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Erogenous zones: scent of an Angel

Maddie Phinney

August 8th, 2023

Maddie Phinney doesn’t wear perfume to smell like herself. She wears perfume to smell like coconuts.

Perfume first entered my life in a ruffled-hem flurry of inexpensive and tenacious celebrity fragrances released in the early aughts. Think: colorful plastic bottles of Britney Spears’ Fantasy and Paris Hilton’s Paris Hilton. These were fragrances from the replicable, shiny floored department store, and smelled like it. Available as part of holiday gift sets with body butter and bath oil at Robinson’s May, wearing them meant radiating a fuchsia smog of plasticky melon musk or lychee white chocolate frosting. In middle school, these fragrances spoke to exactly who I was: bratty, eager, and desperate for attention. I kept a bottle or two stashed in my locker at all times, along with a cucumber melon Speedstick, to guarantee that I floated into third period smelling like a canned fruit cocktail.

Some people believe that a fragrance shouldn’t project beyond an inch or two, perceptible only in the most intimate of moments. These are skin-scent people, and I am not one of them.  Skin-scent people believe perfume is designed to hold close to the body, activated by warmth, sweat, or sun, and released in faint, sporadic whisps throughout the day. Reportedly (I wouldn’t know), skin scents elicit compliments like, “You smell so good,” rather than “What perfume are you wearing?” Ingredient lists are often short or consist of a single note—Iso E. Super or Ambroxan—and the lifecycle is relatively linear: an opening of cold pencil shavings that dries down to slightly warmer pencil shavings.  

Because people who wear these perfumes often say they can’t detect them on themselves, conceptually, skin-scents are designed for the benefit of others, and formally, they’re unlikely to offend because they barely smell like anything at all. Where’s the fun in that? I believe perfume is about shamelessly letting people know who you are, and wearing it is a discursive practice that indicates a desire to occupy space in the world. I wear perfume expressly because I don’t want to smell like me. I wear it because I want to smell like coconuts. 

Ideally, I like for my perfume to leave the room after I do. I always over-apply. Like those character artists on the street that exaggerate your strongest features—catch me on the wall at Sardi’s, obscured by a brume of electric green miasma. What could be more alluring than an intoxicating scent that follows you around like beguiling vapor?  

Described by perfume people as “narcotic,” with “beast mode sillage,” my first date fragrances are the tenacious ones that project outwards and draw others into your auric field. Indolic (pissy) white flowers like jasmine and tuberose can do it, as can rich labdanum and warm vanilla.  

In my opinion, no perfume better casts this spell of love magic than Angel by Mugler. I wear fragrances designed to smell like literal zoo animals, and Angel steamrolls them with its primal animal magnetism. The opening is red fruit, pineapple Jolly Ranchers, peach rings, and sunscreen wrapped in pink cotton candy. As it dries down it grounds in patchouli, warm amber, vanilla, and spices with lingering notes of chocolate syrup.  

I cannot overstate how much I love this perfume. Angel smells like my favorite middle school perfume moved to L.A. to join The Oppenheim Group. It’s a bouncy, glossy, overripe, spray-tanned fantasy that you can smell from across the block. The last time I wore it I was sweating through my clothes outside a CarMax in Burbank and was hit with a wave of melted rainbow shebert. I told the woman next to me that I was obsessed with her perfume and she replied that I was likely just smelling myself. I was.

Die-hards will tell you today’s Angel has been reformulated and is a pale interpretation of the original; if this is pale, the original must have been fucking nuclear, and I need a bottle NOW.  For as loud as it is, Angel is cozy in that it articulates the space between you and those around you and acts as a come-hither style invitation to foreshorten that distance.  The cotton candy accord floats above the skin with enticing frothiness, and the vanilla-patchouli base is as comforting as slipping on a pair of Ugg boots. Angel is every mood I’m ever in all at once: sticky sweet and earthy, ironic and sincere, populist and freaky. I respect Angel for its boldness and aspire to its level of authenticity: down to the star-shaped cut crystal bottle what you see is what you get. It is transparent, multifaceted, and takes up a little more space on the shelf than it ought to.

Wearing perfume means sharing something about yourself, something deeply private, and sharing it with generosity—when we wear perfume, we grant our lovers the same access to our fantasies as our Uber drivers, colleagues, and those across the aisle on our flight.  We tell them who we are and who it is we want to be. Tania Sanchez, the perfume critic who co-wrote Perfumes: The Guide with Luca Turin, said that wearing perfume is akin to having an orchestra follow you around all day playing your personal theme song. Mine is less Concerto Grosso and more Pussycat Dolls Polka.  I douse myself head to toe because you’re only ever granted one chance to make a first impression. When life hands you the aux cord, take it. 

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