991. White Diamonds started the celebrity perfume craze that continues to this day.
Let’s take a closer look at the history of celebrity perfumes.
In a way, celebrity perfumes have been around for quite a while.
In the early days of perfumery, perfumes were almost exclusively the perquisite of the elite. Deer musk oil was reserved for the usage of the caliphs of Baghdad. The perfume industry in 16th century France was practically subsidized by Queen Catherine de’ Medici, who brought her own parfumeurs from Italy. And in the 19th century, perfume houses were selected to create specialized blends for the royal courts of Europe – take Oriza L. Legrand’s Violettes du Czar, made for the Russian royal family, Creed’s Royal English Leather, allegedly created at the behest of King George III, or Eau de Cologne Impériale, specifically designed for Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoléon III, to cure her frequent headaches.
Of course, a royal perfume has a certain kind of mystique of its own. But for the most part, perfume remained an unattainable luxury for many during the 19th century, and celebrity culture was far less prevalent than it was now.
The rise of mass communication and the economic booms after the World Wars, however, changed that.
In the decades after the Second World War, the celebrity craze reached heights never before seen.
The whole country was drunk on the glitz and glamor of Hollywood in its prime. Stars like Audrey Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Ava Gardner, and Marilyn Monroe exerted a kind of totemic magnetism on the public that most modern day stars could only dream of.
Perfume brands would’ve had to have had their heads in the sand if they didn’t capitalize on such monumental star power.
That didn’t mean that celebrity perfumes started popping up everywhere, though. Instead, stars lent their image to previously existing perfumes, becoming the “face” of their advertising campaigns.
For instance, the bodacious Joan Crawford became the diva behind Estee Lauder’s exotic Youth Dew, released in 1953, and the French bombshell Catherine Deneuve took on the same role for the monolithic Chanel No. 5 in 1969. None other than Marilyn Monroe herself had expressed her adoration for the scent in 1953, when she claimed that she wore it to bed, and appeared with a bottle of No. 5 in a photoshoot for Modern Screen.
How’s that for advertising?
But it wasn’t until 1957 that something close to a celebrity perfume was created – Givenchy’s Interdit, a classic floral chypre tailor made for Audrey Hepurn, Hubert de Givenchy’s fashion muse.
Even then, though, Interdit didn’t bear Hepburn’s name.
The First Celebrity Perfumes
So when did the first real celebrity fragrance get made anyway?
There was a lot of celebrity endorsement going on throughout the 1960s and 70s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the first proper celebrity perfume au style moderne was released.
It was Sophia, created for the Italian superstar of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Sophia Loren, by classic fragrance brand Coty in 1980.
In 1987, the next major celebrity perfume, Uninhibited, by Cher, the famous singer and actress, was released.
While these two fragrances achieved some modicum of success – though reviews were mixed on Uninhibited at the time – they were not runaway hits.
Elizabeth Taylor and a Celebrity Fragrance Empire
It was not until the 1990s that the celebrity fragrance game was changed forever by another iconic leading lady of the Golden Age of Hollywood – Elizabeth Taylor.
Drop-dead gorgeous and with acting chops to boot, Taylor was something akin to the Kim K of her day. Her often checkered personal life was the subject of tabloid sensationalism, though she didn’t do much to keep the fuel off the fire, having been married eight times to seven men and gotten bound up in juicy affairs with equally glamorous Hollywood hunks left, right, and center.
Taylor launched her fragrance brand with Passion in 1988, which was followed by Passion For Men in 1989. While somewhat popular, the success of Passion couldn’t compare to what was to come next: the modern day classic, White Diamonds.
By 1991, however, she was in her late 50s and well situated to project an image of matronly, cougarly divadom. Though almost 60, commercials for White Diamonds portrayed Taylor as the same bodacious ‘n’ bougie sex symbol she was of yore (and, to be fair, she did look great for 60).
The advertising worked. White Diamonds was a hit, and remains a best-selling fragrance to this day.
The success of White Diamonds was the keystone of Taylor’s perfume empire. It was followed by an eau de parfum and parfum concentration, Diamonds and Sapphires, Diamonds and Rubies, and Diamonds and Emeralds, all in 1993, Black Pearls in 1996, and a number of fragrances in the 2000s.
As recently as 2021 a flanker to the original White Diamonds, called White Diamonds Legacy, was released, despite the fact that the actress died in 2011.
As for the smell of White Diamonds, I could take it or leave it – I’m firmly in the “eau de grandma” camp.
Regardless of how you feel about it, though, White Diamonds set a precedent. Before White Diamonds, a celebrity might have released one or two perfumes with the backing of a major brand like Coty, but never dozens.
White Diamonds showed that celebrity perfumes can sell, and sell big. It gave other celebrities the confidence to launch their own perfume brands.
The Final Word
So, to recap:
The phenomenon of celebrity endorsed perfume is nothing new. The first major celebrity perfume was Sophia Loren’s Sophia, but the first commercially successful celebrity perfume was Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds. The success of White Diamonds blazed the trail for other celebrities to follow suit.
Today, celebrity perfumes pop up on the market like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
Antonio Banderas has a gobsmacking 74 perfumes. Jennifer Lopez has 31, Beyonce has 11, and Ariana Grande has 10. That’s more than even some designer or niche perfume houses!
Clearly, the celebrity perfume biz is alive and kicking. Most of these celeb-fumes don’t have anywhere near the impact or enduring legacy of White Diamonds. But hey, someone must be buying them, right?
My only question is: where’s my perfume brand?