For many actresses, perfume seems like a vanity project or a brand extension. But Sarah Jessica Parker may be the exception. As Chandler Burr described in his book The Perfect Scent, Parker really, really loves fragrance. When you ask her about it, her eyes light up as she talks about the first scent she saved up money to buy. On the eve of the tenth anniversary of her perfume Lovely, which is about to launch a social-media contest (the link goes live tomorrow), the Cut talked to Parker about her new fragrance, how she dreams of perfume, and why she thinks we all secretly enjoy dirty-smelling scents.
In the book The Perfect Scent, you mentioned that you think people secretly like dirty-smelling things. Do you still find that to be true?
Yeah. [Laughs.] I don't want to turn this into some kind of naughty conversation. I wouldn't equate it with a fetish. I was talking much more about in romance — you like the smell of the other person. The more the real person comes through, the more compelling that person is and often, the more attractive.
A little bit of body odor, not across the board for everybody, is kind of sexy. There was a fragrance that I wanted to do about six or seven years ago, and we didn't do it — a genderless fragrance, which now is what everyone is about, and the basement to it is body odor. Now I'm like, "Yeah, I've been telling ya."
There's this one Dior perfume that, when we sprayed it at work, everyone said, "It smells kind of like B.O. But it's kind of good!" We like it.
[Laughs.] Which one is it? It's not the new Johnny Depp one is it? God, I want to know which one it is. I wish I could send you my new one.
Why were you inspired to start working on a new scent?
I came to fragrance because I really truly loved it. For 20 years, I dreamed. When I got my first BlackBerry in 1999, one of the first things that I entered in the memo section was names of fragrances. My mother, a couple actresses I worked with, and influential women in my life always smelled really good. One of the first things I bought as a young adult who was earning my own money was a fragrance.
I love this experience but it’s also kind of odd and hard [to create a scent]. You have to assume and trust that the person who is reading or hearing your words has the same meaning. What is sweet or fat or high or pointy or cold or warm, you have to hope that they're hearing what that means. When you get to what a baseball player must feel like when the ball hits the perfect part of the bat and it goes exactly where you want, that's crazy. And that is what I feel like creating a great scent is like. For three people to get to a place in smell, for three people's olfactory nerves to be in concert, is incredible, because we're all so different. It's an amazing process and one I'm literally in love with.
What was your first scent memory?
I'm one of 8 kids and my mother, who didn't work outside the home but worked ridiculously hard inside the home, would always spray fragrance on before she left. We were always hanging around, in part because it was always kind of thrilling to watch her get ready. She wasn't a terribly glamorous person, but there was this idea of your parent going out and preparing themselves for a world outside after dark, which was really intriguing. At the time, I believe she either wore Miss Estée or, like, White Linen. Prior to that, it was just coming in after ballet class, which was probably around 5:30 or six at night, and walking in from a cold midwestern winter, to dinner.
What does a midwestern dinner smell like?
I would say things like beef stroganoff, chili. Every now and then a very, very special treat was like flank steak, or this thing she did called marzetti. She had to make this budget fit at the time for six kids and two grown-ups. But the house was always warm. NPR was always on and we would hear "All Things Considered," so it was just like that: walking into a warm house, food, and NPR.
What was the first scent you bought?
Aliage. Do you remember? You weren't born yet. There was an Estée Lauder fragrance called Aliage and there was this great, and continues to be great, actress named Mary McDonnell. She played the woman in Dances With Wolves. She's really beautiful and she and I were doing a play together when I was like 15, 16 maybe? Up to that point I was wearing probably Love's Baby Soft, and she would get up and spray Aliage on every day and I was hypnotized. I saved up some of my money and bought Aliage.
When I went to do Square Pegs, I shared a room with my baby brother because he was really tiny. He and I shared this little room in temporary apartments or something. One day, he went into my closet and he sprayed all of my Aliage. I was so angry because I had saved up for so long, and he was just like [mimes spraying motion] around the whole closet. I was like, "Well, it smells really good in here."
Do you feel like perfume is selfish?
Absolutely. It's this really weird relationship because it's immediately communicating more than your clothes, which we think tell our story, right? But clothes don't invade anybody else's space. You know how you feel when someone hugs you and they're wearing a fragrance you don't care for and it's stuck on you and you go to the ladies' room and you try to really carefully, discreetly wipe it off? Or gentlemen in the old days, who liked really strong cologne?
It's unique in that way. Your makeup doesn't do that. Your bag doesn't do that, your shoes, or your clothes, but fragrance completely lives in both worlds. When Lovely came out, I would always describe her as a really polite fragrance, that she had social grace. It was as if she stepped into somebody else's world but it was very passive, so that people wouldn't object to whatever she left behind. It was just a really nice balance of "I'm here. I'm announcing myself, but I don't want to come too close. I don't want to invade your space," and it's one of the things I'm most proud of. I know, because I spray a lot of freakin' fragrance on. I go through it.
Like ten sprays?
I've never kept count. I mean, I'm like [mimes spraying motion] everywhere, because I like to walk into a closet of previously worn clothes. It's part of the whole body-odor intimate thing. I love that. I'm pretty liberal. It's probably the thing I'm most extravagant about. I don't mind buying more, replacing, replenishing, and it allows me to work on stuff, too.
This interview has been condensed and edited.