Making those videos as a child and later as a teenagerthe last, a Survivor takeoff called The Challenge, was released in 2003was as routine as "waking up in the morning and brushing our teeth," Olsen says now. "We didn't have to dig too deep. We were playing cutesy little twins who solved mysteries. There was no depth to any of the characters. It was somebody else's idea of ourselves. It was very much people-pleasing as opposed to actually, I guess, working for it.
"I want to be directed, I want to be pushed," Olsen reiterates, and you have to give her some credit for that. "I'm looking for a challenge, something I can be extremely proud of even though I'm a perfectionist and never extremely happy with anything."
The day after we meet, Mary-Kate accepts an award, with her sister, from the Accessories Council, in front of an audience that includes Oscar de la Renta, Jessica Simpson, Sean "Diddy" Combs and Kenneth Cole. "It was like a classier MTV Awards," Mary-Kate says after the show. Calvin Klein designer Francisco Costa presented the Olsens with their honor, and in a move that seemed to perpetuate the image of Ashley as the twin who has it together, Mary-Kate stood mute as her sister accepted the award.
It's true that Olsen doesn't know how to pronounce Dries Van Noten, but it's also clear that she has an eye for putting together an outfit. While peers like Mischa Barton, Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie go straight to the stylist for their uniform Kewpie-doll looks, Olsen has crafted her own hugely influential aesthetic, mixing classic rock T-shirts with a ton of SoHo street vendor jewelry, designer pieces, vintage finds and the occasional pair of schleppy sweatpants. Dubbed "Dumpster chic" by The New York Times, her look has influenced many a runway show and red-carpet ensemble.
"I like her individuality and her boho-luxe mix of vintage and grunge," says designer John Galliano, who met Olsen at an amfAR benefit in Cannes. "She has the same way of putting herself together that Kate Moss has. She is so petite and delicate, yet such a strong and determined young woman. Feisty. I like that."
Olsen seems to recognize how far-reaching her style has become. At a Much Music event in Canada, where Ashley and Mary-Kate were promoting New York Minute, an organizer of the show told them the event had never had such a good-looking crowd. "I think some girls were wearing the same glasses as I had on," Olsen recalls proudly. "Ashley and I kind of giggled about it because they looked good. It could have gone the other direction, and we'd be thinking, What have we done to these people?"
Even Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa dressed up as Ashley and Mary-Kate, respectively, on Halloween, with the requisite Balenciaga bags and enormous Starbucks Venti lattes. Indeed, even more so than the motorcycle purse, it's the Starbucks cup that has become Mary-Kate's most identifiable accessory. When I first meet her at 4:30 in the afternoon, she's nervously clutching a mug of coffee, then it's on to a Diet Coke. Before 10 p.m., she will drink two more Ventis and smoke several Marlboro Reds with her publicist, Michael Pagnotta, who has worked with her since she was five. (Of the two to four giant Starbucks beverages she downs a day, she says she generally alternates between chai latte and skim lattethough she recently discovered the red eye, a potent mix of coffee and espresso. "Those will wake you up," she says, chuckling.)