Over the decades, much has been made of what is in a fragrance bottle — hope or science? For Mary J. Blige, it’s transformation.
“I wanted my fragrance to be something special for my female fans,” said Blige of her new fragrance with Carol’s Daughter, My Life, named for her landmark 1994 recording of the same name. The album represented a major turning point in Blige’s life and by using it as a reference, she is attempting to encapsulate her decadelong transformation and triumph.
This story first appeared in the April 30, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“I was crying out for help, because I was going through so much,” she said of the period around the time of the recording, speaking exclusively to WWD on the set of the ad shoot for her scent. “And four million women said, ‘Mary, we’re going through it, too, but you’re helping us by calling on us.’ From that day on, I began speaking truths about my life, and about their lives, and everything around us. So it’s a special tribute to us as women. My fans and I are smart now. We know we’re smart now, but we didn’t know it then. We know we’re beautiful now, we didn’t know it then. We’re educated now, we didn’t know it then. We’re soft, we’re edgy — we’re all those things. And I wanted this perfume to represent every female’s everyday life.”
While the My Life scent may be meant to represent everyday life, Blige and Carol’s Daughter are breaking the bonds of traditional prestige fragrance retailing by choosing to launch My Life solely on HSN on July 31. Blige is an investor in Carol’s Daughter, which also is a break with industry practice.
Blige, who worked with Firmenich to create the scent, concedes fragrance development was new to her, but she did have a secret weapon: Pamela Baxter, president and chief executive officer of LVMH Perfumes & Cosmetics North America. Blige’s husband and manager, Kendu Isaacs, has an uncle who is married to Baxter, who Blige affectionately calls Aunt Pam.
“We’ve been family for years,” Blige said, before adding about developing a fragrance, “I’ve never done it, but it was so much fun because I have a keen sense of smell. I knew exactly what I wanted and would ask for an incense smell, a musk smell, a wood smell. I also wanted florals, but edgy florals. Every day they would bring me blotters to test — after a while, everything started to smell the same, so I had to pull back.”
Once she got the juice to an early stage, Blige shared it with Baxter. “Aunt Pam came to our house for Christmas during that time, and I said, ‘Pam, I love it, but something’s causing me to hate it.’ What is that smell — there’s too much of it. And Pam said it was wood. I got on the phone right away and said ‘take the wood out!’” Blige said with a laugh.
Baxter noted that Blige is studious about every task she tackles. “She likes to know what she is talking about,” said Baxter. “She is not one to let anyone manage her life. She wants to learn everything from top to bottom.”
Despite the assist from Baxter, Steve Stoute, lead investor in and chairman of Carol’s Daughter, is quick to stress that Blige had free rein to create whatever she wanted to. “No one said to Mary, ‘this is what the industry likes, this is what will sell.’ It was completely Mary’s creation, and she went through six different iterations before it was perfect. And that way, it really has become her fragrance. The endorser becomes the author.”
The scent’s top notes are of gardenia petals, Bartlett pear and white freesia; the heart is of tuberose, blooming jasmine, gold lily and apricot flower, and the drydown is of cashmere woods, praline, sesame and incense. It will retail for $46 for 1.7 oz. and will be sold with a clutch purse.
While some high-profile names are fine with smelling a final scent and cashing a check, Blige isn’t one of them. “I have to be involved,” she said. “Because when your name is attached to something, and it’s not good, that’s your name. So I prefer a good name rather than vanity and riches.
“At the end of the day, it’s for me,” she continued. “So if I look ridiculous and not know what I’m talking about and not know what’s in my own fragrance, it doesn’t look good to people. When I was doing the [public service announcement for her charity, filmed earlier in the day on set] out there, I was saying education is power. That’s what I mean. It is powerful to sit here and talk to you and tell you I know what’s in my fragrance. I was there, putting it together.”
By Blige’s own admission, it took her years to find her power and to accept and love herself on her own terms.
“Man, it took a long time of just not feeling good in my own skin and saying to myself, ‘how can I not? what’s wrong with me?’ It’s no overnight thing. It’s a constant push, especially when you hated yourself and hated how you looked all your life. What really gives you confidence is when certain people start saying negative things about you that you used to say about yourself, and you say, ‘Whoa, that’s not true. I’m beautiful, I’m smart.’ You take that negative energy they are throwing and pushing yourself up. And then there are people on your side who say, ‘I wish you can see what I see.’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, I wish I could see what you see’,” she said with a self-deprecating laugh. “But those words make you say, you know what, let me really accept this. This is me and I am not going to get another. This is it.”
Childhood abuse and resulting depression prevented Blige from coming to this state of mind for a while, however. “I was a victim of abuse; my mom was a victim of abuse,” she said softly. “Every woman in my neighborhood [in Yonkers] when I was growing up was a victim of abuse — physical abuse. All my life as a child I saw women screaming at the tops of their lungs for their lives, women running out of their houses naked trying to get away from their husbands. I’ve seen the worst of the worst that a woman can go through, and I actually grew up and went through it myself. I almost didn’t want to give myself a second chance. I was going to give up. I was right in the middle of the music business, and I was going to give up. I thought there was no hope for me. I was about to record the ‘No More Drama’ album [in 2001].”
As she hit rock bottom and considered suicide, Blige found strength from her fans. “What turned me around was those four million women from ‘My Life.’ By that time I had ‘Share My World’ out, and I realized that wow, if I destroy myself, I destroy all these women that look up to me and say, ‘Mary, you saved my life.’ I have such a soft heart and I believe a heart that cares for people, and I thought, I can’t kill my fans and their kids. I prayed and asked God to help me and he sent me all the help I need. He sent me my husband to help me, who has helped me and has been helping me.”
Blige’s transformation included kicking a drug habit, working hard on her self-esteem and meeting and marrying Isaacs. And after having achieved those things, she felt strongly about extending a helping hand to others dealing with similar issues. The result: the Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now, which Blige founded with Stoute; $1 from every bottle of My Life will benefit FFAWN. “We went to work, saving lives and giving women a second chance where I saw all that abuse,” said Blige, who, together with the Westchester Jewish Community Services, opened the Mary J. Blige Center for Women in Yonkers in October. “We have GED classes, we have a child care system — because the hardest part of being a mother and trying to get a job was trying to find a babysitter, when my mom was raising us. We have a computer room where you can get your résumés together, and go online and see what’s out there. I want women to have confidence. I learned that confidence could save a life.”
And she hopes to expand beyond Yonkers. “I definitely see us branching out. We have to. There has to be [a center] in New York [City], and definitely one on the West Coast.”
One might think that Blige would be itching to counsel other high-profile domestic violence survivors such as Rihanna — but while she’s more than willing to extend a helping hand, she doesn’t intend to butt in unless asked. “If they ask me for advice and I can help, I will, but I’m not just going to walk up to them and say, ‘youuuu ooohhhhh.’ Because I don’t want anybody doing that for me,” she said with a laugh.
Of fellow singers such as Beyoncé and Rihanna, Blige noted, “They seem like pretty smart women to me. As long as they’re confident and believe in themselves [that’s good.] Everyone’s job and assignment is not what I do. That’s fair. And what works for you may not work for me and what works for me may not work for you.”
There were bright points in her troubled childhood, however. “I had a dream when I was a little girl, about all these lights and all these people. That’s all I can say, I had a dream about all these lights and all these people. And I believe I was onstage.
“It worked out the way I thought it would, now. Because I know who I am, and I love myself now. Now, I’m smiling like I did when I was a kid. In the middle of all that turmoil — getting into the music business, not being prepared, not being educated, not having parental guidance to guide me through — it was a complete disaster, but the music helped everybody! We were all in the same disastrous place at the same time, and now that dream is now. That dream was at ‘American Idol.’ That dream was being onstage with [Andrea] Bocelli. That dream is being able to go to my concerts and have all my fans sing all my songs, word for word.”
Blige is also learning French and taking acting lessons in preparation for a biopic of Nina Simone, in which she will play the title role. The film is tentatively slated for a 2012 release. “It’s fun, singing in French, singing in opera. I’m learning. If I say to you, ‘ca va’? And you say, ‘trés bien, merci. Et vous?’ That’s all you really need, along with ‘merci beaucoup’ and ‘s’il vous plait.’”
Then there’s the fashion world. Blige — a noted clotheshorse who especially loves big sunglasses, big hoop earrings and scarves — is taking the plunge into accessories design this fall with her own eyewear line, Melodies by Mary J. Blige. She also sees scarves and belts in her near future. But full-on fashion? Of that, she’s not so sure.
“I thought about it so much, but I don’t want to just do clothing because everyone else is doing clothing,” she said, noting that an earlier T-shirt collaboration with designer Catherine Malandrino was a benefit for FFAWN. Gesturing to her $900 snug-fitting black jeans, she noted that she wanted to “do it right,” with style, comfort and premium quality. “I feel like I could wear these pants every day. That’s the kind of clothing line I want to do — a clothing line where people don’t mind paying $300 for jeans and they feel great and they look great. So until I can get it right, I’m cool.” She’s taken meetings on the subject, but is more than willing to wait for the right partner.
“I don’t think everybody’s goal is my goal. The goal is to make sure that people are comfortable and fly. What good is your beautiful dress if you’re not comfortable in it? I believe in comfort. Your shoes have to be comfortable or else you’re not going to be able to think. This is a woman’s thing.” Case in point: After the photo shoot, Blige swapped out a towering pair of fanciful Rodarte heels for fuzzy pink slippers.
While she noted that her earlier years were painful, they also helped shape her into the woman she is today — they even influenced how she developed the scent. “In ’94, I wouldn’t have known what was in it,” said Blige. “It wouldn’t have been in my mind to pay attention. Since I’ve evolved and changed my life, I pay attention to everything. I don’t dig and pry — that’s not what I do, I’m not a nosy person. But the things that are for me to learn, they fall in my lap, I learn them. I dig and dig and dig with those things.”
That tendency to research and study has worked well for Blige, who admittedly is somewhat shy. “That’s why I like to make sure I’m prepared,” she said with a soft laugh. “Because if I’m stumbling and fumbling and stuttering and not knowing what I’m speaking about, it bothers me later. So I like to prepare myself, to know what I’m speaking about. It gives me the confidence to cut through the cameras. It’s sort of like making Mary J. Blige the character for the day. She’s being prepped as a businesswoman.
“My singing career is one thing, and I still want that all to overflow,” she said. “But this is something new — people have never seen me in this light. My ambition is to constantly let people see me in another light — to see me as a philanthropist with FFAWN, to see me as a businesswoman and entrepreneur with Carol’s Daughter. Of course, they know Mary the singer — she’s always there. But people never suspect that they would see me like this. [It’s almost like] ‘Really? Good for Mary. I’m proud of her.’”
Blige noted that while she hasn’t sold anything on TV before, she’s looking forward to doing so. As is HSN’s ceo, Mindy Grossman. “I don’t have preconceived notions of how beauty should be sold,” said Grossman, who came to the channel in 2008 after stints as an executive at Nike Inc., Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., The Warnaco Group Inc. and Tommy Hilfiger Corp. “I come to it from the brand point of view, and look at how I can tell the story. I don’t think this is the way it’s always been done, so this is the way we have to do it. You have to tell the story with integrity and respect. We will invest to bring this brand to life.”
That’s evident in the way the fragrance will be launched: during six HSN shows on July 31. Blige will appear in all of the spots, and the scent will be the channel’s featured product for the day. HSN is filming a series of documentary pieces about Blige’s life, which will air during Blige’s July 31 appearances on the network.
“My [initial] ignorance about the beauty industry has been an advantage,” said Stoute, who in 2005 put together a star-studded group of investors — including Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, Thalia, Tommy Mottola, James Lassiter, Jimmy Iovine and Andrew Farkas — to fuel the growth of Carol’s Daughter, the then-$5 million beauty brand founded by Lisa Price in her Brooklyn kitchen in 1993. The brand now does an estimated $30 million-plus in retail sales, with My Life expected to add a significant amount to that annual tally. “The whole notion of ‘if you can’t smell it, you can’t sell it’ wasn’t on my radar.
“Everyone can choose how they want to sell. We chose to capture Mary J. Blige’s life and tell it to 93 million people,” said Stoute. “HSN is not skimming the surface of Mary’s life. We have a visual documentary of her life. I’d rather have that than part-timers spraying at the department store; fragrance is about telling a story, and what better way to sell that message than on TV, with the author herself telling the story? With HSN, the obstacle of going into the department store — the department store as the tollbooth between the consumer and the product — has been removed.
“I’m not saying there is a death of bricks-and-mortar,” continued Stoute, noting that Carol’s Daughter does well in Sephora, Macy’s and other brick-and-mortar retailers. “I’m just saying that now other people are at the table.” And, he said, “the retailer no longer builds the brand. The brand needs to build the brand, no matter where it is purchased. That allows you not to shop the channel, but the brand.”
Stoute and Grossman declined to discuss sales projections or number of available units, although industry sources estimated that My Life could do more than HSN has ever tallied with a fragrance show. Industry sources interpreted that prediction to mean $5 million to $7 million in sales on the first day alone. If My Life follows past Carol’s Daughter-HSN patterns (for instance, the brand moved 3,000 units of bath salts in 15 minutes and 3,300 units of its body soufflés in 23 minutes during a May 2008 appearance) the scent may sell out before Blige does her last show.
Print advertising for My Life will break in fashion, beauty and lifestyle magazines, including Allure, Essence and Glamour. The scent will be sampled at the Essence Music Festival the first week in July. Carol’s Daughter, which has had a pop-up store at the festival for the last few years, will be taking pre-orders for the scent at the festival, and Blige —who will perform July 4 — will sign autographs at the Carol’s Daughter booth. “More than 300,000 women come to this festival,” noted Stoute. “This is a call to action. We will distribute scented bracelets and encourage them to tune in to HSN on July 31.”
And that day can’t come soon enough for Blige, who has finally come to a point in her life where she accepts herself as beautiful. “Beauty is you not being afraid of who you are. Whatever that is, that other people are not satisfied with, as long as you’re satisfied with it, you’re going to cut through as beautiful to everyone,” she said. “Because that means from the inside, you accept all this. Because if I don’t, all this means nothing [gesturing to the mirror].
“The makeup is the fun part because it’s a beautiful asset to who you are already. You’ve just got to be able to accept who you are, know who you are, and makeup will be the cherry on the cake. And that’s beauty to me: Self-acceptance. Inner beauty is gorgeous. The makeup and the clothes are great, but mean nothing if you can’t accept what you see at home. I forget it sometimes, but I need to keep saying it and remind myself that’s how I feel.”