When I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of flowers in our yard because my father liked cement. He didn’t really want to spend a lot of time in the garden, so I would wander around the neighbourhood and smell other people’s gardens. There was a garden just a few houses down from mine – a home owned by this elderly couple. I was a little stringy-haired, barefoot thing, and I would sneak in, sit on the hot pavings and take in the scent of their pink roses. One day I got up the courage to steal some. I expected at any moment for one of the people who lived in this house to open the front door and start screaming at me.
Anyway, I ran home with these rose petals clutched to my chest, put them in a bowl and mashed them all up and, of course, immediately had this wonderful aroma of fresh crushed rose petals which, as we know, very soon begin to rot. I didn’t really understand that at all, I was so disappointed. But that is one of my earliest memories of scent and, also, my first failed attempt at trying to create my own perfume.
I actually hated the perfume my mother used, but I never told her because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I’m not going to say what it was called but, boy, it was bad. I love my mother, but it was one of those perfumes that when somebody walks in you can literally smell them from across the room. My father’s cologne, though, was intoxicating. That might’ve been the beginning of my love for men’s cologne and a kind of genderless scent. When I went about developing the first perfume for my own fragrance brand, Henry Rose, which is non-toxic and 100 per cent transparent about the ingredients it uses, I was unknowingly going after the smell of my father’s cologne. I’d grown up with this love of the orientals and the nerolis and the vanillas and orange blossoms: I think I was going after that smell in the scent that I eventually named Torn.
My first fragrance of my own was Heaven Sent. I don’t actually know how old I was. I’m not sure that I was even a teenager. It basically smells like a baby’s butt. It smells like baby powder. It’s wonderful and I still love it. My friend wore Tabu. I loved that so much, but I wasn’t allowed it because it was kinda sexy. I think my mother probably thought it was too mature for me.
The next one I remember wearing was, again, in the oriental family: Must de Cartier. I loved, loved, that one. And then I was working with Daniel Day-Lewis on The Age of Innocence, and he, too, smelled intoxicating. It took me a while but I finally got out of him what exactly it was that he was wearing. He was mixing – layering a vanilla and a grapefruit – and it was the first time I understood how powerful mixing opposites can be, that sort of balance. Then I just started wearing vanilla for a while but I got a little tired of walking into the room and people asking, “Where are the chocolate chip cookies?” I love vanilla but I think it needs to be tempered a bit with its opposite. With Henry Rose perfumes we can’t use grapefruit, otherwise I would definitely do a vanilla/grapefruit scent. We are all about creating fragrances that are developed according to the strictest safety standards, and grapefruit is one of the natural ingredients that a lot of people have allergies to, so we can’t really use it – and we haven’t found a synthetic that works.
Actors are often asked if they wear certain scents to help them get into roles. I haven’t done that much. I know that Johnny Depp actually has a fragrance made for every part specifically. But I think the only time I really did that was when I was working on White Oleander, and it stated that it was lilac that my character wore. I do not gravitate toward lilac, but I wore it anyway. I found one that was actually quite nice. I think for me, historically, it’s been more about, “Would this character wear a fragrance at all?” and if it felt like that character did, I would probably put on whatever I love.
A doctor told me recently that I have a pheromone gland in my throat that most people no longer have, which may have something to do with my fascination with scent. I’ve been wanting to research that further but I haven’t had time. I’ve done some different searches online and everything that comes up is really more about animals! Not that I’ve spent that much time trying to find it. I wanted to reach out to the doctor who originally told me about it, but at the moment I feel, “Oh my God, doctors are so busy right now.” He definitely has better things to do with his time right now than talk to me about my pheromone glands.
Michelle Pfeiffer stars in French Exit, out this spring. Her fragrance label Henry Rose is available from henryrose.com