By Michelle Tauber
May 03, 2004 12:00 PM

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are mad as heck and they’re not going to take it anymore. In February, photos of the pair partying at a friend’s house surfaced in print, and the twins’ golly-gee wholesomeness took a hit. But you won’t find them apologizing. “Yeah, I do go to parties,” says Mary-Kate, who was shown surrounded by beer bottles—though she herself was holding a water bottle. “That was our Winter Formal afterparty. We are [almost] 18 years old. We do hang around people who do drink.” Ashley takes a similar stance: “Listen, we’re not perfect. I’m not saying that we drink. I’m not saying that we don’t drink. All I’m saying is we’re making the right decisions for us.” Even if those decisions occasionally end up splashed in print. Sums up Mary-Kate: “It’s a bleep-bleep world out there.”

Older, wiser, but still sanitized to a fault—”bleep bleep” is about the extent of the girls’ trash talking—the mini-moguls who have spent the last 17 years known as the Olsen Twins are officially growing up. Their full-length, $40 million action-comedy New York Minute opens in theaters May 7; on June 7 they’ll graduate from high school; and on June 13 they’ll turn 18, making them copresidents of Dualstar Entertainment, the company behind their $1 billion business empire. (Each teen boasts an estimated net worth of $150 million.) They both have boyfriends, dig designer clothes and—sorry, moms—they do party. This fall they’ll make their biggest leap yet, moving into a downtown four-bedroom Manhattan pad to begin their freshman year at New York University. “We’re going to school next year, and that will be our time to figure [everything] out,” says Mary-Kate, who is known to her pals as MK. “I mean, we’re not doing twins movies for the rest of our lives, you know?”

Yet independence and impending adulthood also have made the girls fair game for the rumor mill: “Being in the public eye, you’re labeled that you have an eating disorder,” says Ashley. “You have a drug addiction,” says Mary-Kate. So do they? “We don’t have problems!” says Ashley. “There’s nothing to worry about.” Adds Mary-Kate: “If I had a drug addiction I would be in a thingy—like Promises the Malibu [rehab] place. You don’t see me there. So, like, come on. It’s crazy.”

More reliable are reports of the girls’ blossoming love lives: Ashley has been in a relationship with Columbia University quarterback Matt Kaplan, 20, for three years; recently Mary-Kate began dating David Katzenberg, 21, a Boston University student and the son of Dream Works studio cofounder Jeffrey Katzenberg With the twins attending private school in their hometown of Los Angeles and their boyfriends on the other side of the country, “it’s been hard,” says Ashley. “A long-distance relationship is tough no matter what.” In fact Ashley and Matt “talk constantly,” says Ashley’s close friend Megan Hubbell, 17. “The second she’s got a two-minute break they’ll talk.”

Just don’t expect either Olsen to make Britney-style declarations of virginity—or to make any sort of declaration at all on the subject of premarital sex. “That’s like me meeting you for the first time and asking you about your sex life,” says Ashley. “It’s personal, and I hope everyone’s making the right decisions for themselves.”

Both girls are aware of the scrutiny they face. “As a parent, hopefully you can understand,” says Mary-Kate. “You were 18 once. Your kids will be 18. If you can’t respect us growing up, I don’t know what to say. We are growing up.”

A generation of girls has grown up right along with them, amassing libraries of the twins’ 47 straight-to-video films and emulating their style. More recently the Olsens have attracted a male fan base, a group that has been counting down the days until the girls turn 18. (There are thousands of Web sites devoted to the count.) On the MTV show Cribs last year, comic Jamie Kennedy even confessed to keeping a photo of the pair on his desk, explaining, “I just thought they were really hot, like, mini Cameron Diaz one, mini Cameron Diaz two.” Says Riley Smith, 25, who plays Ashley’s boyfriend in New York Minute: “I know guys that are literally obsessed with them. When I started I had a call from every one of my friends—’Hook me up, dude!'”

The twins shrug off the attention in much the same way that they remain reluctant role models for the tween set. “They’ve been put on such a pedestal—I’d have shaky knees,” says their father, Dave, 52, who shares custody of the girls with ex-wife Jarnette, 50. “They’re not Disneyland kids. They’re just real kids with real issues.”

Media scrutiny doesn’t help. “Those articles are sold in Wal-Mart, where our fans shop,” says Mary-Kate. “Do you know how much responsibility that puts on me for something I didn’t do?”

At the same time, the preternaturally perky duo recognize that their transition to adulthood may come as a surprise to those who still view them as the two moppets from Full House. Just 9 months old at the time of their showbiz debut on the ABC sitcom—to this day their first and only audition—they have been in the public eye ever since. Even they can’t quite believe that they’re almost voting age. “We’re so short and tiny. We can’t be going to college!” says Mary-Kate. “I can’t live on my own!'”

Well, non technically on her own; as always, where Mary-Kate goes, so does Ashley (and vice versa). The fraternal twins—they only look identical—never considered attending different colleges. “We’ve wanted to go to [NYU] since we were like 10,” says Ashley, whose reputation has long been that of the more serious twin, with Mary-Kate portrayed as the more laid-back of the two. Neither description is accurate, says Dualstar Entertainment CEO Robert Thorne, who has guided the girls’ company from its inception. “People expect a yin and a yang, and it ain’t there,” he says. “It’s just that Mary-Kate is a little more free-spirited and Ashley is a little more structured. Ashley’s a little more of a worrier; Mary-Kate is a little more, ‘It will sort itself out.'”

Thorne consults with each girl separately on every major business decision. “It’s always two calls,” he says. “And I very rarely get, ‘Let my sister handle that.’ They’re equally voracious to know what the company is up to.”

Although the Olsens, who travel with a team of bodyguards, will soon be in charge of their own finances, both plan to continue taking a monthly allowance. Despite a passion for fashion—”Of course you love when you get the most beautiful pieces from Chanel or Stella McCartney or Missoni,” says Ashley—they say they rarely splurge. “If we buy something we think is too much, we have buyer’s remorse,” says Ashley. And hey, even the youngest self-made millionaires like a good bargain: The girls use frequent-buyer cards at L.A.’s Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to earn free java.

Whether they are sipping morning coffee or promoting their new movie, the girls’ relationship “is a little more than sisterhood,” says Judy Swartz, their longtime stylist and the head of their fashion and makeup lines. “They’re like best friends.” Do they ever fight? “Yeah. They get in arguments. But it never really sticks.” Adds pal Hubbell, who has known the twins since kindergarten: “They definitely know what the other is thinking. Sometimes they’ll look at each other and laugh. It’s freaky.”

When asked who’s the better student, Ashley replies, “I think there’s no better student. We excel in different things” (Mary-Kate at writing; Ashley at math). Both took the SATs and wrote admissions essays of their choosing. Mary-Kate’s essay examined “a big fear that I have. It was a lyric by Ben Harper that said, ‘When you have everything to lose,'” she says. Ashley’s essay compared her life to “Number 1,” a work by abstract artist Jackson Pollock. Looking at the painting, “you can get exactly what you want out of it, and it’s kind of like our life has been, being in the public eye,” says Ashley. “People can judge it whatever way they want.”

If the girls have avoided some of the pitfalls of growing up in the limelight, they credit their parents for keeping them on track. “We’ve never had stage parents,” says Ashley. Dad Dave was active in real estate until a few years ago, and mom Jarnette—who in 1987 brought the twins to the Full House audition at the suggestion of a casting-director friend—was busy raising the girls’ siblings: brother Trent, 20, a USC sophomore who is studying film, and sister Elizabeth (Lizzie), 15, a high school student and budding actress. After the twins’ careers ignited, their parents made sure their earnings were invested wisely. “We were definitely protected,” says Mary-Kate.

In 1996 their parents divorced. “To be honest, we were kind of busy at that point,” says Ashley. “We had so many people that loved us that we were like, ‘That’s okay. Things will be better this way.’ We were very mature for our age.”

Today the sisters divide their time between parents and siblings (including their two half siblings, Taylor, 6, and Jake, 5, from their dad’s second marriage). Soon they’ll settle down in their Manhattan apartment. Heading off to college, “we want to do separate things, and we want to do things together,” says Ashley, who plans to explore her interest in psychology; Mary-Kate is interested in photography and maybe even culinary school. “I feel like we’ve walked into a candy store,” says Mary-Kate. “We have so much to choose from.”

And yet, even as they aim to move past the Olsen Twins image, it’s likely they will choose wisely. Laughing, they sum up what they figure their fans’ parents want to hear.

“Stay in school!” says Ashley.

“Don’t do drugs!” says Mary-Kate.

“Get good grades!” says Ashley.

Savvy businesswomen that they are, they also can’t resist one final plug. Says Ashley: “New York Minute is coming out!”

By Michelle Tauber. Mark Dagostino in New York City