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When You’re High on Benadryl, Even Calvin Klein Perfume Commercials Make Sense

I spent much of last week in a drift of medication: an antibiotic, then an antihistamine I had to take after I developed a horrid allergy to the antibiotic and then Benadryl. It was the hottest week of the summer and I didn’t leave my apartment for much of it, except at night when it had cooled down and no one would notice my horrifically disfigured legs, covered as they were with raw, angry hives that looked like blisters from third-degree burns.

I couldn’t do very much. I was either itchy as hell or stoned out of my mind on Benadryl: light-headed, dizzy, with that weird “bell jar” airlessness where it feels like a glass wall has slipped between you and the rest of the world. I had whole conversations with people and didn’t remember a word we said. I watched movies but they felt like fever-dreams, and I’m still not sure if I really saw them. I was convinced every emotional calamity was just around the corner. I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I wrote gibberish in my journal. I walked to McDonald’s, bought a hot fudge sundae and forgot it on the counter. It was really just the strangest week ever.

I did develop an odd fixation on the David Fincher-directed commercial for the new Calvin Klein fragrance, Downtown, which stars actress Rooney Mara, who played a spectral, ferocious Lisbeth Salander in the U.S. adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t even remember how I stumbled upon it…maybe on some perfume blog or another? I just watched it again and again in my weird little stupor, strangely transfixed by its sleek black-and-white hi-res cinematography, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song “Runaway” playing as the soundtrack, the crazy resemblance Mara has to Audrey Hepburn in certain shots.

I remember when they announced this perfume-actress pairing way back in the spring, and felt it was a good match-up between the star and the designer — both have kind of a clean, minimal yet urban persona. But now that I watch it in a non-Benadryl-hazy eye, I think it’s kind of a serenely strange, eccentric advert for a women’s perfume, one that kind of undercuts the idea of the “downtown girl” in an odd way. You’d think “Downtown” would evoke, I don’t know, a kind of nocturnal hedonism: nightclubs, kissing in the back of cabs, velvet-rope type of parties. They get the clothes right — that black leather biker jacket! — but the setting and scenarios are pensive, self-contained, and quiet as Mara goes about her day, working, drinking coffee, taking the subway, holding some kind of press conference, watching the city blur past her in a cab at the end at night. Outside of a few light moments, the commercial evokes a kind of purposeful solitude. Here, the downtown girl just goes about her day, working and dreaming and thinking. Of course, it’s aspirational because we can’t all be famous actresses, but I think this kind of purposeful solitude is an interesting way to market a perfume to young women, especially when most perfume marketing focuses on making them feel sexy or desirable.

And maybe, weirdly, that’s why I liked it so much. Not just because the slow-motion matched my own sense of time passing when I was hopped up (down?) on Benadryl — but in a weird way, this is what cities more often feel like. There are of course moments of glamour, but the NYC of my memory was full of in-between moments, reverie, the strange comfort of being alone in a city full of people. I kept thinking of the last time I was sick in NYC, and the strange feeling of walking down to the gourmet market at the corner past midnight for some soup, feeling oddly comforted that there were still lots of people around at night — most of us being alone together, drifting up and down Broadway, lost in our own worlds.

Funnily enough, the juice for the Downtown fragrance doesn’t smell all that downtown-ish to me — it’s a watery floral, with a translucent sweetness overlaid over a pale, woody-musky base. It is very close to being a skin scent with my own body chemistry, and while it lasts a while on me, it’s very muted and soft, kind of like a secret I hold close. I think it would be a nice office scent, or a kind of go-anywhere daytime fragrance. Pretty, but not exceptional, and not really with a kind of dark, sultry smokiness the commercial evoked for me. Which is a pity, because in the end, I like the commercial quite a lot, even when I’m not stoned on Benadryl. But I guess its power exists for me as an evocative lyricism, a product of a strange moment during a strange summer, like heat lightning you’ll never quite feel in the same way again.

Like what you just read? Maybe you'll like my book as well

All Things Glorious and True: Love Letters to Pop Culture, New York, Fashion and Other Objects of Affection is a collection of essays exploring how my crushes on music, dive bars, books, outfits and so much else gave me a braver soul, more open heart and even love. All Things is like a great, stylish mixtape: surprising, kind of punky, fun and often heartfelt.


Tags: Calvin Klein, Downtown, , Rooney Mara

4 Responses to “When You’re High on Benadryl, Even Calvin Klein Perfume Commercials Make Sense”

  1. John says:

    The 90s really are coming back, aren’t they? These have a real 90s feel.

    btw I bought your book but I don’t have it yet

    • Kat Asharya says:

      yep, they do feel very 90s, a bit in the vein of those iconic b&w CK ads back then…i’m sure they were trying to evoke that in some way! sadly, the product itself probably won’t be as iconic…the perfume is pretty if a bit mediocre.

      yay on my book! email your address & i’ll send you the zine! xo k.

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