"Two Teens, One Brand, Infinite Possibilities"
Imagine that you've never had a bad hair day. Ever. At least, not since you've had hair. Imagine having had stylists since the age of nine months. Imagine having your own clothing line at age 15.
Imagine having executives from the likes of Fox TV and AOL Time Warner attend a yearly meeting in your honor. Imagine that that meeting is called a "summit."
The Olsen twins don't have to imagine. The Olsen twin "summit" took place in mid-January, according to a publicist at Warner Bros. The two teens have grown up famous, and are now poised to become moguls to rival Oprah. Either that, or they're poised to go down in flames that will dwarf the publicity around the Different Strokes scandals by a magnitude of, well, two.
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are twin stars who made their chipper, dimpled debut at nine months of age, on the chipper, dimpled sitcom Full House. That was in 1987. Since then, Full House has faded into syndicated backwaters, and the show's lead character, hunky uncle Jessie, has been relegated to How To Marry A Billionaire, A Christmas Story, the TV movie. Most adults have long since forgotten the pig-tailed kid(s) who said, "You got it, dude!" (Did you even know there were two of them? The two split the role of one character).
But the Olsen twins never went away, they just went tween -- to the world of girls between 4 and 14, or 6 and 16, depending on which marketer you're talking to. Over the last decade, they have built a billion dollar multi-media and fashion empire based on expert targeting of the tween market. Now, with their Sweet Sixteen on the horizon in June, they are threatening to throw themselves at more mature markets.
Sometime last spring, adults started to take note of the millions pouring into the Olsens. Last May, the New York Times ran a gushing profile about the Olsen twin "juggernaut," noting the girls' "unusual coloring ... that makes you think of wildflowers and the beach" (the Olsen twins are blond and blue-eyed). The Washington Post ran a similar piece. Last October, the Hollywood Reporter dedicated an entire special issue to the "The Most Powerful Young Women in Hollywood." Vanity Fair included a full-page photo and profile in their January issue.
The grown-up attention, which smacks of a publicity push, culminated last week with a grown-up announcement: the twins are "bowing out" of their ABC Family sitcom, "So Little Time."
"TV is five days a week," says their publicist, Michael Pagnotta. "They made a decision that they couldn't do everything well and continue to do well in school." Dropping the TV show will leave room for the feature deals, which Pagnotta won't name but says are pending. "They're talking about a few things right now. People are reaching out to them, they are talking to people who are interested in helping them make that transition."
Hollywood, here they come.
At first glance, it seems that the twins' march to stardom is unstoppable, a cute, double river flowing towards the sea. "I just think there's too much momentum," said Robert Thorne, CEO of the Olsen twin company, DualStar Entertainment Group, in a New York Times article. "And they're almost a monopoly. It would be hard to knock them off their perch."
The Eminence Grise
Thorne was the girls' attorney before he became the head of their corporation. He was the driving force behind the creation of Dualstar and the Mary-Kate and Ashley brand. He has been working with them since they were 4.
With Thorne's dogged help, Mary-Kate and Ashley has become a multi-national brand. Their own fashion line hangs in dedicated tracts, or "stores within a store," at Wal-Mart. The Mattel-made Olsen twin dolls outsell Britney's, second only to Barbie. Their video games, videos and CDs sell internationally. The Mary-Kate and Ashley brand has the heaviest of corporate hitters in its corner. AOL Time Warner does their videos and their AOL tie-in. Fox Family Channel aired their sitcom. HarperCollins published all 30 odd million of their books. Mary-Kate & Ashley branded products are poised to generate close to $800 million in retail sales in 2002, according to the New York Times.
Of course, at age 4, the girls couldn't have decided to dominate a niche market and win millions upon millions of international fans. Thorne, with the cooperation of their family and a couple other execs, was the architect for all that. But by all accounts so far, Thorne has been more than fair about divvying up the loot, and the twins have as much power as is practical for girls their age. They are very rich, on paper, and will come into control of their money at age 18.
All this comes despite the eerie absence of, for lack of a better term, quality product. Mary-Kate and Ashley have put out incredible amounts of straight-to-video, poorly scripted fluff. Granted, production values have improved since the original short "Our First Video," especially in their more recent feature-length fare. But we're not talking Oscar winning moments.
No matter, it sells. "The Olsen Twins: Passport to Paris" generated more than $12 million in consumer retail spending, according to industry publication Video Business. Their first CD was called "I Am The Cute One," and featured the lyrics, belted out in Star Search style, with a lisp: "She is the older, I am the younger/ So after all, is there any wonder/ I am the cute one, she's just my sister."
Since then, they've put out 11 more records. Their books are thinly disguised rip-offs of the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew. So what? There are now almost two dozen of them. Their glossy eponymous magazine featured New Age self-help, extra lite, for tweens. Featured, past tense, because the company that chose to publish the magazine just went under. But not due to the Olsens. The magazine, with the Olsen twins on the cover, sold out of bookshops nationwide. Pagnotta says they are seeking new partners.
For tween girls, what's the Olsen appeal? According to the company line, fans are devoted to MK&A because they're wholesome, down-to-earth role models. The tag line for their Wal-Mart fashion line is "Real fashion for real girls." Despite the obvious irony -- famous since they were nursing, filthy rich, don't go to school everyday, get to choose the exotic locale for their next movie, have never known bad hair -- Dualstar has carefully cultivated the notion that they are really still the girls-next-door. Thorne and Pagnotta use the fact that the Olsens are not yet on the velvet-ropes list in Hollywood as a marketing ploy: The girls are normal. They don't go to premieres. Much.
Ultimately, the only real explanation out there for the twins' success is that "girls just like them." Which is true. Their fans tend to say things (over email) like, "we like them because they are so successful. and they did not go out of stardum when full house ended! And they have so much stuff out for everyone dolls, clothes, movies, cd's and so much more and im sure they will keep making new stuff! [sic]"
Which turns the Olsens' success into a kind of chicken and egg dilemma -- which came first, the ubiquity or the success? "A lot of us, like myself, have grown up with them," writes 16 year-old Alicia from Wenatchee, Washington. "They are actresses that have got it all going on. They seem to respect and appreciate their fans. I think that they are unbelievable, as in their clothing line, calendars, snacks, movies!!! I mean ... who else has accomplished all that?"
Who else indeed?
Double the Fun ...
Why does the twin thing sell so well? Because twins are a great gimmick. In Shakespeare, twins are "effective as articles of plot," says Murray Biggs, a professor of English and Theater Studies at Yale. Twins, in other words, are great for songs like "I Am The Cute One," and for vaudevillian denouements, like those in "The Comedy of Errors."
Twins are also fascinating and appealing. In a culture of devout, almost rabid individuality, it's titillating and exotic to stare at two of one person. Despite their Spice-Girl labels -- Mary-Kate has been labeled the sporty twin and Ashley the girly twin since they were old enough to be girly and sporty, sometimes complete with helpful lipstick and baseball graphics -- the twins are hard to tell apart. It makes you want to stare and stare at them, trying to remember which one has the mole (conveniently drawing attention to their clothes and hair and accessories).
There may even be a pseudo-literary-psychoanalytic explanation for the appeal of twins for young girls. "The rediscovery of the twin is a matter of profound emotion," Biggs explains, about the end of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, where two twins are reunited. "It's rather like recovering from a terminal illness, like finding that other part of yourself. It's like regaining a perfect state, in a way." The trope of the re-discovered twin "starts to play with ideas about the miraculous outcome, which is [later] characteristic of all four romances."
The fantasy of having a twin could foreshadow the fantasy of the perfect romance -- if only for young girls not quite ready for boys. Having a twin is like having a perfect best friend, an unthreatening, ever-sympathetic soul-sister.
"Love is the quest of the Twin to find itself through the Other," writes author John Lash, in his book "Twins And The Double." Lash describes twins as a powerful archetype throughout the centuries and across cultures. He cites myths like the Greco-Roman tale of the founding of Rome, the "evil female double" in the myths of the Dutch East Indies, and "twin cults" in Africa where "human twins are viewed as taboo." Twins sometimes represent "an inscrutable power to be feared and revered," Lash continues. Nineteenth century art and literature was mildly obsessed with doubles. Artists exhibited "an outbreak of doublemania," Lash writes, "when occultism and satanic pretensions were all the rage." He traces recurring cultural themes of demonic and monstrous doubles, fetishized twins, twins with animal powers, and more.
So, archetypally speaking, twins are creepy -- both alluring and taboo. For the adult crowd, where sexuality and irony are powerful currencies, the twin appeal runs the risk of morphing into a kind of twisted twin fascination. Like the Olsen Twin Foot Fantasy listserv, for example. Or like the two Florida morning DJs named Lex and Terry who have an online "Jailbait Countdown Clock" to the Olsen twins 18th birthday, complete with T-shirts for sale that read "Olsen Twins. Open Season is June 13, 2003."
... Double the Backlash
It's not just the sexually obsessed. The cute twin act provokes cranks on all sides. Like any good fan, 16 year-old Alicia doesn't understand why anyone wouldn't totally adore Mary-Kate and Ashley. But she is onto the fact that not everyone does. "Who doesn't love them?" she writes. " ... k don't answer that lol jk," which translates to "OK, don't answer that, laugh out loud, joking."
As an uncritical market with a dearth of content providers, tweens can be excused for soaking up Mary-Kate & Ashley. Not so for the cynical post-tween types. For them, Mary-Kate & Ashley The Media Conglomerate is a juicy target.
On Jan. 12, the comedy show MADtv, which airs on Fox and on the cable network TNN, ran a segment spoofing the Olsens. According to Vicki Ariamal, assistant to the producer at MADtv, the segment ends with a "very serious" Mary-Kate telling viewers to "Watch Mary-Kate and Ashley in The Miracle Worker on ABC." Ashley then follows with "And look out for The Miracle Worker soundtrack, book, home video, DVD, audio tape, video game, comic book, trading cards, Web site, cartoon, fashion dolls, plush, bubble gum and theme restaurant!!" And then a voiceover -- "Coming Soon: Mary-Kate and Ashley star in ... The Deer Hunter!!" [The twins giggle].
"The writers just thought that they're so sugar-coated, they wanted to give it a dose of reality," says Ariamal, putting it bluntly. "So they mixed it in with The Miracle Worker. And it was a joke."
MADtv's take-no-prisoners attack is just one of the first old-media manifestations of a phenomenon already well established on the Web. You could once watch killer bees sting Mary-Kate & Ashley to death on The Amazing Jonathan's "kill a celebrity" page. You can still "Incinerate the Olsen Twins!" (at the sometimes operational newgrounds.com/assassin/olsen/olsenb.html), and the Anime Artists Forum 6.0 includes a "Who Do You Hate More, Mary-Kate or Ashley?" online poll. (So far, the most popular answer is "They are equally gruesome," at 46.3 percent).
So while the Olsens have been spared some of the more mundane trials of adolescence -- they are acne-free and gorgeous -- the transition into bigger pictures and better production values may not be so painless. For their latest direct-to-video picture, "Holiday in the Sun," the twins covered a song by the popular rock band Weezer, who ooze street-cred. Thorne, the Dualstar CEO, was obviously hoping that some of that cred would rub off. He told the Hollywood Reporter "that was a major step, among others, toward improving the production values of our products. Weezer recognizes that Mary-Kate and Ashley are no longer just cute little girls."
Maybe. But MTV, purveyor of cred, responded with a news item entitled, "Say It Ain't So: Olsens Cover Weezer." Thorne and Pagnotta did not respond to requests for comment on MTV and Weezer.
"If they move into something more adult, or out of their realm, then they leave themselves open," says Joal Ryan, author of the book "Former Child Stars: The Story of America's Least Wanted" and the Web site Former Child Star Central. "If they're great, if they're truly good ... well, even so, it may still take a while for us to adjust. But, if they're truly, truly great, we may buy it."
The twins have already spoken about their plans to go to college, and Ryan thinks higher education is sometimes a smart move for child stars. "But if they think they're inoculating themselves against the curse" -- meaning, the curse of a spectacular, scandalous flame-out -- "well, there's no guarantee that your career will be there when you get back. But there's also no guarantee if you don't. It depends on the fates, and what casting directors are looking for."
Neither Ryan, nor Robert Thorne, nor anyone else can predict whether MK&A's wonder twin power will activate or backfire once it hits the big-time. Ryan sees the challenge, but also understands the sheer momentum building with the growing list of corporate giants invested in the Mary-Kate and Ashley brand. "You know last year, Jennifer Aniston stole the Olsen twin hair cut," she says. "Frankly, we'll all sort of be working for them someday. Won't we?"
Michelle Chihara is a staff writer and editor at AlterNet.org.