Either side of me, women are sorting through zip-locked bags of sweaty T-shirts with the good-natured singularity of purpose you might see at a jumble sale. A DJ dressed all in white as if he’s an aging sixth member of One Direction plays nondescript pop hits. And then there’s a man wearing a giant nose costume which, when he turns at a right angle, looks remarkably like a penis.
I’m at a Pheromone Party, and I’m very uncomfortable.
Heralded as the best thing to happen to dating since Tinder, it’s based on the idea that the odourless chemicals we all excrete play a part in who we want to bang. Partygoers bring a T-shirt they’ve slept in for three days, which is then bagged, numbered and presented to participants of the opposite sex for their appraisal. They pose with the ones they like the smell of, and the photos are projected onto a wall while people wait, hoping like hell their number comes up.
The science behind the concept is a little spurious, but the idea scent played a role in attraction tallied with my experiences. I’d once had a boyfriend who’d smelled of damp gym gear, and we’d been together all of three weeks.
I was at a disadvantage – I’d only been given my shirt the day before, so I wore my T-shirt for one night, instead of the recommended three. I took care to discard it slightly less forcefully than usual so as not to dislodge the pheromones when it hit my bedroom floor. To be on the safe side, I rubbed it vigorously over my neck and armpits before I left for the party last Thursday night. That’ll do it, I thought, staring resolutely into the mirror.
I wasn’t overly optimistic of sniffing out The One. I pictured the crowd as sloppy drunks on a dare and serious gamers looking for love, united by their fetish for smell. But the people lined up outside the club weren’t sallow-skinned from nights spent in front of the computer Googling “Scarlett Johansson nose”. They were fun, normal people, wearing nice dresses and plaid shirts. I didn’t feel like a smug onlooker in the slightest.
WATCH Julia Hollingsworth huff love in this club
Inside the bar, friendly-looking people were milling around holding complimentary drinks, while an MC wearing giant sparkly red lips as a brooch on his chest volunteered on-theme pick-up lines (“You smell like trash, can I take you out?” “Baby, you smell like smoke, wanna stop, drop and roll?”). I hung back, observing the happy masses swarming around two tables laden with bagged T-shirts, about to huff each other’s scent. It’s fair to say I was pretty intimidated by the Pheromone Party crowd as I nervously approached the mound of men’s T-shirts.
Men largely fell into three categories: unbelievably sweaty, obnoxiously perfumed, or ominously odourless – think Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. The assorted collection of five or so women huffing alongside me shared especially terrible or choice finds with each other in the spirit of the sisterhood. One said she was picking out the ones that smelled of deodorant, because “at least you knew they washed”. I told her she could probably stand to aim higher, but I don’t think she heard me.
With the exception of the highly desirable #111, widely agreed to smell of “man”, our preferences rarely matched up. I eventually took a liking to #37, or as I promptly renamed him, “my new boyfriend”.
Within minutes of the matchmaking getting underway, the smell of success was in the air. A man who I privately termed The Life of the Party boasted he’d got the numbers of two good-looking single mums. Hamish, smoking on the balcony, told me he’d had the “unnerving” experience of watching a girl he found deeply unattractive sniff his T-shirt for close to a minute before she decided she was into it. “She was quite serious about the whole procedure,” he said.
Others were more relaxed about the whole thing. “I figure as long as you don’t smell like you got dragged through a silage pit, it’s pretty easy to get along,” said Jean-Luc.
As it turned out, he’d liked my smell. It was “interesting”, he said – good and bad, but more good. “The only word I can think of is unami, but that describes the flavour of meat, so that’s not quite right.” Joel, meanwhile, said I smelled “comforting”: “It’s sort of a nice smell you could see yourself smelling a lot.”
I wasn’t sure if it was sweet, or sinister. But it certainly wasn’t sexy.
Regardless of the numbers they were picking, everyone agreed that a “natural” musk was desirable. But I wondered if it was, like ‘natural’ makeup, an elaborate ruse. My “natural” scent, for instance, had been achieved by rubbing a T-shirt against my body after not showering for 24 hours and then dousing it in Marc Jacobs’ Daisy. Those that smelled as though the wearer had run a marathon through a damp forest after a mere three nights’ wear were perhaps a little too real.
About an hour in, photos of eager faces holding desirable bags were replaced with a photo of a couple making out so enthusiastically that one had spilt their free cocktail on the other. The man I was talking to stopped mid-sentenced to point at the image. “They met tonight!” he exclaimed, noticeably rattled.
Over and over, we all insisted to each other we were there to have a good time, and in the first, overwhelming throes, I’d bought it. But as I looked around with the clarity and insight that only comes from a few drinks, I noticed the crowd was divided. Most of the partiers were talking to new people – some looked like they could even be attempting to flirt. But around a dozen attendees hung around the edge of the room, looking on poker-faced.
“I’ve been standing here for 10 minutes,” said one man glumly, staring up at the photos projected on the wall. Some of the bags had smelled like nothing at all, he said. Maybe some partygoers had cheated. Or perhaps three days’ wear wasn’t enough for your scent to stick. People could wear their T-shirts for a whole week and then meet on the Friday, he suggested, his eyes lighting up for a moment behind his glasses. He sighed. “I just wanted to meet someone,” he said.
I wasn’t having much luck of my own. My pictures with bagged tees, featuring smiles that ranged from chill to manic, had failed to tempt anyone to approach me. By chance I met #99, who I’d selected for his ‘too good to be true’ vanilla musk. He was nice, polite, and looked like he could have been on Shortland Street, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by animal instincts. Pheromones could lead you to a biological mate - if you were lucky - but there were no guarantees of a personality match. One guy, described by at least one girl as the “hottest guy at the party”, said he hadn’t been impressed by a single sweaty T, even though “about 80 per cent” of the girls present were good-looking.
By 10pm, the party was winding down. I watched as two girls danced to Top 40 hits on the otherwise empty dance floor, seemingly oblivious to one another. Only a few people remained, clutching their final free drink ticket. “You’d be shocked by how much I know about you,” declared the Life of the Party, before telling me I had both a sister and was the youngest child, neither of which are true.
The night had its highs (hanging out with the Life of the Party) and its lows (the overwhelming stench of Lynx and sweat) – just like a typical trip to town. Sure, at this party there were bags of smelly T-shirts and free shots and a man dressed as a nose (or a penis). But in some ways, the Pheromone Party was less contrived than swiping left or right. For all its gimmicks, it was really just another bar of slightly intoxicated undersexed young people – whether beautiful, cool, comfortable, or none of the above – all hot on the trail of romance.
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