We are all more than aware the powers of remembering a scent: stories, people, places and things are summoned at the slightest whiff. The smell of dense woods, strawberry farms, my nan’s home baking and freshly laid tarmac remind me of my childhood. B&H cigarettes, shaving foam and Lynx Africa take me straight back inside the P.E changing rooms at high school. Vinegar, bleach and hairspray conjure up disorienting lost weekends with drag queens in the sweaty nightclubs clubs of South London.
I grew up in the middle of 90s Britain. I was called Ryan and I was raised within a society that rigidly enforced strict gender roles. In those seemingly dark ages, boys played football on one side of the school playground, while the girls did handstands against the school wall on the other. Everything, (and I mean everything), was gendered - with very little space left in between. In 2012 I began the process of transitioning. Before this I’d never really considered the importance of fragrance as a signifier of gender. When you identify as a transsexual woman and transition you ultimately question, explore and interrogate every detail of who you are. As Ryan I’d been gifted the obligatory Lynx box set for Christmas every year. But now, as Rhyannon, that stocking filler wasn’t going to cut it. I sniffed through many fragrant memories, trying to find a scent that matched my new identity. After all, a strong scent leaves a lasting impression.
During the late 90s I met a girl at art college who had bright red hair and wore slip dresses over her jeans. Her sickly sweet scent intoxicated my mind. Her name was Jet and she studied fashion: her effect was profound. Due to my keen interest in her every move she quickly became my girlfriend and we declared our naïve love for each other by walking around college shackled together using dog collars and chains, living out our very own Rock ’n’ Roll fantasy in the rural west Midlands. We did everything together: shopping for tie dye T-shirts in Birmingham’s Bullring shopping center, purring over fashion magazines in WH Smiths and painting each other’s finger nails glittery blue. We were inseparable.
Jet’s bedroom completely matched her vibrant personality. Among the hand drawn fashion illustrations pinned to the wall and lilac scarves strewn over lamps, stood a collection of intoxicating bottles of perfume on her dressing table. None caught my eye more than the torso of a woman, decorated with opaque frosted lingerie and filled with rose coloured water. Jet doused herself in this, leaving a strong scent lingering in the air long after she vanished into a different room, an exquisite trail for those with a sharp nose, hoping to catch a glimpse of this alluring woman. I was smitten, and whenever I could, I’d bathe myself in her delightful assortment of scent too. These aromas became the symbol of our colourful, creative relationship.
One afternoon as I lay on her bed and she straddled me, she said ‘You’re not like other boys’. Her statement was true. I wasn’t like any other boy that I knew, and I didn’t aspire to be either. No other boy carried a sweet rose smell with them, or dyed their shoulder length hair the colour aubergine. My personality had intrigued Jet and together we’d nurtured a secure, safe habitat to explore our identities. But, this safe, cute space wasn’t enough. In reality, Jet didn’t want a boyfriend who smelt exactly the same as she did - to her that wasn’t sexually alluring.
When you identify as a transsexual woman and transition you ultimately question, explore and interrogate every detail of who you are.
When I began transitioning into Rhyannon aged 30, I thought back to that time. Jet was the first in a long line of women who have directly inspired, influenced and sculpted the transgender woman I am today. Within my relationships, friendship groups and idols I have always gravitated towards bold, flamboyant characters whom display a streak of independence, live by their own rules and take risks. I thrive on imagination, creativity and drama. It was these behaviours and character traits that I used as a springboard when I began my transition.
Early on in my journey I was deliberately playful and daring with my burgeoning new femme presentation. I’d walk around Hackney wearing an oversized pink cocoon coat, bright blue eyeshadow with my hair back combed to high heaven. It was a comical combination. I’d hoped my new ‘look’ would resemble an edgy east London fashionista, but at best my electrifying creation only confused people even more. If I couldn’t quite say ‘femme’ with my clothes, make-up and hair style yet, then surely I could signify that with smell? Thinking back to Jet, I knew that the right scent leaves a lasting impression: An imprint of the woman who stood before you. What did I want my imprint to be?
I didn’t want to smell sun kissed, ocean fresh or like I’d rubbed myself on every tree in the Amazon basin. I wasn’t about to suggest I was at ‘one’ with nature, or that I’d just skipped through a mist of citrus infused tranquillity. Any scent that sounded juicy, organic and edible wasn’t appealing to me. Neither were innocent, flowery, petal infused tones that promised delicate, silky, fragrant lightness. If I had my way, then I desired to smell like leopard print, gold rings, 1960s lampshades, disco, brutalist architecture, full moons, white noise and Jet’s fashion illustrations. I was looking to introduce a mood, create an atmosphere and set the scene for my arrival. I wanted to get under your nose and stay there, I wanted our meeting to be unforgettable.
In the beginning I’d frantically run around department stores, dousing myself with every bottle I could find. I’ve lost count of the multiple nostril orgasms I've had, the smells I’ve flirted with. I would run round duty free areas like a blood hound – by the time I boarded the plane I was no closer to my signature scent, or settled on the one fragrance which encapsulated Rhyannon.
After months of trial and error, sniffing everything and everyone that passed me by, I settled on a small collection of fragrances which identify my gender as female and leave an intoxicating pong to anyone within sniffing distance. These scents compliment my wardrobe, the change of seasons and the woman which I want to evoke that day. Inspired by Jet, I’m living out my teenage fantasies. I’ve collected my own treasured cluster of frosted, opulent and polished bottles of perfume. Part homage to her, and part discovery of my new shiny self. Who knew life could smell this good.