“Madonna has no patience for stupid people,” said expert perfumer Stephen Nilsen, at the recent London launch of the popstar’s debut perfume. But as the veteran “nose” discovered, she doesn’t make it all that easy on the clever ones, either. The creator of fragrances for Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger, Nilsen is comfortable working with the biggest names in the industry. But even he was thrown by Madonna’s chilly demeanour on their first meetings to produce her perfume Truth or Dare, during which she refused to remove her sunglasses. “It was a little intimidating,” he admitted. And that was when he was granted an audience. More often than not in those first months of development, Nilsen was left in the dark about the actual direction Madonna intended for her perfume.
“She told me she wanted white florals, and she loved the ‘addiction’ accord I created,” – a blend of vanilla, caramel and amber. But it was hard to schedule face time with the busy performer, essential when trying to peg a client’s tastes and establish a common vocabulary. Instead, Nilsen found himself scurrying back and forth between his Manhattan lab and Madonna’s £20m Upper East Side compound every time he made a revision. “I’d throw each new sample over her 8ft-high black steel wall,” he joked. Fortunately, his pitching arm was saved: “Security always magically appeared behind me when I would ring the bell, as if they knew I was coming.
“She needed the latest versions delivered by 2pm on a Friday afternoon so she could evaluate them over the weekend at her horse farm in the Hamptons.”
Her Madgesty’s notes would then filter back – broad critiques such as “too sweet”, which given the vast palette of a perfumer, could mean any number of things. It turned into a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey as the perfumer struggled to second-guess the source of Madonna’s displeasure, blending endless modifications in order to secure her approval. “Once we started working together in person, it became much easier,” he recalled with evident relief. As they developed their rhythm of working, Nilsen was impressed by the accuracy of Madonna’s sense of smell and her increasing ability to identify individual elements. Not unexpectedly, the multimillionaire star was drawn to the most expensive raw materials in recreating the memory of her mother’s perfume from more than 40 years ago, the perfumer revealed. “She has a real appreciation of luxury,” he enthused. But when cautioned about safety restrictions on her favourite ingredients imposed by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), she became exasperated. “Fuck IFRA!” she snapped at one point.
Despite having no training in the world of perfumery, Madonna was adamant that she did not want musk in Truth Or Dare’s formula. “I tried to explain to her that it needed musk to round the edges, like you sand and seal a stippled wall,” Nilsen remembered. In the end, he took a chance and went ahead with a version that included the much-needed musk. When he nervously presented it to Madonna, he said she smelled it sceptically, then grudgingly conceded, “OK – you were right. Leave in the musk.”
After working with the expert perfumer, surely Madonna must have received quite an education in fine fragrance? Was she Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins? Nilsen paused, then responded with a sheepish smile, “I think I was the Eliza Doolittle.” Oh yes? And what did Madonna teach him? “She taught me to be a better perfumer.”
And how can he not be a better perfumer, given the number of Truth Or Dare variations Nilsen was required to submit before the demanding star was satisfied with her signature scent. “There were 200,” he confirmed, adding that a perfume is often completed with half that number. “But I have had clients who’ve required even more.” He may regret letting that slip if Madonna ever decides to try out more fragrances for perfume number two.