Mary-Kate and Ashley Hate Being Famous

Why are we increasingly fascinated with the Olsen twins the more they shrink from the spotlight?

I have been in the same room as Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen approximately twice over the course of my lifetime. As someone whose parents used to employ the phrase “we’re going to take away your Mary-Kate and Ashley videos” as a staggeringly effective disciplinary tool, both of these encounters are indelibly scorched into my brain.

The first was when I was 16 and the Olsens were hovering on the precipice of 18, a moment creepy Internet countdown clocks had been heralding for years. My mom, recognizing that the threat of hurling the Olsens’ videos out an open window was waning in potency, dangled a new carrot before me: A visit to The Oprah Winfrey Show on the day the twins would be guests. I took more care selecting an outfit that morning than a neurosurgeon might take to prep before operating on the president; inexplicably, I landed on a bright red button-down and flared “nice pants,” an outfit a college freshman might wear for an interview to be an intern at McDonald’s corporate headquarters.

The Olsen twins, fledgling fashion moguls that they were, showed up on Oprah’s set wearing the kinds of designer ensembles that had been making me wish that I, too, had had the great fortune of being born part of a matching and highly lucrative set. Mary-Kate, the “free spirit,” was resplendent in a baggy boho dress; Ashley, the more “responsible” twin, sported a coiffed ponytail and a form-fitting but modest eggshell number that would have immediately edged me out of the running for the McDonald’s internship. But what I still remember most about that day isn’t Mary-Kate’s incredibly heavy-looking earrings, or Ashley’s perfectly and inexplicably immobile side-bang. I remember how genuinely uncomfortable they seemed. Both hardly moved during the episode taping, except for a nearly imperceptible shift every time Oprah asked them what I now recognize as strangely probing questions about how much money they had (“We don’t like to talk about it”), or whether or not they actually ate food (“[That speculation] comes with the territory”), or what size clothes they wore (“Size? Um, we’re not sure”).

At one point, the audience was asked if they had any questions for the twins. Like a bat who’d been heretofore trapped in a very specific, Olsen-twin-themed version of hell and was thus only capable of recognizing and identifying the Olsen twins, I shot out of my seat and asked, “What’s your favorite memory from your career so far?” I expected them to tell some magical story about eating quiche out of berets atop the Eiffel Tower during breaks on the set of Passport to Paris, or to talk about how excited they were to film Holiday in the Sun at the Atlantis resort in the Bahamas, which, to 16-year-old me, seemed like an impossible dream: People paying you to look cute and kiss very tall boys on vacation. Instead, the two, in near unison, spoke wistfully about some recent, boring-sounding camping trip they’d taken with some of their normie high school friends. I wouldn’t have believed them — it sounded like something their agent would have told them to say to sound “relatable” — except that it was the first time I’d seen their faces relax, the first time their answers weren’t filled with stiff talking points about being slimed at the Kids’ Choice Awards. I remember thinking to myself, seized by the sudden existential terror that comes with realizing your entire life has been a lie, “Mary-Kate and Ashley fucking hate being famous.”

The most disturbing part of this realization was that I thought I knew the Olsen twins; I felt like they belonged to me. These were two young women who’d built a near billion-dollar brand on oversharing, on making sure their legions of rabid fans felt like they were their actual friends. These were young women who’d put out a never-ending line of Barbie dolls, multiple book series, a line of bedroom furniture, a board game, a magazine called Mary-Kate and Ashley Magazine, a brand of toothpaste called Mary-Kate and Ashley Aquafresh, and they’d presided over a fan club that included regular postcards sent from Mary-Kate and Ashley–themed cruises (I had all of these things, except for the cruises, the attendance of which would likely have rendered my family permanently catatonic). These were young women who’d been told by some brilliantly deranged marketing exec that Mary-Kate was the “fun twin” and Ashley was the “serious twin” at age 5, and never deviated from those roles, even at age 17, when they were forced to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show to promote an admittedly awful film that went on to recoup less than half its budget. What I realized on that fateful day, sitting mere feet from the Olsens in my terrible shirt, was that the Olsens were an illusion. Their lives were a surreal, Buñuelesque party at which everyone but them — especially their Svengali of a manager, Robert Thorne — was having fun. And I wasn’t invited.

Of course, to look at the way the Olsens have transmuted their career over the past decade or so, this much is obvious. Their 18th birthday — when the two took control of their own empire, another subject they once discussed with readily apparent glee — marked their slow but deliberate march into the shadows. Where the two once posed (faux) cheerfully for red-carpet photos and dutifully signed autographs for Regis and Kathy Lee, they now hide from the paparazzi behind massive and now-ubiquitous purses, shrouding themselves in layers of couture as if they were invisibility cloaks.

Neither Mary-Kate nor Ashley has appeared in a film or TV show in years, much less traipsed about on a branded cruise ship in years. Instead, they’ve dodged behind the scenes, where they design and pump out incandescently expensive and CFDA Award–winning fashion lines like The Row and Elizabeth and James, lines they’ve quite literally described as “masks to hide behind.” They give only rare, begrudging, and what their PR rep describes as “very concise” interviews on behalf of these flourishing businesses, interviews in which they insist reporters submit questions in advance and snap when they sense a diversion from the agreed-upon path. Recently, they refused to appear in the Fuller House reboot, offering no explanation other than this hilariously opaque third-party quote months later from producer Bob Boyett: “Ashley said, ’I have not been in front of a camera since I was 17, and I don’t feel comfortable acting.’ Mary-Kate said, ’It would have to be me because Ash doesn’t want to do it. But the timing is so bad for us.'” Even more recently, Mary-Kate was married to Nicolas Sarkozy’s brother with the kind of secrecy usually reserved for black-ops assassinations.

Here’s the funny thing, though, and by funny I mean sort of tragic, and by sort of tragic I mean not as tragic as, say, the Syrian refugee crisis, but tragic in a sort of Marilyn Monroe way. This public distaste for fame has done the opposite of what the twins likely hoped it would do. The fervor for and fetishization of and fascination with the Olsens has increased exponentially in relation to their desire for us to stay the hell away from them. As a culture, we’ve never been thirstier for Mary-Kate and Ashley. The outcry over the twins’ refusal to do Fuller House has yet to die down, months after the announcement was made. The media are still clamoring for but a glimpse of Mary-Kate’s wedding ring, even if that glimpse is obscured by packs of cigarettes and that omnipresent Starbucks cup. Entire “news” segments are devoted to picking apart a single, low-key red-carpet stomp-off from Ashley. And yesterday, more than 200 people funded a Kickstarter campaign to bring an exhibit called “The Olsen Twins Hiding From the Paparazzi” to New York.

Even before its funding was secured, the campaign was written up by everyone from the Daily Mail to Harper’s Bazaar; I,too, excitedly tweeted about it and plan on being first in line once it’s up. Both the art (painted by Chicago-based artist Laura Collins) and the future exhibit (dreamed up by Brooklyn’s THNK1994 Museum curators/comedians Matt Harkins and Viviana Olen) are wildly funny and insightful: “Laura’s paintings tell the story of how, using a patented system of approximately 700 lbs of beautiful clothes, strategically high collars, face sized bags, and tiny house sized sunglasses, the Olsens are able to hide themselves from unwanted photographers,” reads the Kickstarter page. “In fact, you can never be sure a photo of an Olsen is actually an Olsen. It could just be a showroom rack of unattainable clothes rolling down the sidewalk.” This is the type of humor we’ve been lobbing at the Olsens for years (myself and the cast of Fuller House included): light mockery underscored with a sort of pained sense of rejection. Why hast thou forsaken us, Mary-Kate and Ashley? Was it really all so bad?

Well, here’s the other funny-tragic thing. After I paid my depressing visit to Oprah and the twins back in the early aughts, I remember falling down a rabbit hole of old Mary-Kate and Ashley interview clips. I did it again in preparation for this piece, and concluded my in-depth detective work with the same findings: These two have always fucking hated being famous. Take, for example, this old CNN interview from 1992. The twins are 6 years old, dressed in identically horrible hats, fidgeting as they’re asked about their “careers.” “By 6:30 at night, the twins were allowed to kick off their shoes and relax for this CNN interview,” explains the reporter in an unintentionally Vonnegut-esque voice-over that ominously cuts off during a quick aside about child-labor laws. Though Mary-Kate and Ashley demonstrate actual childlike behavior for a brief moment — after Ashley giggles mischievously about spilling apple juice on Mary-Kate’s outfit, Mary-Kate shoots back, “Well, next time I’m gonna dump it all over you, Ashley” — the two go flat when asked if they’d like to be “normal children who don’t work.” “No,” they both reply, somewhat unconvincingly. They don’t elaborate. Things get darker when the reporter asks, “What do people say to you when they come up to you?” The twins both break into high-pitched, almost mean-spirited imitations of their fans. “Can I have your autograph? Can I have your autograph?” whines Ashley. “Can I take a picture?” sing-songs Mary-Kate.

Old interviews with their business manager Thorne are filled with similarly disturbing quotes, quotes that provide pretty satisfying explanations as to why Mary-Kate and Ashley ran screaming into their giant coats as soon as they were able. In a 2002 Forbes piece called “The Human Truman Show,” Thorne describes the twins as “property now, aside from being people with a heartbeat” and explains that the girls’ business plan is “that I decide which direction we are going to go, and we do it.” Even more troubling is this quote from Andy Tennant, who directed the Olsens in their single big-screen hit, It Takes Two. “There are no real [adult] twin movies,” he says. “Have you ever seen one? They should just go away and come back as one person. A hybrid. They could call her just ’Kate.'”
The second — and likely the last — time I was in the same room as the Olsens was about a year ago. I’d been invited to a private meet-and-greet through work, and even with my years-ago revelations about the Olsen twins’ considerable misery and total opacity, on some level I still believed that I knew them, that I understood them, that they were, to put it in felon-speak, mine. The two were in Chicago to promote The Row, and were milling about a small suburban boutique, offering faint compliments to the rich, middle-aged women trying on their clothes, when I walked up to them. They were as small and wan as I remembered, dressed in head-to-toe black with their soaking-wet hair tucked into their clothes (a look I’ve since tried to cop but which just makes me look like I fell asleep in a polluted lake). Mary-Kate was again wearing the kind of giant vintage earrings that looked like they might cause her neck to collapse in on itself, and before I could stop myself or even really comprehend what I was doing or why I was doing it, I was reaching out and touching one of them. “I love these earrings,” I said, my hand right below her earlobe, my brain slowly alerting me that I was approaching Hannibal Lecter levels of predation.

Mary-Kate’s eyes registered shock only briefly before she coolly replied, “Thanks. They’re vintage.” Her voice, exhausted but firm, temporarily jolted me out of my decades-long delusional reverie. I pulled my hand away like the earrings had been made of molten metal. Why was I touching her ear? She was a total fucking stranger to me. Sure, I knew her favorite color (“forest green, I guess”) and that she used to ride horses and that she really wanted a Price Upon Request Vintage Van Cleef lighter for Christmas in 2014. But so did most of these other women waiting their turn to talk to the twins, women who’d either grown up watching them sing halfheartedly about surfing or plied their daughters with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen mascara. All of us were, in one way or another, creepy strangers conflating pieces of property with people with heartbeats. I stepped back, pretended to admire one of The Row jackets that I’d have to give birth to a pair of complacent and charismatic twins to afford, and left the store a few minutes later.