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At NYU, but in a class of their own

September 13, 2004|GERALDINE BAUM

"Mary-KATE and Ashley just want to have as normal a college experience as possible," said the Olsen twins' longtime spokesman, Michael Pagnotta.

But how could anything be "normal" about Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, the big-eyed kiddie actresses from Los Angeles turned foxy college freshmen in New York?

Sure, they crammed for the SATs and applied for early decision to a hot school and then sweated it out until they were accepted. They even found their own place, and shopped this summer for new clothes and stuff for their new pad. And while unpacking, they naturally had to sort through a lot of old baggage, so to speak, like psychological issues and fiscal responsibilities and what to do about a boyfriend from high school.

But while the Olsen twins, who start classes this week at New York University in Greenwich Village, may share many of the same expectations and challenges of typical coeds, their college experience is not likely to be normal, by any means, not only because of who they are but because of where they chose to resettle. New York, of all over-priced, media-blitzed, kooky places, is never normal.

First and foremost here always is real estate.

Only in New York could you buy four units -- essentially the entire top floor of a high-rise -- put them together for $7.3 million and still not break into the top echelon of real estate deals. That's what the Olsens did. (They also recently picked up a $4-million house with city-to-ocean views in Bel-Air.) When their 5,725-square-foot condo in the far West Village is finished, they'll have a mighty fancy dormitory. Still, it's no big deal; it's not Central Park West or Park Avenue.

As for why a hot pot and single bed were good enough for Jenna and Barbara Bush and Chelsea Clinton -- not to mention the Secret Service -- but not for the Olsen twins, the mini-moguls had other people and things to worry about.

They may not be presidential daughters, but the Olsens are Hollywood royalty atop an estimated $1-billion merchandising empire dependent on their good name. Talk about work-study programs: While Mary-Kate and Ashley won't be filing books in the library, they already have business to attend to in New York, like reading scripts -- for separate projects -- and approving designs for their clothing line that is sold at Wal-Mart and other places.

Their lawyer and manager, Robert Thorne, has taken an apartment right below theirs as well as bought up a townhouse in their complex to create a workspace for a reported eight-person design team that is also moving east with the twins.

"But really, not living in a dorm was less about Mary-Kate and Ashley's business than about interfering with other people's college experience," said Pagnotta. "They visited the dorms last year and within a few minutes there was a crowd around them."

They were thronged then by students, but now they're being mobbed by paparazzi, reportedly a pack of 20. Come to think of it, Mary-Kate and Ashley were darn considerate picking a New York school. Think if those poor paparazzi had to follow them to, say, Dartmouth or some ice palace in Minnesota. They'd have to get snowshoes or learn to handle a four-wheel drive.

A coveted school

The Olsens ended up at one of the country's most desirable universities. Earlier this year the Princeton Review, in a rather unscientific survey of more than 3,000 students and a couple of hundred parents, named NYU the No. 1 "dream" school," meaning the place students would most like to attend if money and admission requirements were not issues. NYU beat Harvard (No. 2), Stanford (No. 3) and Yale (No. 4).

Part of NYU's attraction is the culture, nightlife, multiple internships and a surfeit of, uh, real life surrounding the ivory tower. The Olsens apparently have long been attracted to that life in this city. They visited frequently for business, made a movie here, "New York Minute," that flopped last spring but that took them from Harlem to Chinatown, and now they've relocated.

Mary-Kate and Ashley are among 198 freshmen to start this week at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study, which enables students to sculpt a flexible program tailored to their "needs and ambitions," according to a university fact sheet. Students can "pursue their individual interests by taking classes in the various schools of NYU, engaging in self-directed education as a starting point for their careers." Model Christy Turlington went to Gallatin, as did the two authors of "The Nanny Diaries," whatever that tells you.

It's funny to think of the Olsens at the "starting point" of their career. They began when they were 9 months old, sharing the role of Michelle on ABC's sitcom "Full House," and have evolved into a brand name. Could these 18-year-olds be musing about yet a new trajectory?

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