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They're Winners: Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, indistinguishable from their plastic toy counterparts, enjoy riding horses, shopping, and talking about boys when they're not managing their commercial empire.

Under Perfect Skin

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen rule the world

By Sara Bir

I went into the Big Lots store to buy discounted Easter candy. What I walked out with was a Mary-Kate and Ashley "Let's Hang Out" playset, which I set up on my desk at work the next day. It looks like a miniature version of an average teenage girl's dream rec room: wide-screen TV, laptop computer, fancy stereo, CD tower, splashy-print beanbags. All that's missing are the doll versions of Mary-Kate and Ashley, but their absence casts the illusion that the twins are on location shooting another direct-to-video romp, soon to return and resume hanging out like any other normal kids.

Real-life Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are slender and sunny media-perfect 16-year-olds--goofy and easygoing but not too spirited to be threatening--who are preoccupied with getting their driver's licenses and probably would never date a ne'er-do-well loser rebel guy. They like to dance, make movies, and shop.

If the tiny contents of the playset represent their true interests, then hanging out for Mary-Kate and Ashley dolls means watching Mary-Kate and Ashley movies, playing Mary-Kate and Ashley Game Boy games, reading Mary-Kate and Ashley paperbacks, browsing through Mary-Kate and Ashley magazine, and perusing www.mary-kateandashley.com. Beyond the size, it's difficult to discern the difference between the plastic toys and the plastic people.

Even with all of the glitter-caked facets in their ultraspecialized media empire, which span every conceivable commercial outlet known to consumer culture--books, videos, toys, movies, video games, TV shows, a website, a magazine, clothing--the oft-projected image of America's current favorite twins (excluding the recently unjoined Marias) does not delve much deeper than their mini Meg Ryan haircuts and midriff-bearing, bedazzled designer T-shirts. The living Mary-Kate and Ashley don't seem to have much to offer that would set them apart from their 8-inch toy counterparts.

Becoming Perfect

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsens' path to tween (a most awful contraction for a most awful age, between little kid and bona fide teenager) domination began for them at the tender age of nine months, when the wee bairns shared the role of little Michelle Tanner on ABC's dreckfest Full House. Starring Bob "America's Funniest Home Videos" Saget, the show was a sitcom hit with a nine-season tenure. Baby Michelle quickly became the show's most doted-on character, her toddling appearance in any scene inevitably eliciting canned awws from the studio audience.

You can imagine the charm implicit in discovering that adorable Michelle turned out to be played by not one but two real-life moppets. Enter Dualstar, the company responsible for transforming Mary-Kate and Ashley from little girls into a brand name.

During the middle seasons of Full House, the mothers of fellow child co-stars Candace Cameron and Jodie Sweetin advised the twins' parents, Dave and Jarnie Olsen, to arrange better payment for their daughters, who were clearly the show's biggest assets. Dad Olsen hired show business lawyer Robert Thorne to tend to this--which Thorne did, but the lawyer also smelled major untapped money potential beyond the twins' salary.

This was back when a sulky Macaulay Culkin's parents were locked in a bitter custody battle over their son, who wanted nothing to do with them. Thorne wanted to arrange a deal that allowed no one else but the twins themselves the option to exploit Mary-Kate and Ashley mania. He called the company Dualstar, with Mary-Kate and Ashley its shareholders and owners. At six, they were entitled to all the profit they made from any feature they starred in; it also made them the only six-year-old producers in Hollywood. The twins went from making $2,400 per episode at the start of Full House to $80,000 an episode by its close in 1995.

So Dave and Jarnie Olsen found themselves with pint-sized goldmines in their hands, and Dualstar's Olsen machine kicked into high gear. 1993's quadruple-platinum Our First Video (yes, their first video) set off a domino chain of Dualstar direct-to-video releases that more or less fictionalized MK&A's real-life childhood onscreen.

When Full House ended its run, the twins Olsen (then 10) were freed up to devote themselves entirely to Dualstar's ever branching tree of projects. Instead of the show's demise plummeting the twins' popularity off a cliff, it propelled their fame into a profitable orbit in its own right.

All of this wheeling, dealing, and working affected the impressionable minds of the child stars not too terribly much, it turns out. According to a 1998 bio, "If the Olsens seem like they are having a lot of fun, it may be because what they do professionally so closely parallels their real-life interests. Among their favorite things to do are to act, sing, shop, watch MTV, enjoy the great outdoors, dance, play baseball, ride horses, and spend quality time with their real-life family."

That was four years ago, though. Since then MK&A turned candy-sweet 16, sprouted boobs and girlish little figures--as superstars in blossom will--and turned the subject matter of their videos and TV shows away from ballet and ponies to boys, designer handbags, and boys. They launched their own magazine (currently in limbo, as their publisher, H&S Media, went out of business) and two more television series--the Saturday morning cartoon Mary-Kate and Ashley in Action on ABC, and the live-action So Little Time on the Fox Network family channel.

Despite their financial clout, the girls' allowance in 1998 was a modest $10 a week. Now, even though their schedules are packed, the social lives of Mary-Kate and Ashley have not strayed to big-time jet-set indulgences.

The girls both have nonfamous, long-term steady boyfriends, and--unlike Britney--have not yet been caught smoking, let alone choking on their own vomit on the sidewalk in front of the Viper Room. The adult world hasn't really caught on to them like it did with Britney, though, and the twins are mostly still a teen phenomenon, leaving the girls more room to be girls and less pressure to be adults.

So even though the busy, high-profile life they lead is by no stretch of the imagination normal, it's probably as normal as it can be. The girls seem unscandalously well-adjusted. "They like acting," their father told the Wall Street Journal in 1997. "As soon as they stop enjoying it, it ends." Apparently, Mary-Kate and Ashley still enjoy acting. A lot. Right now on Amazon.com, there are 59 videos available starring Mary-Kate and Ashley.

Once MK&A hit puberty, Dualstar began preening the twins ad infinitum.The gawky average young girls of white-bread America, who are normal to begin with, can't covet normality because that's what makes up their whole life. To them, Mary-Kate and Ashley represent impossibly über-normal, liberated, middle-class princesses, girls who have all the latest styles they desire at their sparkle-polished fingertips and with makeup artists to camouflage any acne they might incur.

They live in L.A. and own their own horses. They fly to the Bahamas and play with dolphins on camera. They have more of a chance of meeting Prince William than 8 billion other girls do. Not only do they have their own website, they have a staff to make it for them. The twins are Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, Betty and Veronica, Debbie Gibson, Madonna, Hayley Mills, and the Mickey Mouse Club all rolled up into two boy-crazy, flirtatious, mystery-solving, fashion-spellbound go-getters who use the words "cool," "awesome," and "whatever" to excess.

A few years ago they stopped being girls and became miniaturized characters lifted from Friends. You get the feeling that when Mary-Kate and Ashley have their menses, the fluid dappling their maxi pads is as blue and clear and clean as Windex, just like on TV commercials. Real periods for real girls.

In keeping with the further specialization and fragmentation of target demographics, tweens have their own stores, scores of their own magazines, their own wardrobe of pocket video-game systems, and their own technicolor junk foods. Mary-Kate and Ashley, whose product line includes a tie-in to every possible commodity, are ideal Generation Z superstars.

No big companies are competing with Dualstar, which may be the key to the twins' hefty market share. Mary-Kate and Ashley have an umbrella that extends over not only onscreen entertainment but clothing, books, music, games, toys, and periodicals--and it's all specifically girl-oriented, whereas the bulk of children's media is for boys or families. What other tween sensations offer that all-in-one tidy company, one whose motto is "Real Talk for Real Girls"?

Peas in a Media Pod

It's hard for an Olsen novice to tell the twins apart. Of course they look like each other--they're twins. But in real life, do they act like each other? Is one painfully shy while the other is a brazen go-getter? Hmm. Here's a 2000 interview from TheCelebrityCafe.com, straight from the Olsens' mouth:

TheCelebrityCafe.com: What are some of the basic differences in personalities between the two of you?

Ashley: Well, there are many differences. We each have our own likes and dislikes, like any sisters would, but the basic difference? Probably that Mary-Kate loves to ride horses and I love to dance more.

Alas, there don't appear to be dark, buried tragic flaws, their own private and exclusive causes for dissent. Mary-Kate is not secretly goth, Ashley is not struggling with sexual identity issues. They are boy-crazy, mall-mad teenage girls who, beyond the fleeting amusement and cotton-candy escapism of their TVmoviestoysmagazinebooksvideo-gamesclothingline, have nothing substantial to offer us. Oprah has a personality, Martha has too much of a personality, and Britney can at least sing. Mary-Kate and Ashley are chirpy pseudotartlets who don't even offer the thrill of being rebellious.

Their book series (there are six) offer another glimpse at the picture-perfect world MK&A/Dualstar have created. The contrived scenarios in titles like Too Many Teddies, The Case of the Cheerleading Camp Mystery, and Calling All Boys have 10-year-old girls atwitter with vicarious popularity.

Here's a random sample from the beginning of Two of a Kind: It's Snow Problem:

"I can't decide. Should I wear this sweater for the Winter Festival, or this sweater?"

Twelve-year-old Mary-Kate Burke glanced up from her desk. Her twin sister Ashley was standing in the doorway of her dorm room. She held a fluffy pink cardigan in one hand and a black cashmere turtleneck in the other.

"I do look totally awesome in pink." Ashley held the cardigan up to her chest and struck a supermodel pose. Then she did the same thing with the turtleneck. "But I look totally awesome in black, too. Hmm, major dilemma!"

On to the videos. Faced with all the options at the video store, I had trouble deciding. There was Holiday in the Sun, but Winning London looked better. And, hmm, Our Lips Are Sealed was filmed in Australia. I've never been there! I wound up renting two--Winning London and Our Lips Are Sealed--because what better way to dissect the Olsens than by watching not one but two of their movies. One per twin.

After watching Our Lips Are Sealed, I can kind of tell who is who now. Ashley has a higher voice, longer hair, and is made out to be ditzier than Mary-Kate, who is also ditzy, but just the slightest degree spunkier.

Our Lips Are Sealed was really not so bad. It was rather like a made-for-television movie or a throwaway Disney TV special, and those can be fun from time to time. I liked the Mondrian-inspired go-go dresses that the twins wore to the yacht party. And the script did manage a few high points of near cleverness; e.g., a priceless jewel that winds up in Ashley's possession is called the Kneel Diamond and the movie ends with "Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show" playing over the credits.

Turn on Your Heartlight

Even given our possibly shared Neil Diamond soft spot, one thing still bugs me about the dual stars: Mary-Kate and Ashley present a conflicted message with almost every product they pump off the assembly line. Our Lips Are Sealed was supposed to have the moral that "popularity doesn't matter," but with trendy outfits aplenty and two cute boyfriends, by the end of the movie the girls have won popularity from everyone.

Their website offers daily thoughts, such as "Put your mistakes to good use; learn from them" and "The simple things in life bring the most happiness." Then, after absorbing those Zen capsules of inner clarity and truth, you can click on the "Real Beauty" archives and read about how to get your eyebrows waxed, just like your favorite Hollywood stars!

Mary-Kate and Ashley make crummy role models because there is nothing outright objectionable about them until you realize that they are doing their job all too well. So convincing are they as mild-mannered typical teens that you begin to overlook the product placement and feverish materialism that colors every last cross-promotional Dualstar-licensed tidbit.

At KB Toys in the mall, the arrival of the new Mary-Kate and Ashley "Sweet Sixteen" dolls bumped the Mary-Kate and Ashley "Movie Magic" dolls off the display shelves and into the mark-downs. The accessories with the "Sweet Sixteen" dolls were better, but I liked the twins' clothing for "Movie Magic" more, plus their hairstyles were less scraggly. And only $6.99 per doll! I had an empty "Let's Hang Out" playset on my desk yearning for them. If I had dolls to occupy it, I could reward myself during the grueling weekdays with little breaks, posing the twins or changing their outfits. My playset was sitting there going to waste!

Little Plastic People

As it turns out, the plastic Mary-Kate and Ashley on my desk have become very comfortable in their plastic Mary-Kate and Ashley world. Sometimes they read their magazine, and they watch their TV show on Saturday morning. On Sundays they ride their horse or go to the mall. And what does the future hold for them? Maybe Ashley will elope with Steve from Blue's Clues. Maybe Mary-Kate will become a reclusive Buddhist monk, leaving Ashley to hold down Monostar by herself as the "Olsen Twin." Maybe they will attend Harvard and become brilliant literary critics or physicists.

Or maybe they will go on forever releasing direct-to video frolics (Double Divorcées on the Town, Menopause Madness, You're Invited to Mary-Kate and Ashley's Nursing Home Party) into eternity. And maybe, just maybe, no one will care.

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From the August 15-21, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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