The Olsen Twins: America's Perpetual Pint-Size Ingenues

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008


The Olsen twins, who have written a new book called "Influence," occupy a curious place in popular culture. They have one foot in adult society and one foot in childhood. When those two worlds collide, the result creeps us out. And it makes the Olsens strangely compelling viewing.

The former child stars are the head honchos of a wildly successful empire that includes DVDs, collectibles and clothes, and is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. They have been embraced as fashion icons by designers as aggressively urbane and sophisticated as Chanel's Karl Lagerfeld, Calvin Klein's Francisco Costa and Christian Dior's John Galliano. They appear to be astute businesswomen intent on expanding their reach.

And yet, Mary-Kate and Ashley, who stand not much taller than 5 feet, have a bashful carriage and eyes as big as saucers, thus giving them the appearance of perpetually wide-eyed innocence. Within the fashion crowd, they became famous for just-rolled-out-of-bed dishevelment that made them look as if they were little beggars dressed in too-big adult clothes. They have a fan base dominated by preteens and adolescents, but it also includes men who are old enough that their Olsen fascination has an air of "Lolita" repugnance. In the foreword to "Influence," the book's editor, Derek Blasberg, repeatedly refers to them as "girls," even though they are 22 and he is only 26 and they are the boss and he is not.

One can't help but look at the Olsens like animated kewpie dolls, pop culture tchotchkes.

Their book is composed of interviews the twins conducted with people they admire such as Lagerfeld, Galliano and Diane von Furstenberg, photographers Peter Beard and Terry Richardson, and writer Bob Colacello.

The interviews range from the aggravating to the illuminating. Beard, for example, comes across as an eccentric showboat who incorporates animal blood into his artwork. As he describes his experimentation with blood, he manages to be pretentious above all else.

The book has been published by Razorbill, which is a young-adult imprint of Penguin. But it has the look of a glossy coffee-table book, sells for $35 and includes a Richardson photograph of Batman and Robin smooching, images from artist Richard Prince's naughty-nurses series and no small number of pictures of the authors with smoky eyes, pouting lips and tousled hair. This mixed message suggests that the target audience is either preternaturally mature 11-year-olds with a significant budget for books, stunted 40-year-olds with a "Full House" obsession, or both.

To celebrate the book's publication, the co-authors, who also interviewed each other, have been making the publicity rounds, mostly in the awkwardly guarded manner that is common among celebrities who are used to being paparazzi bait.

Ashley Olsen, for instance, appeared on "Good Morning America" and spoke with Diane Sawyer. The morning host insisted that they stand next to each other so the audience could take note of just how teeny-tiny the millionaire author is compared with the statuesque journalist. We couldn't help but wonder: Would Sawyer have been so inclined to treat the equally diminutive actress Jada Pinkett Smith or former labor secretary Robert Reich like a Travelocity gnome? There's something about the Olsens that makes them seem like trinkets. Perhaps it is their barely there public presence. They can waft into a room virtually unnoticed, with no evidence of a larger-than-life personality to fill up the space that their physiques cannot.

As part of their promotional spree, the two attended a book party at Barneys New York on Monday evening. The champagne was Dom Perignon, and the hors d'oeuvres were a mix of truffles, foie gras and caviar. The authors were not planning to speak, read or sign books, but they would be well-fed and libated. It was enough for them to simply be on view.

Assembling the book took more than a year and was daunting, one of them said. It might have been Mary-Kate. But it could just as easily could have been Ashley. It was impossible to tell them apart.

Both authors appeared on "Oprah" to talk about the book. It was a bit nerve-racking, one of the twins said. It went so fast, the other one added. The most probing Oprah question was about what the young women eat for breakfast, which seemed to be a coy way of finding out how Mary-Kate was doing after confronting her eating disorder four years ago.

One of the most interesting interviews in the book is with Colacello, who was editor of Interview magazine during its Andy Warhol heyday. Colacello gives his interrogators much more than their questions alone would elicit. And at one point, he muses about fame and celebrity and how both have become confused with infamy. It's a topic that gets at the heart of the public Olsens.

They were blessed -- or cursed -- with early fame thanks to "Full House," a terribly unfunny family sitcom that ran from 1987 to 1995. And no matter what they have achieved beyond that, those images remain the most potent ones in the popular imagination. All their projects since taking control of their mega-millions seem to be part of a constant battle to move beyond that youthful success. To be adult. To be serious. To be individuals.

But they are trapped by the big-eyed adorableness that brought them fame in the first place and, to some degree, continues to fuel it. They don't come across as jaded or cynical or battered -- not like Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears. The Olsens exude fragility. Their demeanor is defined by concern: for their circumstances, for the crowd, for their inability to locate the nearest exit.

Their beauty is childlike. Whenever they are dressed up in cocktail attire or couture, they look as though they are playing a game.

We know them as twins. That's what their fame is based on, two toddlers who shared one role. They are Mary-Kate-and-Ashley. No last names necessary. As individuals, they do not seem fully realized. As adults, they are a blur. When we see Ashley solo in the middle of a cocktail party, we wonder: Where is her other half? What is she doing? And who left this child alone in a room crowded with adults?

© 2008 The Washington Post Company