The Olsens Inc.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Are the Best-Known Twins in America. You May Find
Them Cloying, but It's Time to Take Them Seriously--if Not as Actors, Then
as a Business and a Brand.
It's 5 p.m. and the glass walls of a
12th-story conference room in Century City are filled with pink-streaked
sky. Inside, five cyber-execs shake hands with two look-alike girls who
have agreed to test drive the kidsroom.com section of the company's new
familyroom.com Web site. * "We hope you guys can play the executive
producer roles and give us your feedback," a vice president says as
the twins admire the laptop computer displaying the site.
"It's small enough that I can reach all
the keys," Mary-Kate Olsen says. Then she examines the site itself.
"Color wise, it looks like Christmas."
Adds sister Ashley: "She sees
Christmas, I see watermelons. Also, when you hear kids' room, you think
After a few more comments, the girls' nanny
says it's time for the eighth-graders to go home and study. The
executives, who are talking to Joan Lunden and Leeza Gibbons about
headlining other areas of their family-friendly venture, are pleased.
"They gave us a lot of honest, open feedback," says another VP.
"It's because of Mary-Kate and Ashley that we're going with a hipper,
Remember the bug-eyed, rubber-cheeked twins
who alternated as the baby on "Full House"? They're 13 now. And
they're business executives. Five years after ABC canceled the sitcom that
made them famous, the girls have emerged not as stars but as a brand--like
Legos or Cheetos. While other former child actors file for bankruptcy or
grab unseemly tabloid headlines, these waif-thin girls sit atop a
multifaceted business worth about $60 million and a combined personal
fortune of at least $17 million. "They have earned more than Macaulay
Culkin and Shirley Temple combined," says their lawyer and manager,
Robert Thorne, "and they have saved more."
The girls' company, Dualstar Entertainment
Group, Inc., is going through a growth spurt to parallel their emergence
as teens. By capitalizing on their hip new sensibility as well as their
wholesome little-girl selves, their licensing empire is expected to draw
youngsters into its merchandising web while continuing to grow up with the
twins' established peer audience. An upcoming cartoon, "Trenchcoat
Twins," for example, is a spinoff of a video series about
grade-school gumshoes that the Olsens shot when they were 6 years old. The
Internet site, their new Mattel doll and an upcoming clothing and
accessories line, on the other hand, draw on the girls' blossoming image
as teen fashion mavens. The first software product in their expanding
line, a Game Boy cartridge rushed to stores in time for Christmas, sold
out in two weeks. The twins also want to be directors someday, and their
company's new mini-studio will allow them to produce and eventually direct
movies that they don't star in.
"Over this past year, we've been
getting more involved," Ashley says. "We're old enough now to
understand everything and know what's going on and what should be going
on." She pauses over her angel hair pasta at Spago. Her voice exudes
confidence. Yet something in her look suggests that she has come to expect
such proclamations to be met with a patronizing grin, if not an oooh-how-cute
cheek pinch. With their lighter-than-air cherubic image, the twins always
have been underestimated and misunderstood by adults--even as media-saavy
kids were turning them into a lucrative commodity. Their ascension into
adolescence, however, coincides with corporate America's dawning
recognition that little girls are big business. It may be time to take the
Olsen twins seriously.
* * * Mary-Kate and Ashley
probably won't understand fame's impact on their lives until they're
adults. Right now, they seem quite knowing about where they are on the
maturity/sexuality/astuteness continuum of American adolescence. In
Thorne's office one afternoon, they go over their schedule and wardrobe
for a promotional trip to New York. While they curl up together on an
overstuffed couch, their full-time stylist, Judy Swartz, suggests that
they wear a certain beaded skirt for an appearance on the "CBS
Morning News." Thorne asks whether they'd wear a short,
belly-exposing top with the hip-hugging skirt. "How many inches can
you guys show? How much do you feel comfortable showing? You've got to
tell her so she knows," he says, nodding toward the stylist. Clearly
the girls already have made known the precise parameters of their fashion
comfort zone--one that is a closer to "Melrose Place" than
"Little House on the Prairie"--"Friends," maybe.
Exasperated, they reply in unison: "She knows!"
Before the Olsen twins were Hollywood's most
successful teen businessgirls, they were TV's adorable babies. More than a
dozen years ago, their mother, Jarnette Olsen, went shopping with a friend
and tagged along as the woman dropped by the office of her child's agent.
Jarnette happened to mention that she and her husband, Dave, had
6-month-old twin daughters. The agent asked to see pictures, then offered
to send the girls to audition for the role of the baby on a show about a
widower raising three daughters with the help of two buddies. The twins
landed the role and "Full House" became "The Brady
Bunch" of the '80s and remains one of ABC's longest-running sitcoms.
Jarnette and Dave, who divorced in 1994,
were never typical stage parents. They managed their daughters' lives on
"Full House" by making sure the babies were well cared for and,
as they got older, well educated. "It was the first time (Jarnette
and Dave) had ever been around anything like this," says Bob Saget,
who played the girls' father on the show. "They were just parents.
They were always there. Always."
Despite their presence on the set, neither
parent caught on that the girls were stealing the show. After two years,
other stage mothers pulled Olsen aside. The toddlers were the stars, they
pointed out. And they were still earning SAG scale. That's when Olsen
hired Thorne, a record industry lawyer who had represented pop star
Prince. Thorne got the girls' salary upped from $4,000 an episode to
$25,000, which climbed to $80,000 by the series' last year.
When the girls discuss their work on
"Full House," they describe it as a game. "It was almost
like 'follow the leader' or 'Simon says,' " recalls Ashley, who is
more talkative than her more athletic twin. "The woman who used to be
our teacher would say something like, 'Walk in the room and say, "You
got it, Dude," ' and we'd walk in the room and say 'You got it,
Dude.' We would just copy everything that she said to do. Then they would
cut her voice out in post-production."
They weren't conventionally beautiful
babies, but Mary-Kate and Ashley conveyed a wide-eyed, adorable innocence
that audiences, particularly kids, loved. Soon a children's book
publisher, Parachute Publishing, caught on that "Full House" had
a huge following. In 1990, Parachute published a $4 paperback featuring
Michelle, the character played by the two Olsens, and her older sitcom
sister, Stephanie. The book, based on an episode of the show, sold 70,000
copies. Parachute cranked up the presses for more and soon launched a
series based solely on Michelle. Parachute has published 100 Olsen titles
since then and plans to come out with two new Olsen books a month into the
year 2001. A key to the series' success, according to Parachute vice
president Susan Knopf, is that 80% of all children's books are read to, or
The paperbacks served to cement the bond
between the Olsens and their audience. Most of girls' play, according to a
Mattel spokesperson, revolves around best-friend themes. Girls say that
what they like about Mary-Kate and Ashley is that they're permanent best
friends; they're so close that they even share the same face. "Since
they're twins, they kind of like always have a best friend around
them," says Christine Chun, an 11-year-old Olsens fan from Los
Angeles. "I'd like to have someone who would always be there, like a
best friend who lives with you."
The Olsens themselves say that aside from
the twin factor, their success stems from familiarity. "I think
that's almost exactly what it is," says Mary-Kate. "They feel
like they're close to us because they've seen us grow up--or, well, we're
still growing up. On most TV shows, they have babies on for about a week.
Then they get rid of them and have 2-year-olds. Most kids just stop, but
we kept going and doing videos and doing movies and it kept growing from
And growing. And growing. The girls' first
album, "Brother For Sale," sold 325,000 copies. A follow-up
venture, "Our First Video," sold 400,000. In 1992, "Full
House" producer Jeff Franklin cast the twins in a TV movie, "To
Grandmother's House We Go." They each earned a mere $125,000 to play
Julie and Sarah Thompson in the holiday comedy. But the Neilsen ratings
were a shocker. The movie made it onto that week's top ten. Thorne and his
partner snapped their briefcases shut and headed to ABC to negotiate.
"We walked away with a 13-episode series commitment [the show,
"Two of a Kind," aired six years later] with a million-dollar
kill fee. Three telefilms on anything we wanted and it was a green
light," Thorne recalls. "That's when I knew. That was the
Thorne created Dualstar and hung the title
of "executive producer" on its owners' 7-year-old shoulders.
Since then, the company has produced about 30 direct-to-video romps that
have grossed more than $400 million. The videos have spawned several
additional book series as well as the "Trenchcoat Twins"
cartoon. Even after "Full House" was canceled in 1995, the
videos continued to sell well. "Two of a Kind," launched in
1998, failed to capture an audience and was canceled quickly, yet it too
spawned a book series that kids continue to buy. What's odd is that the
Olsens have maintained an amazing level of acceptance among the sub-teen
audience without ever becoming a fad. Pokemon and Harry Potter may have
been on the cover of Time magazine. But according to Q scores--the
industry's main measure of who's a household name--the Olsen twins, even
without a current TV show or hit movie, are the most popular, recognizable
young Hollywood stars among American kids--girls and boys--between the
ages of 6 and 11. "It astonishes even us," says their publicist.
In 1996, as the twins' success rocketed, the
Olsens quietly divorced. Shortly thereafter, Dave married his current
wife, Mckenzie, with whom he has two children. Jarnette remains unmarried;
she and Dave share custody of their four children, who move back and forth
between households. By all accounts--including those of a watchdog group
set up to police greedy stage parents--Dave and Jarnette continue to
pursue their daughters' best interests. Thorne says they have access to
less of their daughters' income than they are entitled to take by law and
they place more money in trust for the girls than the law requires. The
girls' business does not support either household. And while both parents
maintain upper-middle-class lives, people who know them say neither lives
lavishly. Neither mother nor stepmother works--"not with all of those
kids," says Dave, who now has six children (Jarnette stopped talking
to the media long ago). He has had to cut back continually on his own work
schedule because of the demands of the girls' career, which often involves
shoots on location or promotional tours. "Just this summer, we had
five weeks in Toronto, we had another three and a half weeks in Paris.
Then we had [an] Alaskan cruise, which was 10 days. So obviously it would
be difficult to have a commitment to a specific job. And that's just part
of it. That's just playing baby-sitter."
The laconic amateur golfer and commercial
real estate investor now oversees Dualstar's finances while leaving the
detailed decision-making to his daughters, Thorne and other staffers in
the expanding production company. Just keeping track of his daughters'
contracts is a huge job, he says. "Time is just getting so much
shorter with the six kids and with the direction the girls are heading.
They're actually forming mini-companies in all these different areas. You
can just imagine the mountains of memos I receive on a daily basis on all
these contracts. It's becoming all-time-consuming."
He says he doesn't think of the twins as
multimillionaires because he drives them to sleepovers and tells them to
clean their rooms just as he does his other children. The girls say they
aren't interested in money (although when pressed, each says she wants a
Range Rover when she grows up). Dad plans to start explaining the
financial intricacies of his daughters' business to them next year. For
now, he stresses that they must learn to take responsibility. "They
know they have financial advisors. They understand their money's invested
in stocks as well as the bank. I try to educate them that there's a system
in place that I want them to continue with when they get older. That is
extremely important, especially before they turn 18," he says,
referring to the age when the money reverts to their control.
* * * Although their
executive producer job is mostly a sinecure, for six years the twins have
owned the copyright on every video, book and album that bears their name.
The girls had resisted merchandising beyond those items. But when Mattel
approached them last year about dolls with the twins' faces, things
changed. Suddenly, the wide-eyed Munchkins were old enough to express
strong opinions about how the dolls should be dressed and marketed. They
had been highlighting their hair for about a year, and as they lost their
baby fat, they were emerging as very pretty young girls with a style they
describe as "simple but funky."
While Hollywood smirked at the Olsen twins,
the business community--based on reports from retailers, video
distributors and booksellers--saw the girls as Princess Midases. America's
infatuation with youth was soaring and as huge retail chains replaced Main
Street specialty shops across America, they filled their shelves with
name-brand products. "The retail base is only going for established
names," says Eileen Fitzpatrick, Billboard magazine's digital
entertainment editor. "That's the most important thing in
entertainment today: branding."
Besides inking deals for the dolls (as well
as the video games and the cartoon), the company recently signed with a
New York licensing agency, the Beanstalk Group, to cut deals for a line of
hip girls' clothing, accessories and cosmetics that is tentatively called
MK&A. Beanstalk co-chairman Michael Stone says the Olsens interested
him because their empire is built on the solid foundation of books.
"For an entertainment property to be successful over the long term,
we believe it has to consistently deliver a fantasy to the core audience.
Mary-Kate and Ashley fulfill for girls the fantasy. Girls want to be like
Mary-Kate and Ashley." Weston Anson, a consultant in La Jolla who
specializes in the evaluation of intellectual property, estimates that
with the recent deals in place, the Olsen brand is worth about $60
million. "The unique thing is that they are a juvenile or 'tween'
phenomenon and they really exist, as opposed to Nancy Drew or
Barbie," he says.
So far, no one is comparing the Olsens'
acting ability to young Jodie Foster's, and few are projecting that
they'll have the impact on Hollywood of little Ronnie Howard. Variety gave
"Two of a Kind" a "C" rating and called it
"formulaic." Entertainment Weekly referred to the twins as the
"Stepford scamps." Someone at Billboard said: "I cannot
take another one of these stupid Olsen twins videos."
The twins don't read their reviews unless
Thorne faxes one to them, an arrangement befitting where they are at this
moment: poised between innocence and budding independence. But as the
business world discovers girl power, the Olsens seem to be finding
At a casting session for their "You're
Invited to Mary-Kate and Ashley's School Dance Party" video, each
twin chose which actor would play her boyfriend. They also told the writer
that some phrases were dated or inappropriate for teenagers. "I
wouldn't say 'crazy,' " Ashley offered at the late-afternoon meeting
around a conference table in Beverly Hills. "I'd say 'frustrated' or
"Done," the writer replied, making
notes on the script.
For a recent spate of appearances on news
shows, Swartz, their stylist, bought $680 worth of fabric and had pants
tailor-made for them. The total bill was $2,150. What 13-year-old girl
wouldn't love this level of attention to her wardrobe? "I've been
taking them from a child look to sophisticated fashion trendsetters,"
Swartz says. "The girls are very fashion-oriented. They're
fashion-forward. They're into clothes and like to look good."
One afternoon at Thorne's office, the lawyer
sits near them on the edge of a couch and presents various items for their
approval. The girls are tired. Mary-Kate has a headache and a sore throat.
Ashley is eager to go home and write a school essay that's due the
following day. They've complained--without success--that Thorne has
scheduled too many satellite-feed TV interviews during a promotional trip
to New York. "Twelve is too many, Robert," Ashley says.
"OK," he teases, "let's spend a couple of weeks and fly to
all these cities to do the interviews. This way it's two and a half, three
hours and you're out, you're shopping in SoHo." They don't raise the
When Thorne passes them cover photos for a
new interactive CD-ROM, they groan, almost in unison. "These are the
worst pictures I've ever seen in my life," Mary-Kate says with flat
affect, as though she's simply stating fact and isn't particularly upset
by the pictures. "Look at my teeth. I'm going like this," Ashley
adds, biting her upper teeth across her bottom lip sideways.
"It's a hippie look," Thorne
explains, adding a joke about the psychedelic '60s: "People took
stuff back then."
He's kidding and Ashley knows it, but she
rolls her eyes in that distinctly adolescent gesture that says what a
total loser. "Hopefully," Ashley says, "that's not a
message we're trying to get across."
It's one of those intriguing moments in the
twins' public-private lives. They're cruising through life in a limousine
driven by adults but their hands--hands still too tiny for a regular-sized
computer keyboard--are reaching tentatively for the steering wheel. Back
and forth they go from self-assurance to insecurity. Just like every girl.
But with a decidedly Olsen twins twist.
After an appearance on "Good Day
L.A.," Ashley asks Thorne if adults take them seriously when they say
they want to direct.
"Of course," Thorne says.
Ashley nods and replies: "Because I
want to say, 'I also want to be really active in running my company,' but
I think they'll laugh at me."
* * * Dominique Moceanu, the
Olympic gymnast who "divorced" her parents to gain control of
the money she earned, says that since the twins have been working all
their lives, they are probably accustomed to the business stress. What's
tough, she says, is growing up. "There's just a lot of things you've
got to learn on your way up. When you're a kid, everybody's watching out
for you and taking care of you. When you get older, it's a little
tougher," says Moceanu, who may see her life turned into a biopic by
the Olsen twins' new studio.
People who work with Ashley and Mary-Kate
describe them as "normal," "sweet" and
"adorable." "There has been no disruptive behavior, no
allegations of precocious awareness of any of the perils of
adolescence," says Paul Petersen, 54, who played Jeff on "The
Donna Reed Show" and later founded a nonprofit group, A Minor
Consideration, to protect kid stars. "I have no grief with the Olsen
mom, dad, the management team or the way they're handling the trust. In
fact, they're doing rather well."
Think about it: Because they hit it big as
babies and then went on to make their own videos, the Olsens have had the
most protected stardom in Hollywood: no auditions, no loneliness on sets
populated exclusively by adults, no uncomfortable lunches with sleazy
producers. The girls attend a private school and are careful not to reveal
its name, or where they live. None of their friends are kid stars. They're
far removed from the schmooze scene (at Spago, Mary-Kate sighs, "We
haven't been out to dinner for a lo-o-ong time.")
The themes for their videos grow out of
their own interests: They wanted to go to France, so last summer's
direct-to-video romp was "Passport to Paris"--now the No.
1-selling kids' video in America.
Still, a recent study of former child stars
indicates that more than 40% struggle with alcohol or drug abuse at some
point. Those outside the Olsen inner circle fear that the girls' working
childhood might cause problems later. When asked about it, the twins
shrug. "We're not bad girls so we don't have to worry about all of
that," says Ashley. "We're just like anybody else," says
Mary-Kate. "Except we travel a little bit more and we're on TV."
That everygirl aspect of their lives may be
the hard part. The twins will tell you, for instance, that getting ready
to cheerlead in front of their classmates is far more nerve-racking than
getting ready for a shoot that may be viewed by millions. Peer pressure
still seems to trump career pressure. Friends are more important than
fans, and that built-in best friend thing endures.
When Mary-Kate mentions that she loves
English-style horseback riding and competes over two-foot jumps, Ashley
adds that her sister recently won blue ribbons in two horse shows.
"She's very good. She's been riding since she was, like, 5 so. . .
Mary-Kate cuts her off: "Ashley, I'm
not that good."
"Yes, she is," Ashley whispers.
Now Mary-Kate is annoyed. In a voice
slightly huskier than her sister's, she says, "No, Ashley, I'm not. I
haven't been riding since I was 5. I rode Western when I was 5 to 7."
After a pause, she says riding is her passion and that she always has
loved horses. Then she remembers the part about blue ribbons and scrunches
up her face. "I don't want you to mention that," she tells a
reporter, clearly mortified that her friends might think she's bragging,
that she is--horror of all adolescent horrors--conceited. "I'd feel
all weird, like I was saying, 'Oh, yeah, I got first place.' I'd feel,
like, awkward saying that 'cause it's not, like, a big deal or
That seems to be how these teens see
themselves. Like, not a big deal. And that's probably a good thing. The
moment they see themselves as, like, The Olsen Twins is probably the
moment American girls stop seeing themselves in Ashley and Mary-Kate.