Heiress, artist and philanthropist. To anyone on the outside looking in, Marie Guerlain appears to have it all. However, it hasn’t always been plain sailing for the Parisian, who has worked tirelessly to get to where she is today.
Brought up in Paris during the 1980s, Guerlain failed to realise just how famous her surname was until the age of around seven when teachers began to single her out in class. The name Guerlain was instantly recognisable, and much feted. Marie’s teachers decided her being the sixth generation of a family of master perfumers singled her out, if not quite for special treatment, then certainly as an object of curiosity."But that was the last thing I wanted," Guerlain says. "I was embarrassed by the attention, because of course I wanted to be like everybody else. I couldn't understand, back then, why your family name could be so important."
By the time Guerlain reached the age of 18 she was living in London where she attended art school, later relocating to New York. Whilst there she waited tables and bartended in the evenings. There was a pertinent reason for this: she needed the money. "My father was always adamant I look out for myself," she says, "and I was too. I wasn't raised to trade off the family name, or its benefits. I loved painting, being creative, and I wanted to follow those instincts instead." Anyone who ever accused Guerlain of having crudely traded upon her name is sorely mistaken.
Now 36 and living in south-west London with her property dealer husband and two sons, Guerlain is a painter whose work can sell for up to £20,000 a time. Her style, inspired by the likes of Picasso, Matisse and Frida Kahlo, is surrealist, her paintings full of jarring kaleidoscopic colours and revealing the kind of feelings that, in real life, we tend to keep concealed. The interesting point which is raised in Guerlain’s work is that its gaze is set intrinsically, which for a beauty heiress is quite a juxtaposition.
Guerlain diplomatically suggests that, no, this is not a dig at her father's line of work. "It's not that specific," she argues, "but it does try to make the point that we all seem to be increasingly self-critical these days, and that we do all sorts of things to try to make ourselves more ‘acceptable’. I think we'd be far healthier, and happier, if we could just accept ourselves for who we really are."
Elsewhere, she has devoted much of her time working for humanitarian causes, among them a charity called Innocence in Danger.
"The organisation operates in 29 countries and aims to stop paedophilia, child abuse and trafficking," she says. "It's an uncomfortable subject to be around, but it's all too horribly real, and we must raise as much awareness of it as we can, in order to help eradicate it."
Most recently, Guerlain is combining two of her passions through her involvement in the ‘Future Contemporaries’ project with the Serpentine Gallery. Does this mean that her painting will now take a backseat? "Oh no, definitely not. All I have ever wanted is to be recognised as an artist in my own right, and I will continue to paint always," she says. "I have learned in life that nothing is handed to you on a plate, and that sometimes, especially if you have a recognised name, you have to work all the harder to achieve it. But that's fine. I have never been afraid of hard work."
With so much already under her belt and more yet to come, the future certainly looks bright for the perfume heiress turned artist and philanthropist. With future exhibitions on the horizon, alongside her humanitarian work, whatever comes next for Guerlain will no doubt be executed in style.