Tuesday, October 27, 2009
It may be difficult now to think of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen as anything other than socialite bag ladies, but back in the 90s they were amongst the most successful young entrepreneurial stars on the scene. Don't let their current air of homelessness fool you: these girls have been building their multimillion dollar empire brick by straight-to-video brick since they were old enough to legally appear onscreen. Love them or hate them, they built themselves as an incredibly successful brand. Yes, they've stamped their name on everything from shampoo to training bras, but something's got to keep these girls in poorly fitting oversized sweaters.
When the girls debuted in TGIF's Full House as infants, a crafty lawyer saw great potential in capturing and packaging their essence. Their manager Robert Thorne created Dualstar Entertainment and in a then-shocking move named the girls (at seven years apiece) as executive producers. Moguls don't come much mini-er than that. While most of their peers were mastering the monkey bars at recess, the Olsens were already overseeing a fast-growing empire. Not too shabby.
Tween programming was still mostly an untapped well in the early 90s, with most media producers focusing on capturing the attention of either children or teens with no middle ground. The twins' manager saw an opportunity for some serious tween-tapped revenue and capitalized it by building the girls into a tightly managed, well-defined product that sold well with young girls and parents alike. While they may have shaken their once-wholesome all-American image, their fame is hinged on the fact that they turned selling out into a legitimate business prospect:
The twins got their start on Full House when they were only 9 months old, making them celebrities practically since birth. The girls were hired to play a single character, Michelle Tanner, to comply with time limitations of child labor laws. Initially, producers tried to hide the fact that Michelle was played by two different actresses. When Mary Kate and Ashley soon began developing a fan base, however, they quickly changed their tune. These girls had star quality from a young age, as you can see from the following interview with them. Warning: if you're sensitive to adorableness, you may want to skip this one.
To Grandmother's House We Go/Double, Double, Toil and Trouble/How the West was Fun
During their time on Full House, Mary Kate and Ashley expanded their young fan base by starring in a slew of children's made-for-TV movies. This cheesy fare went over well with young audiences and their overprotective parents, further skyrocketing the twins to atmospheric fame.
Our First Video
In 1993, the twin's manager saw great potential in the straight-to-video market, expanding the twins' brand to include children's videos with tie-in musical numbers. I watched this VHS so many times that the tape began to unravel, leaving me inconsolable. I just wanted to watch "I am the Cute One" and "Nobody Tells the President What to Do" on repeat approximately twenty thousand times. Is that so much to ask?
I'm not sure if the music industry would technically classify any of these songs as singles, but I do remember hearing "Brother for Sale" on the radio. Granted, it was a kid's station, but I was pretty convinced that these girls had a hit record on their hands.
The Adventures of Mary Kate and Ashley
Sometime around this era I distinctly remember receiving my Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen Fan Club Starter Kit in the mail, which was essentially a brochure for all of the overpriced things I could ever imagine begging for. Following Full House's cancellation, Dualstar expanded their straight-to-video enterprise with a series of MK&A adventure movies.
In these videos, the girls played kid detectives fully decked out in 40s-style detective gear. Everyone knows that's how real detectives go undetected: by dressing the part. By this point, the girls were pretty much unstoppable. The plots and acting were almost entirely inconsequential. It was shameless brand-building and we ate up every minute of it.
The idea that Ashley and Mary Kate would even consider inviting me (me!) to their costume/dance/sleepover party was almost too exciting to bear. Okay, so everyone who could convince their parents to shell out the twenty bucks for the video was on the guest list too as far as Dualstar was concerned, but still.
It Takes Two
The Olsens made the leap to the big screen with 1995's It Takes Two. It was sort of a Parent Trap rip-off with a less substantiated premise, but it was a huge hit with kids. This was a simpler time, when Kirstie Alley was still of Hollywood proportions to play the female romantic lead and Steve Guttenberg was a household name. I was, per usual, surprised to learn that the movie holds a remarkably putrid 9% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com. For those of you slow on the math front that's 91% rotten. Yikes. As a kid, I was pretty certain this film was a masterpiece and was thus shocked at the Academy's blatant omission of the movie in its nominations. For shame.
Two of a Kind
You know what's a really good idea? Naming the main characters in the show after the actors but mysteriously changing their last name. Now that's good writing. The short-lived Two of a Kind premiered on TGIF in 1998, featuring Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen as Mary Kate and Ashley Burke. See? Brilliant. The show's ratings were a serious disappointment, leading to its cancellation after one season. Remarkably, though, during that time they managed to release 39 (!) book adaptations of the show. That's just impressive.
Billboard Dad/Switching Goals/Passport to Paris/Our List are Sealed/There Aren't Enough Front Slashes in the World to Complete this Insanely Extensive List of Straight-to-Video Movies
Ashley and Mary Kate cemented their status as tween icons with their incredibly successful straight-to-video offerings. They always played a different set of twins, but each set seemed to suffer from Wakefield syndrome: that is to say, one was a Jessica and the other an Elizabeth. I guess it's pretty much inevitable. I mean, how could there be any twins out there with something in common? No, polar opposites are really the only available permutation.
While Mary Kate and Ashley have moved on to pursue separate and more grown-up ventures, their empire remains intact. Dualstar even represented those twins from The Suite Life of Zack and Cody for awhile, proving that the company has some strangely sustainable twin business out there. The Olsens may not be the squeaky-clean tween idols of days past, but many of their fans remain fiercely loyal. These girls were workhorses from ages 0-18, so it's pretty fair to let them off the hook now with full-time gigs as essentially mannequins for enormous sunglasses and tattered scarves. They've earned it.