By Stephanie DuBois
No one - at least not since the halcyon days of a little moppet called Shirley Temple - has so brilliantly turned doe-eyed innocence into a cottage industry like America's favorite billionaire twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen
. But America likes its sweethearts untainted, untarnished and untouchable - and innocence lost can never be regained.
The Olsen's company, Dualstar Entertainment Group, has been mining the $300 billion plus "tweens" market - kids 8-12 - since the company was founded when they were 6 years old. However, that tween market is looking less and less viable now that the girls have become scandal-plagued teens, with Mary-Kate succumbing to something so plebeian as anorexia and then being spotted out and about doing things like - Gasp! -- smoking in public. Those images are anathema to mothers desperate to hang on to positive role models for their urchins to emulate and death to the wholesome marketing image so important to the demographics of Wal-Mart, the biggest distributor of the Olsen's line.
Now Mary-Kate and Ashley have been seemingly drifting further and further apart. They reportedly moved into separate places and have subsequently been spotted around the globe sans one another, leading many to speculate about a rift between the two lovelies who were at one point never seen alone. Whether the young ladies are truly at odds or just trying to establish individual identities remains to be seen. However, the most pressing question is how these latest developments will affect the twins' myriad business ventures.
brand is the most successful girls brand in America today producing reported annual revenues in excess of $1 billion. But their last film, "New York Minute," barely stayed at the boxoffice long enough to say, well, New York minute. And let's face it?the now 19-year-olds' style and taste has moved way past the 8 to 12 crowd. Even if they hadn't fallen off every mother's good little girl pedestal, their own impending maturity would have forced them to move on to another demographic.
Ironically, some industryites speculate that the appearance of warts and blemishes on Miss Mary-Kate and Miss Ashley may make them more accessible to today's petulant, disenfranchised teens. The up side is that today's teens grew up with Mary-Kate and Ashley. The down side is that most of today's teens are more into the baggy, dressed down, hood rat look than the squeaky clean, peaches and cream sensibility of the Olsen's clothing line.
Marketing experts agree that teens are a capricious bunch making them a tough market to target. However, since most of today's teens are able to shop for themselves and do, the Olsens wouldn't have to worry about courting parental favor to keep their brand alive.
Now Ashley is appearing solo on the cover of Harper's. Her and Mary-Kate's rep, Michael Pagnotta, is quick to caution against "reading too much into the Harper's cover. It was originally offered to both girls, and Mary-Kate decided she didn't want to do it. At this time in her life, she's more interested in just living her life than in rehashing her life with interviewers and doing photo sessions. There's not much else to be read from it. There is no split, no rift between them. It's a nice opportunity for Ashley, who thought it would be fun to go in and talk about fashion and so on. It's probably a one-off, although there are tons of offers out there for both girls, together and individually."
To hear him tell it, their individual pursuits in no way reflect upon what is happening within their company. "The brand is still Mary-Kate and Ashley. They're in business fully together, and they're continuing to work in fashion together." And don't expect separate lines of clothing, accessories - or anything. He points out, "When they make decisions about items for their brand, they're not making personal style statements, they're deciding what they think the customers will want and enjoy."
As followers of the Mary-Kate and Ashley saga are all too aware, what with Mary-Kate's battles against her eating disorder, the pair's respective boyfriends, their college ups and downs, "The last couple of years have been a time of great transition for them," Pagnotta says. "And the great thing is, their peer fans have stuck with them. They're fans who've known them for years - they've been acting since they were nine months old, they're not flavor of the month - and it's incredibly gratifying to see."
The twins took control of their empire earlier this year, hiring a new female CEO, Diane Reichenberger, to oversee the company. Ashley told USA Today she believes that "The opportunities are endless." Dualstar is selling in 15 foreign countries already and the company plans to expand its global reach. In a step toward moving into that all important teen market, the company launched a bedroom-furniture line and added new fragrances to its collection. There's also talk of the Dualstar name developing as its own brand thereby distancing itself from any residual effects of future Olsen scandals or shenanigans.
By all reports, Mary-Kate and Ashley are hands-on business women involved in their products from conception to inception by staying in the loop via e-mail and weekly telephone conference calls. In fact, thanks to the internet and today's communication technology, the Twins could spend the rest of their lives apart and it still not effect the day to day running of their billion dollar empire.
What effect their personal lives have on their demographic audience remains to be seen. A little scandal certainly didn't hurt Martha Stewart's empire, however. And, after spending the first 18 years of their lives as inseparable as you can get without being Siamese twins, it seems only natural Mary-Kate and Ashley would be eager to discover who they are individually at some point.
"Strong Medicine" actress Tamera Mowry, who grew up in the public eye with her twin sister, Tia on the sitcom, "Sister, Sister," told us, "I can totally relate because I've been in their position. The first time we realized that people saw us as an item instead of individuals was after we won a few Kids' Choice and NAACP Image awards. They only gave us one award to take home and we were like, 'Hello! We are two people. I want my own award! But it's a natural thing that comes with the territory of being a twin." The 27-year-old added, "With my sister and me, we've already been known as twins but we've done everything we can possibly do as twins and we're older now. We want to be individuals. If you just focus on being twins and doing twin things then it really limits your roles in Hollywood."
Not to mention your roles in life? Perhaps, if given the chance, Mary-Kate and Ashley can discover they're more than just a brand - and more than the sum total of their parts.