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That’s right: Amid a career that has had its highest of highs (see: 2001 VMAs) and lowest of lows (see: all of 2007), Britney Spears has built one of the most lucrative perfume empires of all time. According to a rep from Elizabeth Arden (Spears’s fragrance partner), her perfumes comprise a "billion dollar fragrance franchise." Spears just put out her 20th fragrance, Private Show, to much hype — proving that, in spite of her often-tumultuous trajectory, she’s still a powerhouse when it comes to scents.
"The fact that she has done so many fragrances and that [Elizabeth Arden] is still interested in developing her brand speaks to her talent and the fact that she is very much doing well," says Sue Phillips, president and CEO of Scenterprises, a fragrance branding and marketing company (she's also formerly of Elizabeth Arden). "She is one of the few celebrities who actually enjoys fragrances, and it shows — you can see it in her sales."
The rush for celebrities to create fragrances started when Elizabeth Taylor partnered with Elizabeth Arden to create the very first celebrity-backed scent, White Diamonds. The scent was an enormous success, having earned close to a billion dollars in revenue to date. As the royalties that artists and actors were receiving from album and movie sales started to decline, many of them turned to the fragrance industry, which promised quick, big revenue. For most celebrity perfumes released after White Diamonds, the trend was the same: "They usually went up like a rocket and did really well at launch, but they had a hard time sustaining customers," says Don Loftus, president of Parlux, a fragrance company whose celebrity portfolio includes the likes of Paris Hilton, Rihanna, and Jay Z.
That all changed when Britney Spears entered the market in 2004 with her debut scent, Curious. Spears was at a career high: She had just released her fourth studio album, In The Zone, as well as the racy video for her hit song "Toxic." The Curious scent was a mixture of sweet, accessible ingredients like orchids, vanilla, and jasmine petals; the bottle was pretty and bright blue, adorned with two dangling pink hearts. "At the time, young women did not really like fragrances because they reminded them of their grandmothers," Phillips says. "Suddenly [with Curious], there was this luscious, floral fragrance with a youthful feel that didn’t seem old or mature."
Curious became "by far" the number one scent not just in the celebrity category, but across the entire fragrance industry.
Spears made young women care about perfume for the first time. According to data from the NPD Group, a retail market research firm, an overwhelming 81 percent of young women were aware of Britney Spears’s fragrance when it came out, similar to awareness levels for both Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret, two brands whose body sprays were the most popular option for young women at the time. "She made it cool to wear fragrance," says Karen Grant, vice president and global beauty analyst for the NPD Group. "Young people are still very engaged in fragrance, and that awareness was raised years ago by Britney Spears. Britney was part of that appeal."
Curious became "by far" the number one scent not just in the celebrity category, but across the entire fragrance industry, Grant says, breaking all of Elizabeth Arden's records for a fragrance launch. As of 2013, Curious had sold 500 million bottles, according to The Hollywood Reporter. And it’s not even Spears’s most successful fragrance — according to Elizabeth Arden, that top position is occupied by Fantasy, her musky, fruity potion released in 2005. At one point, Spears’s website claimed that her perfumes occupied a staggering 34 percent of overall fragrance sales, though Elizabeth Arden would not confirm this statistic — and Spears has since taken down that statement from the site.
While not all of Spears’s perfumes have been quite as triumphant in the market as Curious or Fantasy, she stills takes in an estimated $50 million a year from just that portion of her business, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "When you think about the big houses like Chanel and Dior, none of them even have 20 fragrances," Loftus says. "So it’s huge that she’s been able to sustain interest. It’s not easy to do."
Britney’s secret to success lies primarily in a simple fact: She actually likes perfume.
Britney’s secret to success lies primarily in a simple fact: She actually likes perfume. This is not always a given when it comes to celebrity scents. "With celebrity fragrances, when it’s not integrated with the actual brand, it loses its luster," Phillips says. "If you look at people like Lady Gaga or Madonna, whose fragrances should have done well, they didn’t do as well as Britney because they didn’t care. Britney really cares about fragrance. She loves to talk about it, wear it, and even sing about it." On the latter point, Phillips is referring to Spears’s 2013 single "Perfume." The video for the catchy ode about spraying your signature scent all over your two-timing boyfriend’s sheets for revenge contains at least four close-ups of Spears’s Fantasy scent. Similarly, the very first shot of her music video for "Circus" features adjacent bottles of Curious and Fantasy; "Work Bitch" showcases Fantasy Twist; "Hold it Against Me" flashes to a gleaming bottle of Radiance. Even just a few months ago, when Spears released a sneak peek of her new album Glory on Instagram, it was wrapped in an ad for her new fragrance, Private Show. No other celebrity has gone to such lengths to incorporate fragrance into her identity as Britney Spears has.
And it really works. "Her perfumes feel very authentic. Consumers feel like they are buying into her life," Loftus says. "Every launch has felt like it was at the moment for her, and reflective of where she was in her life. That’s the number one rule of anything, really — you have to believe it came from the house."
Spears’s scent supremacy defies the trope of bright-but-fleeting success that most starlets face — not only as fragrance ambassadors, but also as artists. Since her ascent to fame in 1992 (when she first appeared on Disney's Mickey Mouse Club), she has managed to stay consistently in the news. Whether the report is about her new album or her stint in rehab, "any press is good press," Grant says. "The fact that people are talking about her and aware of her is really important." Her perfumes function as "a constant reminder that she’s a relevant entertainer," Phillips adds.
Spears’s relationship with her fans is also a unique one. "The thing about Britney is that your heart goes out to her," Grant says. "Even when she does things that make you go ‘Come on, Britney!’ people don’t hate her, they root for her. That is an enduring quality about her." And that sympathy translates into sales. According to Loftus, "her real fans thought that when Britney was going through difficult times, buying her perfume would help her. It’s strange the relationship people have with these brands."
Marketing and celebrity aside, Spears’s perfumes have managed to consistently nail the most important element — she makes scents that people actually want to smell. "The advertising and the merchandising will get people to the counter," Phillips says. "What makes people come back is the actual juice itself — and hers are really great fragrances." Case in point: Her 2009 perfume, Midnight Fantasy, earned a perfect four-star review in the New York Times for its musky and rich plum-cherry combination.
So is Spears’s collective portfolio the next Chanel No. 5? It’s hard to know for sure — but, as Grant points out, she has made an undeniably indelible mark on the fragrance world: "When a young celebrity, like Ariana Grande, comes out with a perfume now, it’s usually inspired by Britney, and that’s because hers had the longevity."
Grant says that most reports seem to indicate a general decline in the celebrity fragrance industry. Thankfully, there are no signs of Spears’s fragrance empire — or career — dying out anytime soon.
"At one point every young girl wanted to be Britney Spears," Phillips says. "They wanted to have her lifestyle and be famous and have her figure and her money and her talent. Then she hit a bad streak and went in a downward spiral. But then she reinvented herself. Maybe there is a story there about sticking with it and coming back and never giving up. Maybe that’s the message that is her legacy. Maybe that’s why her perfumes still do well."