let us spray: sniffing out the glitterati

It's as star-studded as the Oscars and twice as fragrant: Liesl Schillinger drops in on the perfume awards in New York

"Envelope, please." Rupert Everett, sleek as a black velvet tomcat, stands on the stage of Avery Fisher Hall at Manhattan's Lincoln Centre. His over-languor conveys a certain irony. "And the winner is ... Chanel No 5!" The crowd goes wild as, on stage, a massive screen beneath a backdrop of starbursts shows the television ad that won; in which Carole Bouquet metamorphoses into Marilyn Monroe.

Welcome to the FiFis - New York's answer to the Oscars - the Fragrance Foundation's annual star-studded awards ceremony for standout perfumes and for every sort of achievement associated with their sale; from best television ad campaign for an established women's fragrance (such as Chanel No 5), to best bottle design, best perfume buying consultant, best German male perfume, and so on. At these, the 24th annual celebration of the FiFis, an entire constellation of stars has dropped in: the actors Rupert Everett, Ernest Borgnine and Joely Fisher; the fashion designers Jean- Paul Gaultier, Mary McFadden and Carolina Herrera; the generic pop icons Priscilla Presley and Engelbert Humperdinck; the models Christie Brinkley and Iman and many more.

Why, you may ask, would a scent ceremony draw so many bona fide celebs? Simple. Rupert Everett is the bare-chested fragrance minx who struts his stuff in glossy magazine adverts for Opium Pour Homme; Julio Iglesias has his own perfume (his son showed up to represent him), and Priscilla Presley will unfurl her third scent, Indian Summer, this autumn. Once, every model aspired to be an actor; every actor wanted to direct; now model and actor alike want, well - all that and a perfume contract, too. Ever since Elizabeth Taylor cashed in her celluloid chips and claimed her own perfume line (White Diamonds) and long before Liz Hurley snagged the contract for flogging Estee Lauder's Pleasures, stars have realised that if they're famous enough, people might just want to smell like them - and to pay for the privilege.

The festivities began with two cocktail parties; one for the rank and file fragrance trade crowd, the other for the illuminati. Christie Brinkley, shapely in a sparkly shell-pink diva gown, admitted she hadn't bothered to wear perfume at all. "My perfume? Body lotion and hairspray," she laughed, fetchingly. And, fetchingly, she revealed that she happens to be working on the launch of her own fragrance, whose name cannot be revealed just yet (could it begin with "C?").

Sally Jessy Raphael, the problem-solving chat-show hostess, exalted that "the industry has finally got its act together," and added, "the Fifis are much more glamorous and exciting than the Emmy awards, and they're less stressful, since I can't possibly be up for an award - I'm not a perfume bottle." Long before Ms Raphael launched her exceedingly popular show, she lived in Puerto Rico and owned a perfume factory; she knows better than to cast off her earlier humble acquaintance.

But by far the most up-front of the celebrity scent crowd was Jean-Paul Gaultier, festive and fizzy in a red tartan skirt, black leggings, and co-ordinating black-and-red jacket. He could afford to be frank and at- ease, since he already owns his own line of perfume. "This evening for me is amusement and joy," Gaultier gushed. "It's fabulous, we are in a new age when it is no more a shame for men to wear fragrance."

The age may be fabulous for Mr Gaultier, whose fragrances landed with a splash two years ago, and still kick up a healthy wake, or for Ms Taylor, whose White Diamonds pulled in $50m last year in the United States; but most celebrity fragrances fail spectacularly. Notables from Sophia Loren to Kermit the Frog have learned the hard way that success does not always smell sweet when sold in a bottle.

After the cocktail parties, and a sound and light spectacular rhapsodising on the theme of perfume, Annette Green - the Fragrance Foundation's president, and the inventor of the FiFis - emerged from the shadows, a sixtyish bleached-blonde firecracker, and kicked off the ceremony. Famous Person after Famous Person emerged, to tear envelopes and bestow the FiFi, a crystal column that looked as if it might have rocketed down from Superman's home planet. Several hours later, after the crystals were all dispersed, the music played, and the bashful acceptances made, the FiFis were done. Just like the Oscars - sort of. As Rupert Everett sighed: "I never got an Oscar, but at least I can present a FiFi."

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