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NPR Arts & Life

Rachel Syme On 'Perfume Genie'

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

About once a season, writer Rachel Syme posts on Twitter what she calls her Perfume Genie feature. She asks readers what mood or state of mind or trait they want to have or embody for the next few months. And then she suggests a scent. And she's no amateur. She's written about perfume for The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications. And she has her own collection of more than 100 bottles of scents on her dresser. So going into 2020, we've called her to find out what America wants to smell like this year.

Hi, Rachel.

RACHEL SYME: Hi.

MCCAMMON: Welcome. So your readers or your Twitter followers seem to be a pretty imaginative bunch. One wrote that she wanted to smell like Catherine Zeta-Jones showed up late in a leather trench coat in a cloud of perfume and ordered a rare steak and champagne. Another wanted a scent that makes them seem like I am coldly judgmental but will offhandedly deliver the most inspiring and insightful compliment you've ever gotten. Is this the kind of thing you hear from your readers often?

SYME: Yes, they are wildly imaginative. And people really bring their A-game when they come to describing the way they want to feel. I have heard everything from, I want to feel like Katharine Hepburn throwing her leg over the side of a chair in a pair of flowy pants to, I want to feel like a prince vanquishing an enemy with a saber. Like, you hear everything. People are just really indulging their fantasies.

MCCAMMON: And these are really specific moods. How do you go about in matching these ideas with a scent?

SYME: So I basically start with whatever image pops into my head when I read what they want to smell like. Something conjures to me. It's either an image or a note from perfume. So say that Catherine Zeta-Jones in, like, this cloud of perfume and orders rare steak. I immediately thought that's got to be a classic designer perfume. It's got to be floral. It has to be heady. It has to be intoxicating, all enveloping. And I thought Givenchy Organza but the original formula (laughter). I know that sounds like a crazy, like, encyclopedia, like, sort of flip card through my brain. But it just suddenly like, word, and I was like, that's it.

MCCAMMON: When your Twitter followers reach out to you to ask for a scent, do you notice any big themes that seem to come up over and over again?

SYME: Totally. So the main one, which always surprises me from season to season, is that people want to smell like the forest after it's rained or a city after it has rained. Something about post rain feels very intoxicating to people. There's a lot of requests to smell like they're in a cabin in the woods, isolated from all humanity and there's a bonfire going and they have a cup of tea. A lot of coziness comes into it. That's one major theme.

The other theme that continually pops up is this idea of sort of over-the-top opulence. People say oh, I want to smell like a tsarina in 17th century Russia in her finery, and there's a cauldron of tea bubbling. And there's this sense of a fantasy of something that is just beyond extravagant.

MCCAMMON: When people choose a perfume, what are they trying to accomplish? What are they trying to say about themselves?

SYME: You know, perfume is really interesting because it's an invisible statement. It is a transparent luxury. Nobody really knows what you're wearing. You're not walking around with, like, a Gucci belt or a Dior bag or something that people can see. So actually, I think one of the great things about perfume is that it is about self-creation and self-performance.

And so when people are saying, I want to smell like this, they're actually thinking, I want to appear like this to myself, which is a really interesting prompt because I think a lot of people are saying, oh, I want everybody to think I'm glamorous or take me seriously but people aren't going to know that through your perfume. It's really how you feel when you wake up in the morning. And it's the first thing you put on.

MCCAMMON: Rachel Syme is a writer. She's written about perfume and lots of other things for publications, including The New York Times and The New Yorker. And she runs the Perfume Genie feature on Twitter. You can follow her at @RachSyme - that's R-A-C-H-S-Y-M-E.

Rachel Syme, thank you so much.

SYME: Of course. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.