It's fun to walk down a Los Angeles street flanked by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. First you have to get over feeling like Andre the Giant as you clomp alongside them, because they are small — Mary-Kate is five feet one, Ashley five feet two, both a size zero. They dart gracefully through passersby like a pair of dragonflies, while everyone else seems to lumber.
What's entertaining is to watch people's faces as the girls head to a favorite breakfast place, the annoyingly named but tasty Urth Caffe. They all do a triple take. What registers first is: Hmm, twins. Next: Pretty twins! And finally: Are they...?
As the two enter the cafe, a pair of college-age guys give them the up-and-down. "God, they are hot," one breathes. "I'll take the one on the left, you take the other," says his pal. They stay rooted to the spot, of course. In the meantime, an eight-year-old girl, who has the stunned look of Wile E. Coyote after the anvil lands on his head, approaches for an autograph.
"Of course!" they say in chorus. As they chat with their trembling admirer, the two do not even notice their older fans, who watch them, mouths slightly open, hands dangling at their sides.
Famous since they were nine months old, the Olsens, now seventeen, are like your friend's heretofore-unnoticed kid sister who has suddenly grown up. Because they seem to have lived a charmed life, are reportedly worth $150 million each and are largely absent from the usual E! network red-carpet hoo-ha, there is an aura of tantalizing mystery around them. Or perhaps it's just sheer nose-against-the-glass curiosity: This year the mary-kateandashley brand will move a projected $1 billion worth of merchandise. Bars and Web sites feature a countdown to their eighteenth birthday. ("Find out if the twins are already legal in your state!" says one site. "Avoid pesky jail time and legal fees!") Howard Stern mentions them on the air regularly and enthusiastically.
Still, seventeen is a dangerous age for a child star — not to mention a child mogul. In some ways, it's easy to craft an image of ideal girlhood. Almost everyone agrees that little Missy should be sweet and spunky and pretty. But once you get to be eighteen, everybody has a different idea: One part of the audience might have gone goth; the other might, have taken the cheer-leader route. The idea is to slowly turn Mary-Kate and Ashley into actual movie stars without alienating their young fans, who once crowded 20,000 strong into Minnesota's Mall of America when the twins made an appearance, chanting, "Olsen! Olsen!" as the floor vibrated and seven bodyguards attempted to keep order.
Their next film, New York Minute, might carry a PG-13 rating and will be marketed to boys as well as girls. "We're shooting for nineteen-and twenty-year-olds," says Robert Thorne, CEO of Dualstar Entertainment Group, the girls' privately held production company. '"What a Girl Wants, The Lizzie McGuire Movie — we're working hard not to do that." Instead, they are shooting for big, mainstream comedies in the vein of Meet the Parents or Mrs. Doubtfire.
"We have to take into consideration the people who want to watch us," says Mary-Kate. "And we're still going to keep those little kids happy."
Girls go bonkers over Mary-Kate and Ashley because they seem hip yet approachable. There's even a theory floating around that their popularity has been sustained by an explosion in multiple births — about one in every thirty-five births in the U.S. is to twins.
Later that day the girls meet at a tea place called Elixir that sells drinks such as Liquid Yoga, which it calls "a chill-at-will tonic." Mary-Kate breezes in first, in a black blazer, tan sweats, flip-flops and an old Van Halen T-shirt. The perfect California girl, she looks even better after a day at the beach: gold-flecked skin, shiny blond hair, as fresh and organic as the strawberries she nibbles on.
Her cell phone rings: Ashley. "You're late? OK. I got a parking ticket — twenty-six bucks! OK. Love you." They end most conversations that way.
Ashley hurries in a few minutes later, full of apologies, wearing ripped jeans, a gray hooded sweater and Birkenstocks. She's the older sister by two minutes and is an inch taller. They are fraternal twins, but they do look almost exactly alike.
As they talk, they fasten their clear blue-green eyes on you. "Their eyes were always what made people like them when they were young," says their Full House co-star Bob Saget. "They have big, beautiful eyes." And the same slightly wistful smile that they had as toddlers. In person, they have the big-goggled vulnerability of children in a Margaret Keane painting, which may in part describe their incredible appeal. They do not seem hardened by the world. They show no angry edge, no indefinable hurt. In fact, what is striking is how blessedly ordinary they seem.
Ashley is rattled because she was late. "Ashley's more of a Type A personality, I would say," says Mary-Kate.
"I get nervous in big crowds," says Ashley. "I check the exits to make sure that if there's a fire, an emergency, we know where to get out."
"That's why I always feel really safe," says Mary-Kate. "Because Ashley gets nervous for the both of us." She sits up, rigid. "I had a scary thing happen to me this morning. I got out of my shower, and there's a big black spider crawling up my leg. I keep itching, thinking it bit me." She shudders.
"I don't kill spiders, because I always feel bad," says Ashley, and points to Mary-Kate. "I remember years ago, when I swatted a fly, you said, 'What if it had a brother or a sister? Do you know how sad the other would be?'"
When they go to college next year — most likely in New York — the self-described best friends plan to live together and maintain a satellite office of Dualstar Entertainment so they can star in and produce films. The sisters have only been separated once, for two weeks when they went to camp. They spend virtually every second together, so it's not surprising that they never considered rooming apart. "Ashley and I would live together until we had children," says Mary-Kate. "Can you imagine us going to different schools?" In the eighth grade, a school official once advised them to go on separate school trips, suggesting that it was not healthy to be together all the time.
"We're like, 'Yeah, buddy,'" says Mary-Kate. "People can think what they want. If I'm happy and my sister's happy, that's all that really matters."
Throughout the years, the two have always insisted they lead normal lives. They love yoga, talking on the phone, going to movies and the beach, Dave Matthews Band and Coldplay. They attend a small private high school and have structured their lives to resemble those of their friends. Sometimes this means making sacrifices of an almost surreal nature. Last spring, Oprah wanted to book them, but they had to turn her down to study for their SATs.
"Some of my friends say, 'You're kidding — they really care about going to college, with all they've accomplished so far?'" says their dad, Dave Olsen, a commercial real-estate developer who sits on Dualstar's board. "They are as worried about getting into school as anyone else's kids, and nobody can believe it. They've been a wreck about their SATs."
To maintain this normalcy, they closely guard their privacy, so they are still smarting from last year's interview with Connie Chung, in which she asked them about their virginity.
"I got really angry and defensive," says Ashley, frowning. "I was like, 'That's personal. Why would you be asking a sixteen-year-old that question in the first place?'" They were further mortified when paparazzi photos of the two in their bikinis, on vacation in Hawaii, surfaced in the tabloids. "My worst nightmare," says Ashley. "I was crying hysterically."
Because of their wealth and fame, the girls have bodyguards, but they stay in the background, thus furthering the illusion that they are normal girls. I spent two days with the pair and had no idea that they had protection until a burly fellow materialized and told Mary-Kate he was going to move her car to avoid a ticket.
"We have our little guardian angels with us," says Ashley. "It can get so silly sometimes, but I guess it's for — just in case." They cringe when their bank account is mentioned and claim not to know how much they are worth. Their only big purchases have been Range Rovers for their sixteenth birthday. At one point at Elixir, Mary-Kate knocks her purse off the table. Only two items spill out: a tube of pink Chanel lip gloss and a cell phone with a sparkly sticker of a glowworm on it.
Despite their efforts to be ordinary — chores at home, a curfew — reality has a way of occasionally intruding. Take their college-application essay. "We don't want to bring our work life into our school life, but then what do we say for a question like 'Have you ever had a paying job before?'" says Mary-Kate, absently applying the lip gloss. "We're seeing our college counselors today to figure out how we should answer things like "What have you done before?' 'Videos, movies, dolls, fashion lines.' Honestly, what are we supposed to say?"
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen slacked off until they were nine months old, and then they got to work. Born in 1986, they grew up in the Valley with mother Jarnette, father Dave and older brother Trent, now a freshman at UCLA. Their folks got divorced in 1995, so the girls split their time between Jarnette and Dave, who lives with the twins' stepmother, McKenzie; younger sister Lizzie, 14; and two half-siblings, Taylor, 6, and Jake, 5.
The girls became television stars by a fluke. Jarnette's friend represented a Burbank casting agency that was looking for twins. For the hell of it, Jarnette sent a photo, and soon she got a call from the Full House folks to bring the girls to audition for the role of Michelle (infants only work about twenty minutes at a time, so twins give you forty minutes). The producers were immediately charmed by the unfazed Olsens, and in short order they got the job.
The girls were an instant hit. For the first few years, they were too young to read cue cards, so a baby wrangler said the girls' lines off camera, Ashley or Mary-Kate repeated them and producers cut the wrangler's voice in postproduction.
As their popularity grew, Dave Olsen found lawyer Robert Thorne, who promptly renegotiated their pay from around $4,000 to $25,000 per episode and ensured that the girls were taken care of by a nurturing ring of insiders. Olsen, 51, has been instrumental in making sure the girls kept it real. A laid-back but traditional guy who believes in respecting your elders and being polite, Olsen keeps house "kind of like the military. I have six kids, so everybody has to have some responsibility." He limited their TV watching and paid them an allowance if the chores were completed.
Dave may run a tight ship, but he's still able to embarrass the girls in a way that only a dad can. "If it's some kind of company or wrap party," he says, "boy, they don't want to see me on the dance floor."
With structure in place at home and on the set, the Olsens' juggernaut continued. When they were in first grade, they made their first TV movie. When it nearly trounced 60 Minutes in the ratings, Thorne negotiated a deal whereby the sisters would supply movies to the network through their own production company and then named them producers — the youngest in Hollywood, ever — at the age of six.
Once the plan was in place, a direct-to-video mystery series followed, then a flotilla of albums, which included many odes to food ("Gimme Pizza") as well as the occasional subversive lyric. (From "Stayin' Cool": "This heat has turned us crispy/Splat some butter on, we're toast/Or fill us full of bread crumbs/And call us stuffed twin roast.")
Then came the adventure movies, a preteen dream gig. Shot on the twins' summer breaks, the films took place in Hawaii! Sea World! Rome! Paris! "We got to pick the guys that would be in the film," says Mary-Kate, who would watch audition tapes with her sister to select their favorites.
After Full House ended in 1995, the two had some misses — a canceled sitcom, a magazine — and more hits, such as the movie Passport to Paris, which featured the girls' first onscreen kiss. (The director suspects it was Mary-Kate's first kiss of any kind, because she was jumpy and did a dozen takes.) As the girls continued to put out videos, their wardrobe gal noticed that fans would always demand to know where they got their clothes. It got her to thinking.
Which got Thorne to thinking...
Robert Thorne stands in his corner office at Dualstar Entertainment Group, a company with sixty-two employees located in a Century City high-rise. The CEO of Dualstar since 2001, he has a dry sense of humor and a perpetually distracted air. "He's always thinking about 200 different things," says Ashley.
Thorne gives a tour of the office so quickly he is almost speed-walking, stopping once to futz with the chairs in the lobby. He likes things placed a certain way.
He points out the clothing-design studios, then stops in another room that looks like a giant closet. "Here's the toddler line. and plus size, because the girls don't want to be exclusive, they want to be inclusive." The other end of the room looks like a CVS store after a looting — mary-kateand-ashley shampoo, perfume, Go Sparkle Roll On Scented Shimmer Powder.
He rounds another storage room piled with CDs and videos. "The girls are involved in every decision," he says over his shoulder. Back in his office, Thorne espouses his utter confidence in the girls' ability. "Mary-Kate and Ashley will become movie stars ultimately," he says in his staccato way. "It will happen." He disappears to take a call.
While he is gone, I pick up a candle on his desk and sniff it. When he comes back, he spots the transgression immediately and moves it back half an inch.
"I've been asked since they were four, 'What are you going to do next year?'" says Thorne. "But every year there's a new challenge." He plans to bring guys into the mix by launching a Mary-kateandashley clothing line for males. "First, people have to get over the perception that I'm insane," he says. "But it will work. Donna Karan sells to men and Giorgio Armani sells to women." For New York Minute, Thorne also has a plan to appeal to college-age guys.
"One word," he says. "It starts with c."
Hmm. OK, not that word. Not that word, either.
"Comedy," he announces. "That's the way. Our videos and feature films are never funny at the level I want them to be funny."
Thorne will carefully move the girls into more sophisticated fare by having them produce movies for networks like MTV or Lifetime. "They won't star in them, and they'll have more latitude as producers," he says. The subjects, he says enigmatically, "will be really hard-edge, horrible things that have happened in this country that they want people to know about."
Thorne's contract states that there's no venture he can undertake without the girls' rubber stamp. "They can mandate and veto, but I can do neither," he says.
Anyway, most of the time they are all in agreement. They put the kibosh on food products, for example. "Mary-Kate and Ashley fruit nibbles," says Mary-Kate, rolling her eyes.
"No fruit nibbles," says Ashley.
Later that day, we return to Elixir. They are wearing casual get-ups – Birkenstocks and loose cotton pants. The duo is notoriously modest, a happy bonus for archconservative Wal-Mart, whose executives would prefer that they not show their midriffs in public. "It's out for us," says Ashley. "But I just don't like showing my body like that. It's just not me. Honestly, what you see is what you get with us. It's not like, 'Oh, I wish I was wearing a miniskirt to this premiere, but I can't.' " She shudders. "I would kill myself if I was in a miniskirt."
The girls freely admit they're not the Hilton sisters. They don't smoke or drink. "We don't, but I'm not one to judge," says Mary-Kate. And they are adamant that they're not going to have a Tara Reid-style freakout in years to come.
"This was our life since we were nine months old," says Ashley, reaching over to pick a stray petal out of Mary-Kate's hair. "It's not like someone who is fifteen who comes into it and isn't from L.A. and is like, 'Wow, this is so great.'"
Even when they are able to get to their money, the bulk of which is held in trust until they're eighteen, their plans don't get any more debauched than opening a children's hospital. They do have their share of dates, however. Ashley goes out with Columbia University freshman Matt Kaplan, 18, whom she met in high school.
"I introduced them," says Mary-Kate.
"We go out to dinner, go to a movie," says Ashley. "It's pretty boring."
Mary-Kate is currently single. Interested applicants should have a good sense of humor and a sense of adventure. Although she may not be on the market for long, having just gone to a Dodgers game with a boy she will not name ("If it doesn't work out, I'll just feel like a loser"). Her sister drove her there. "She wouldn't let me talk to her," says Ashley, teasing. "She was like, 'Shut up.'"
The girls decide to go to a nearby boutique to try on dresses for the Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle premiere, in which they have cameos. Ashley jumps in her Range Rover. "My car might be a little messy," she says. There's a yoga mat on the floor and a bunch of Dualstar memos that slide as she rounds a corner.
Ashley says that often one sister will accompany the other if she is out with a guy. "At the very beginning, I would probably not have my sister come along," she says. "It takes time to get to where you're comfortable having a third wheel around. But then we'll all go out to dinner and have so much fun."
Ashley's cell phone rings as she hits a stoplight. "Hello?" she says. It is Mary-Kate, in the Range Rover behind her. "What station? K-Big 104?" She adjusts the radio, and "All Wanna Do" by Sheryl Crow comes on. "Oh, it's that song we like!" She turns up the radio. "Thanks," she says. "Love you."