Charlie turns 50: Why the spray you used after PE is actually a feminist icon

It’s endured (Picture: Revlon)

Few things take you back to the school PE changing rooms quite like the smell of Charlie body spray.

The iconic teenage gateway fragrance has, almost unbelievably, turned 50 this year, and for many of us, one sniff takes us right back to being 14.

While body spray is back ‘in’ – you’ll see it in Gen Z shops like Urban Outfitters dotted along by the tills – for Millennial and Gen X women, its synonymous with nostalgia. After all scent, of all our senses, is most powerfully connected to memory.

Even on’s Lifestyle desk, the mention of Charlie brought up very vivid memories.

‘At school, it positively choked the whole room – there was actual Charlie fog. That can’t have been good for us,’ joked Aidan Milan, Lifestyle Reporter.

Meanwhile Lizzie Thomson, Assistant Deputy Editor, remembers ‘literally dousing my school uniform in Charlie Red.’

For me, it was Charlie Pink on regular days. Red was for anything extra special, or dare I say, ‘sexy’.

Han Randall, 30, bought a can recently when she craving a hit of nostalgia, to recapture a sense of youth – and simply have a bit of fun.

‘It was during a time when things were mundane, and I felt stuck doing adulty stuff working from home, living in a routine,’ she says. ‘I needed something to just chuck in my bag that wasn’t glass, and it was cheap at only £1.20.

‘Disappointingly, it’s not in the shiny metallic red packaging anymore, which in itself made me feel like the sexy grown up lady I wanted to be as a teenager.’

For Han, it conjured up memories upon sight and sniff.

‘It made me pine for a really solid group of girl mates who were always talking about stuff that felt massive at the time but now is basically inconsequential, like who was texting who, parties at the weekend, homework and getting told off for rolling up your skirt.

‘The essence of a year 10 girls changing room,’ she says.

But it might surprise you to learn that Charlie wasn’t always a teenage dream – in fact, it was pretty revolutionary when it was launched.

An ad campaign in 1976 for the original Charlie fragrance (the notes being citrus, rose, lily of the valley, cedarwood and sandalwood) featured women wearing trousers who were depicted as fun, free, and single – groundbreaking at the time.

None other than Oprah Winfrey famously said after seeing the commercial: ‘I wanted to stride like her with confidence. I wanted to be this fabulous.’

On top of this, the wider campaign featured Naomi Sims, making her the first African American woman of all time to be featured in a cosmetic company’s advertising.

A spokesperson for Revlon, who owns the company, tells us the brand wanted to ‘make a bold statement by recognising that beauty transcends ethnicity’.

‘The original Charlie woman made strides to push boundaries, comfort zones and the status quo, and she continues to do so, today, in the 21st Century,’ they add.

It’s hard to ignore the timing of this, falling in the decade after the free love and sexual liberation movement, which also came alongside increased talk of women’s issues, and the contraceptive pill becoming legal. Revlon capitalised on that new spirit of womanhood.

Shelley Hack, who featured as a Charlie woman and went on to star in Charlie’s Angels, said: ‘This became the best-selling fragrance in the world within, like, two weeks.’

She claimed Revlon commissioned a survey to find out why the perfume had flown off the shelves.

‘In the commercial, I pull up in a car and very confidently walk into a restaurant by myself. In those days, women didn’t walk into restaurants by themselves. So the response was, “This woman looks so confident. If she can do it, I can do it,”‘ she said in a 2010 interview.

Young girls of today likely don’t know that history, but half a century on, Charlie seems to speak to a similar feeling of exploring independence and identity for the first time – it’s just that we’re all going through those motions far younger.

Revlon didn’t want to comment on when the brand became synonymous with pre-teen and teenagers in schools, but did offer that ’empowerment’ has always been at the heart of the branding.

Though Revlon are in financial trouble, the spokesperson said ‘we will continue to build on the Charlie story’ in coming years – so perhaps there’s another 50 years yet in their low-cost fragrances.

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