flashback friday: mary-kate the great

reread our interview with the it girl from 2008!

photographed by jason nocito

This week’s Flashback Friday time travels back to January 2008 and stars a much-missed Mary-Kate Olsen. Now engaged and with the first flagship opening of The Row, loads have changed in her life since she graced our cover. Take a walk down memory lane as she talks to writer Luke Crisell about collecting art, her fashion line, and sharing clothes with Ashley.


Night is falling, slowly, over Paris. There’s a chill in the air and the pale autumn light in the Tuileries Garden—which stretches between the Seine to the south and the rue de Rivoli to the north—is gradually ebbing away as evening encroaches upon the marble statues and pristine lawns that have inspired countless paintings, poems, and proclamations of love. The bruised sky ripples over the glass of the Louvre’s famous pyramids as I walk past them and under the monumental arches that separate the tranquility of the Gardens from the teeming streets. Running parallel is the rue St. Honore which, this evening, is bustling with a particularly well-heeled, international throng (the city is in the throes of fashion week). Here, marked by a dark, innocuous doorway is the Hotel Costes, where Mary-Kate Olsen has deigned we meet. And she’s early.

“Hey,” she mouths from across the room, where she’s already tucked up in a corner on a black, velvet couch. I take a seat opposite her, and she extends a fragile arm; her hand is small, like a child’s, and I end up grabbing half of her wrist, too. “Hello,” she says, her grip as gentle as if she were holding the stem of a flower, “I’m Mary-Kate.” Settled in for a conversation, and apparently entirely at home in the opulent surroundings, she strikes a match, lights a Marlboro Red, and inhales deeply, closing her eyes for the briefest of moments. “You don’t mind if I smoke do you?” Her voice is soft, husky. She looks around her—it’s just us in the room. “I love it here, it’s dark and kind of romantic but still comfortable. People come here and they don’t treat them any differently. Don’t get me wrong, I love people watching, but it’s not really about that here.” She lets out a quiet sigh. “It’s kind of like a fantasy.” A drag on her cigarette. “I love living in a fantasy world.”

Commissioned by Jacques Garcia in 1991, Hotel Costes was designed around the maxim “all things in excess.” On the ground floor, rooms are set up like cloisters around a central courtyard, from which dark passageways lead off in every direction; sultry, expensive-sounding house music is piped everywhere; the lighting is low, and every surface is laid with flickering candles; there are huge gilded mirrors on every wall; the air smells of the hotel’s signature scent—a woody concoction that mingles with cigarette smoke and is so heavy it seems to settle on top of the tasseled velvet furnishings. Mary-Kate, who tonight is dressed as uniquely as ever, fits into the scene perfectly.

She is wearing studded Manolo Blahnik heels (“they’re my sister’s—she buys the most amazing shoes and I try and sneak them when I can”), tight black Kova&T pants, and a diaphanous, long-sleeved, black American Apparel top over a pink YSL tank (“also my sister’s”).

Do you share a lot of clothes?

“Yes, but we have to ask. When our closets come together there’s usually some sort of ‘no, that’s mine, that’s yours’ and it becomes confusing. I’d actually rather save my money to buy a great piece of art or furniture.”

Her outfit is accessorized with a huge gladiator-style necklace (thick chunks of gold on a wide piece of red leather), a multitude of bracelets and rings, and some peacock feathers, which she has crafted into a headband that is wrapped around her long, newly blonde hair, and one huge earring (“it’s made from some peacock-feather trim we found while we were sourcing materials for [the Olsens’ high-end fashion line] The Row.”) As dissonant as it all sounds, she is pulling off the bohemian-Gothic-ornithological-eccentric-gypsy thing well. After all, whether she likes it or not, Mary-Kate Olsen, who turned 21 this past summer, is something of a fashion icon.

“I seriously have no idea why, but it’s one of the nicest compliments,” she says. “I didn’t look at a fashion magazine until two years ago. I didn’t know many designers. I think the first time I heard they were talking about my personal style I was a little weirded out…” she breaks off, chuckling to herself. “I didn’t even think twice about what I was putting on.”

Fashion is what has brought Mary-Kate to Paris this week. She is currently staying in an apartment with her twin sister, Ashley, and a couple of other girls, while they show The Row, a sophisticated collection encompassing tactile basics in super-soft fabrics, now in its fifth season. “A woman walked in the other day and said ‘Wow, you just need to grab 10 items, a pair of tennis shoes and a pair of heels and you can go away for two weeks,’” Mary-Kate recounts. “That’s really what it is, you bring your accessories and you can match the outfits—they could be dressy, they could be casual—but they feel good against your body, and you feel good in the clothing.” Mary-Kate and Ashley personally source materials, design, and oversee every aspect of the production of The Row. They are not quite as involved in their less expensive line, Elizabeth and James (which is named after their siblings). “It’s a license deal” says Mary-Kate with the slight resignation that perhaps comes when you have many, many licensing deals. “We don’t have to do the dirty work.” The cookbook for the most recent collection of The Row featured Lauren Hutton, who Mary-Kate rhapsodizes about. “She’s one of our idols…I gave her some of the clothing at the shoot,” she says, smiling.

Are there people who ask to borrow the pieces who you refuse?

A grin. “Sometimes, but I won’t tell you who.”

Are you going to many fashion shows this week?

“I don’t like going to shows, it’s so overwhelming. I want to be there to enjoy the clothes but don’t want to have to worry about the way I look or the chaos. Thank god for style.com.” I ask how the clothing lines fit into the evolution of the twins’ image. She pauses a moment and cocks her head before answering. “Growing up we really worked and did things to please our audience and other people,” she says. “I think that as you get older you really narrow down what makes you happy and what you want to be doing.”

As she talks, Mary-Kate plays with her hair, twisting it between her fingers and examining it closely. She chain smokes, but if she’s mid-sentence the unlit cigarette will bob up and down between her lips while she speaks, until there’s a pause long enough for her to light it. Every now and then she readjusts herself on the couch; delicate, feline movements whereby an arm or a leg will stretch out before being quickly recoiled. She’s a tiny creature; both graceful and seemingly so vulnerable you wonder how she makes it through a day when there are potential catastrophes such as cobblestones and puddles lurking around every corner. Her wide eyes, the greenish gray of antique marble, are melancholy. “It’s interesting,” she says, looking down at her feet and running her fingertips along the steel studs on her shoes, “if I’m not smiling it tells a whole other story than if I am. Usually, if I’m being chased by the paparazzi, I am probably not going to be smiling.”

“It’s like, how is our leaving an airport relevant to anything? How is it relevant that I am getting a coffee in the morning?” she continues. “Most people drink coffee in the morning! They don’t know me so they have to comment on my appearance. I wear weird things sometimes. I like to drink coffee. Neither of those things have anything to do with who I am. I am a bit kooky, I am a bit wacky, and that’s how my friends know me: It’s a happy craziness and they connect with that person and respect me for it.”

Do you often feel misrepresented by the people that interview you?

“All the time! I am! It’s like I’m looking at two different people. You look at yourself and you look at a story that’s written about you and you’re like ‘Who is that? That’s not me.” The people that know me, my friends, my family, the people I care and respect and the people who respect me—they know who I am.”

And this, of course, is one of the most curious things about both Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen: despite being famous ever since they crawled into the public eye at nine months old; starting a global media empire (Dualstar, which they took sole ownership of three years ago and has helped them amass a combined personal fortunes of an estimated 100 million dollars); and appearing the tabloids every week (usually walking quickly in the other direction), the public know precious little about them. “I think it’s odd that people want to take our picture or write a story about us,” Mary-Kate says, taking a sip from a tall glass of Diet Coke. “For me there are so many other people out there that are so interesting that they could focus on instead of our shoes and my Starbucks cups, which aren’t really that exciting. It baffles my mind.”

For all its disadvantages today, however, Mary-Kate says that growing up in the spotlight wasn’t detrimental to the sisters’ upbringing. Quite the opposite, in fact. “Because we were both born and raised in front of a camera, it was the only thing we knew,” she says. “It was normal for us. We were never thrown into it at an age where there would be a huge lifestyle change. We were surrounded by adults all the time, and I think that’s why my sister and I are really grounded and focused. We never took advantage of the situation. Nothing really ever changed; it was always the same. We were never affected by things…To be honest, my parents never used a video camera or put us on film or took many pictures when we were younger, so it’s almost a good thing that our childhood was documented. It’s still part of our memories.”

As they’ve grown up, so the sisters have moved unobtrusively away from the tween-oriented image that has sold so many dolls, trinkets, and DVDs. Both are currently pursuing individual acting projects. “I went and studied at an acting school for some credit for [NYU school] Gallatin,” Mary-Kate says, “and I fell in love with it again and realized that it was actually what I wanted to do.” She just finished a well-received turn as a born-again Christian pothead on Showtime’s Weeds (“They didn’t need a face and they didn’t need a name: It was about the work and the art and I did a good job and that’s why I got the role”), and filming a part in The Wackness, penned and directed by Jonathan Levine, in which she shares a passionate kiss with that most stalwart, and bald, of thespians, Sir Ben Kingsley. “Kissing Sir Ben Kingsley: How could that be bad?” she says, laughing.

Currently, Mary-Kate splits her time between her rented house in the Hollywood Hills and her apartment in New York. Ashley does the same, but they no longer live together (they were roommates while they attended NYU—both have yet to graduate). “Our relationship is stronger when we don’t live together, so we don’t live together,” Mary-Kate says, gently. “But we see each other every single day.”

“We’re separate people, and we have separate lives,” she continues. “We have a lot of the same friends, but I like my space and I like to be able to do what I want when I’m in my space. I think that because that is my comfort zone—when I’m home—I want to do things at my own speed.” She pauses for a moment, and takes a sip of her drink. “We’re very close, we’re extremely close. I completely understand her and she completely understands me. We know what we’re going through emotionally. We deal with so many things everyday and we’re really the only two people who understands how it feels. I’m lucky to be able to go through these emotions with her—to share it, and to know that I’m not alone.”

And while the media is quick to identify this stage of the twins’ lives as a period of metamorphosis, to hear Mary-Kate tell it, everyone’s a bit late. “I know people perceive this as a transition stage right now but in fact I would say that it was four or five years ago, when we were 16 or 17,” she says. “Even before that. Now people are seeing the finished product, rather than us working on it. Everyone’s a few years behind.”

What about you, personally?

“I think I’m always going through a transformation. I think now that I’m older I’m more aware of things that make me feel more complete as a person I’m trying to concentrate on those things as opposed to things that make me feel empty or not as complete, or that don’t represent who I am.”

Do you think people are starting to see a separation between the two of you?

“Yeah, I mean, my sister and I are so different,” she says. “I think that’s why we work so well together—it’s the Ying and the Yang. When she’s up, I’m down and when I’m down, she’s up. We’re always sort of balancing each other out and encouraging each other…” She trails off, wistfully, and exhales a long plume of smoke before continuing. “It’s like talking about friends. You’re different than your best friend; you’re two completely different people. Although we’re twins it really has nothing to do with how different we are.”

But you’re still very often referred to as “The Olsen Twins” or “Marykateandashley.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” she says, sighing. “It’s very interesting because we have been trying to teach the media that it’s ‘Mary-Kate’ and ‘Ashley’ Olsen since we were 12-years-old. I guess…I guess you just learn to accept it.

The truth is that the bubblegum-pink, neon-flecked marykateandashley thing doesn’t really fit either Olsen very comfortably anymore. Mary-Kate, for her part, comes across as wise, whimsical, and wonderfully Romantic, like her character in a Hugo or Pushkin novel: The kind of girl who would sooner wait for a handwritten letter to drop through her letterbox than check her Facebook account.

“Everything I do has to be visually appealing to me,” she says, brushing a peacock feather away from her cheek. “Like when my friend was going away recently I wanted to throw him a surprise party so I filled my entire back yard with Persian rugs and feather trees and I put little flowers, deep red roses—black magic roses—all over the grass. Then I put these trees up and birdcages and scattered vintage Playboys on the rugs. I had this huge buffet with these huge candlesticks.”

“This is what I meant when I said I walk around naked in heels in my house [as a recent widely quoted, magazine article revealed]. I mean yeah, sometimes, but I think it’s about kind of always being someone else; having fun and entertaining myself.”

She’s also an avid art collector, though is understandably cagey on the specifics of her collection. “I’m always looking at different artists and photographers: Collecting art is one of my passions,” she says, cautiously. “Right now I’m looking at…or people that I collect and am really inspired by are Racki and Thomas Rolf: they’re provocative and beautiful. Warhol. Basquiat is one of my…” she stops, clearly apprehensive.

Are you collecting all these people or are you just inspired by them?

“Both. Can I go out and buy whatever Basquiat I want? No.” She laughs. “Would that be nice? Yes. I can’t do that. Probably one day I’ll be able to. I work to be able to treat myself in certain ways and to treat other people.”

In my mind, in your apartment there’s like a Basquiat here, a Warhol there…

“I wish. Maybe not a Basquiat but when I first moved into my house I didn’t have any furniture, I had a bed and there was just art leaning against every wall until I could find exactly the right pieces.”

As night sets in, the Costes is getting busier; occasionally people flutter in, recognize the little person in the corner, and flutter out again, twittering quietly with friends. The lights are lowered still further. Mary-Kate doesn’t seem to notice. She glances towards the ceiling, which is painted gold and maroon and is covered in framed prints of Roman gods, mounted on cornflower blue paper, and fingers a bracelet that spells out JE T’AIME, on her wrist. She seems sad.

“I’m a person that has high highs and low lows,” she says, slowly. “You know, I am always growing emotionally and I’m very aware of everything that I go through and that I experience personally. I’m always learning something about myself, whether it’s a good or bad thing that I need to work on. A lot of things make me sad. Sometimes it’s almost easier to be sad. But you do end up finding a balance and I think that as I get older I am learning what I can do for myself to make me happy.” —LUKE CRISELL