Her messy hair, giant sunglasses and wardrobe full of decaying designer threads have influenced everyone from John Galliano to the girls at the mall. But lately Mary-Kate Olsen has had more on her mind than whether she can wear leggings with heels. There's the responsibility of her $1 billion company, the paparazzi who shadow her every move and the fresh heartache over a tabloid-worthy breakup. Now she's leaving college and her twin sister, Ashley, behind—at least for the semester—and making a fresh start in L.A. Her goals? Get healthy, learn to put herself first and find work as "just an actress" for a change.
Sipping a Diet Coke in a private room at New York's Soho House, Mary-Kate Olsen, the Full House star-turned-junior tycoon, is fiddling with one of her many Balenciaga motorcycle bags. With its dangling leather lariats, signature woven handles and distressed bronze buckles, the bag is as essential to her famously derelicte style as her giant sunglasses and knee-skimming thrift store?chic sweaters. The version she's carrying today was originally mint green, but it's so dingy, covered with stains, pen marks and even a chewed-up piece of gum, that it looks almost gray.
"It explains my life," Olsen says, sighing, when asked about her beloved accessory's sorry state. Pressed to elaborate, the 19-year-old is quick to say that she was "just messing," that she simply meant she has a tendency to wear things out. But Olsen might in fact be on to something. The beat-up bag is an apt metaphor for her current condition: an oft-imitated emblem of chic that over the past year and a half has been dealt its fair share of bumps and bruises.
In May 2004 New York Minute, a big-screen teen comic caper in which Olsen starred opposite her sister, Ashley, fizzled at the box office. The following month, Mary-Kate checked in for a six-week stay at a treatment center for an eating disorder. June also brought Olsen's 18th birthday and her ascension to the position of copresident, along with Ashley (who declined to comment for this article), of Dualstar Entertainment Group. The billion-dollar multimedia company oversees the production of their videos and movies as well as Mary-Kate and Ashley books, dolls, furniture, rugs, clothing and cosmetics.
As her tumultuous summer was coming to a close, it looked, for a while at least, like Olsen would get to enjoy a more typical rite of passage: starting college. But when she matriculated at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study in August, she was met with overwhelming media coverage of her every move—apartment jockeying, nights out at Butter and regular jaunts to the Union Square Starbucks. Then, this past fall, just as Mary-Kate was settling into Manhattan life and her sophomore year, Paris Hilton started dating Stavros Niarchos III, the Greek shipping heir and Olsen's boyfriend of five months. That, it seems, was the straw that broke the camel's back. In October, MK, as her friends call her, took a leave of absence from NYU and moved back to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career.
"It just got really hectic and I started feeling the city," says Olsen. "My world was really small when I was here." When asked if there was a specific incident that made her want to leave, Olsen shrugs: "I think we can all guess."
According to Olsen's best friend, Hayden Slater, the Hilton affair was very much a catalyst for the move. "She's really hurt. Did I see it coming? Absolutely not," he says. A senior at NYU, Slater met Olsen through her ex-boyfriend David Katzenberg and had been taking an acting class with her this past fall. "She likes to keep on the down-low and just hide out, and it's obviously really hard, especially with everything going on recently. She needed to get away from New York."
Olsen is loath to talk about Hilton, although she does concede that she unwittingly introduced her to Niarchos. "[Paris and I] always only had nice things to say about each other," she says. "Now I guess you can tell we're not talking." Of her former boyfriend, Olsen says, "I miss him and I love him and I don't speak with him anymore. It's a hurtful and painful subject. I've pretty much been with someone my whole life, so this is a hard time for me."
And it's particularly depressing to consider that the man at the center of the Mary-Kate and Paris feud is a 20-year-old Greek playboy who, according to the tabloids, recently paid a homeless man $100 to douse himself in soda outside a Burger King. Olsen says of the tale: "I'm not going to comment on that. It's a disgusting, horrible story, and all I can do is hope it's not true. I never knew that person. Now can we change the subject?"
The day we meet, Olsen looks surprisingly sprightly for someone with a broken heart. She's wearing a long, one-of-a-kind coat she bought at Maxfield, her favorite store in L.A. "I love getting amazing jackets," she explains, "because you can wear your pajamas underneath and everyone's like, 'Oh, fabulous jacket,' and I'm like, 'You should see what's underneath!'"
What's underneath today is a tiny Dries Van Noten floral-print minidress that barely reaches her thighs. It's a rather skimpy choice for November, and she has finished off the ensemble with a pair of teetering Minnie Mouse?style maryjanes—a departure from the demure flats for which she's known. "I feel like showing off my legs," Olsen says, lifting them in the air. "I feel a little sexier today."
Though Olsen expresses this sentiment almost as a throwaway, it's not an insignificant one. For someone who's been treated for an eating disorder, feeling sexy is a step in the right direction, and, to hear Olsen tell it, the move back to Los Angeles has improved both her health and her self-esteem.
"Now I can walk outside in the morning and have a cup of coffee and actually breathe, and, you know, every once in a while I just need to take a break, you know?" Olsen says. Her conversation, like that of so many other girls her age, is peppered with "like," "kind of" and "you know," and her declarative sentences are often phrased as questions. ("I don't actually look at a lot of fashion magazines?" she says at one point, when asked what inspires her style.)
"You know, [college] is easier for my sister and that's great, you know? I'm happy that I kind of realized that, okay, I just need to take care of myself right now," she says. "I need to be able to go to yoga and work out and just read scripts and go on auditions, because that's what makes me happy. You know? Like, papers don't really make me happy."
Her handlers insist that this is just a temporary break and that Olsen will return to NYU or, barring that, transfer to a West Coast university. "She's not stepping away from school," says Diane Reichenberger, the new CEO of Dualstar. Reichenberger says Olsen comes to the office twice a week to discuss all the major decisions at the company. "You can't put a price tag on that kind of education," Reichenberger says. "There's your M.B.A."
Despite the term papers and the constant attention of the paparazzi, Olsen insists that she did enjoy her thus-far brief college experience. It wasn't particularly difficult meeting people, and her best friends live in the city. ("I'm shocked how open she is to dive in there and meet new people," says Slater.) And Olsen insists that she appreciated the academics as well. "I love to learn, I really do," she says. "We'd study something in class and I'd take it outside of class and become, like, obsessive and just research everything."
During her freshman year, she grew especially interested in Sigmund Freud. "I became obsessed with him," Olsen says. "It just really hit me, just the way he explains the mind and, like, how it works in certain people or certain diseases. How people may look at his stuff as a little off because some of it's pretty extreme, but how much truth there is behind it, you know? You start thinking and you're like, Oh my God. I think one of the most amazing things about learning is that you really discover things about yourself."
High school wasn't quite as intellectually stimulating. Olsen describes her years at North Hollywood's Campbell Hall as "fun" and "easy." She and her sister couldn't enroll in AP classes or electives because they were often working. "We weren't allowed to challenge ourselves, so we did really well," she says. "It was frustrating, but we knew at some point in our lives we could do what we wanted to do."
That point in their lives, or at least Mary-Kate's life, could easily be now. With a personal fortune of at least $150 million—and maybe more—she certainly has the wherewithal to indulge almost any whim. Still, she's not the type to bankrupt herself with a Michael Jackson-in-Vegas-style shopping spree. "She'll say, 'I'm only going to buy this today,'" says Cameron Silver, the proprietor of Decades, a vintage store in Los Angeles where Olsen is a regular. "That said, I wish she would just buy Decades. She could rock it."
It probably helps that, compared with other starlets her age, Olsen's fortune is old money. She began her career, involuntarily one has to assume, at the age of nine months. "As soon as I felt that I was responsible for other people's paychecks was definitely a moment when I was like, how the f--- do you think I'm supposed to handle this?" Olsen says. "It really hit me that I had a lot of responsibilities other than myself, which shouldn't have been my attitude, because I should be concerned first and foremost about myself. I have learned today, you know, that that's what it's about."
As much as Dualstar executives hoot and whistle in the press about the twins' newfound responsibilities as copresidents of the company, Olsen's focus, at least for the moment, seems to be her acting career. She doesn't speak particularly articulately, let alone with much enthusiasm, about her vision for the business. "We've branched out in a lot of areas, um, things I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about," she says. But ask her about the acting classes she took in New York with William Esper as part of her studies at Gallatin, or the novel experience of going out on auditions, and her eyes light up.
"My mind totally goes to that spot," Olsen says. "It was kind of like that rush of, Ooh, I want more, ooh, let's do it again—what can I do next? And I think that's what I was definitely looking for, some sort of passion and drive." But regarding a report in Page Six that she would be playing Brigid Berlin in the new Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl, she says, "Brigid Berlin is an obese woman who did breast painting, so I won't be playing an obese woman."
Her goal at the moment is to star in a film that doesn't involve Dualstar. "All throughout [the making of] New York Minute, everyone was the producer, everyone was the director," Olsen says. "It's a lot of pressure, and I'd rather not get in the mix of it. I want to be directed, I want to be pushed. To be just an actress in a movie is one of my goals."
Much of Ashley's and Mary-Kate's earnings come from the 47 direct-to-video films—titles like To Grandmother's House We Go, How the West Was Fun and Double, Double, Toil and Trouble—the twins made growing up. Olsen's taste today couldn't be further from that manufactured Cheez Whiz. She wants to work with visionaries like Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola and Jane Campion, whom she studied last semester; one of her favorite movies in recent memory was the S&M romance Secretary, which she watched "at least, like, a hundred times" in her bed after moving to New York.
Making those videos as a child and later as a teenager—the last, a Survivor takeoff called The Challenge, was released in 2003—was 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 latte—though she recently discovered the red eye, a potent mix of coffee and espresso. "Those will wake you up," she says, chuckling.)
"When I was younger, on weekends, my mom would make us pancakes with our initials on them and then a tiny cup of coffee," says Olsen. She quickly became an addict. "I remember at 10 sneaking my own coffee and pouring a ton of sugar in and going up to the playroom and drinking it."
So it's not such a surprise when the highly caffeinated actress lets on that—over and above her never-lived-in $7.3 million apartment in the West Village, beyond her tricked-out black Range Rover and even more than her enviable collection of designer bags—the possession she prizes most is her new espresso machine. "It's the most amazing thing I've ever had," she says dreamily. "It makes cappuccino all day long."