A few weeks ago, I was so sick that I couldn’t even focus on a gentle film like It’s Complicated, becoming confounded by minor plot points involving college-graduation schedules. Desperately seeking some sort of solace and distraction from the prison of my own flesh, I turned to the next best thing after a Nancy Meyers movie: I opened my phone and Googled “Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen smoking.” Immediately, I was placated. There they were, as predictable as the weather (in the olden days, when the weather was predictable), leaning blank-faced and blasé against the Row’s office building, two tiny blonde parentheses encasing two ever-burning cigarettes.
In my feverish haze, I tweeted that I’d always used photos of the Olsens smoking as a soothing mechanism, perhaps in hopes that I might help another flu-stricken young woman temporarily escape her body. Minutes later, I received a tweet back from an Australian woman named Courtney Thompson. “It’s a movement!” she wrote. “Join now!” Courtney included a link to her Instagram page, entitled, appropriately, “mka_smoking.” Dating back to 2017, the page has a little over 500 followers, with a bio that reads, “There’s nothing quite as soothing as a pic of Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen smoking. Here, enjoy a new pic of them smoking each day.”
I was stunned. I hadn’t realized that my third(?)-hand smoking habit was, in fact, an international pastime that traversed thousands of miles, an ocean, and two accents. I’d never probed it very deeply from a psychological standpoint either. My love of the Olsens is well documented, but I’m not a smoker — I’ve never really felt any physiological difference after smoking a cigarette, so it seemed pointless to add it to my medium-length list of things that will kill me before my time. (If you are my teenage sister reading this, smoking is very bad and you should never do it.) What was it, then, about the Olsen twins puffing away that had such a soporific effect on me and, apparently, at least 510 others? Why was watching them smoke as soothing to me as actual smoking is to most normal people? To find out, I decided to reach out to the experts: Courtney of the @mka_smoking Instagram, a psychologist, and my friends Matt Harkins and Viviana Olen, curators of the THNK1994 Museum, who once put together an entire exhibit dedicated to the Olsen twins that included a cigarette room.
Matt and Viviana, who describe themselves as “avid smokers who don’t smoke anymore because we don’t have the lungs of celebrities,” have long been fascinated by the smoking habits of the twins. “I remember one of the stories that was written about them after they moved to New York, almost a decade ago, was about the Met Gala and how they were in there smoking in the bathroom,” said Matt. “It was before the year where everybody did it, and Amanda Peet walked in and said, ‘Pee-yew.’” When the two discovered the artwork of Laura Collins, who paints photos of the Olsens hiding from the paparazzi (often while smoking), they designed an entire museum around it and housed it inside an abandoned doctor’s office in Brooklyn. “Hiding is another iconic part of their personality,” explained Viviana.
They’re most proud of the room that paid homage to Mary-Kate’s wedding to Olivier Sarkozy, wherein guests were reportedly surrounded by “bowls and bowls of cigarettes.” “There were no phones at the wedding. Nobody could take photos. You couldn’t see across the room because there was so much smoke,” gushed Matt. To re-create that heady sensation, Matt and Viviana sold gold cigarettes for $20. “We wanted to make it a beautiful, topical thing,” said Viviana.
Matt and Viviana confirmed that, despite loving actual smoking, they too are equally pacified by watching the Olsens smoke. “They’re wearing amazingly gorgeous clothes, on a gorgeous fall day, with a giant fucking coffee. And a slight breeze taking the smoke away,” said Matt. “A lot of its lasting power is that it’s left up to your imagination, too. They don’t tell you their workout routine or what juice they’re drinking. They don’t let you know anything. So when you do find out something, it’s like, ‘Whoa. Something has happened.’ There’s mystery and glamour.” Added Viviana, “It’s like visual ASMR, a metronome. In and out. If they quit, I don’t know what I would do.”
Both agree that the whole thing is intensified by the fact that there are two of them, and that they are so small. “Everything’s better when it’s small. I once found a pair of really cute red tennis shoes, and I was like, ‘I wanna get these.’ And then they brought them in my size, I was like, ‘These are hideous.’” I asked if they were similarly calmed by other activities the Olsens partake in. “Arriving,” said Matt. “You never see them departing,” said Viviana thoughtfully. “Drinking coffee. Stomping down the road. And looking.”
My next call was to Dr. Alexandra Luger, a clinical psychologist who has little to no knowledge of the Olsen twins, and who is also my friend, though perhaps less so after this interview. “I don’t know what’s soothing about these photos,” she began. “They look famished and cold.” I asked her to pretend I was her patient instead of her idiot friend. “Okay,” she said. “From a neurologic perspective, smoking is a breathing exercise. You inhale, you exhale, and that will relax your body. The other piece is nicotine, which activates your pleasure receptors. In and of itself, those things make you feel good. And as somebody watching a smoker, you can either be associating it with the cultural narrative that smoking is relaxing, or maybe you’re a former smoker and you know what that feeling is, so watching it activates your mirror neurons. These elicit a reaction in our brains from observing a behavior that’s goal-directed or an emotional response.” In other words, she said, watching somebody smoke can activate similar feelings in the brain that smoking might.
So why smoke at all if you can just feel like you’re smoking by watching a pair of twins smoke in a paparazzi photo? “Well, if one of your family members dies, I’m going to be sad for you and with you, but I’m not going to experience it the same way as if one of my family members dies,” Dr. Luger explained, chillingly. “It’s a lesser reaction.” I asked if she might tell one of her patients trying to quit smoking to look at photos of the Olsen twins smoking. “That would be a really weird intervention,” she said.
After I hung up with my free therapist, I hopped on a transpacific phone call with Courtney, owner and operator of @mka_smoking, who is also not a smoker, and identifies as a Mary-Kate. “I started the account a few years ago,” she said, “and I can’t really put it into words why. It’s like an ice-cold bucket of water dropped on my head. Whenever I’m having a stressful moment, I go look at those photos. It’s a rush. There’s something about them and the familiarity I have with their image, combined with the fact that I’m watching them calm down or seeking a sort of stress relief.” She told me that she gets regular comments and DMs from readers thanking her for giving them a derivative sense of tranquility.
We began talking about how, as kids, we would’ve been shocked by the idea of our angelic childhood idols doing something remotely transgressive. Even when they first began openly smoking and partying as adults, the images were a little jarring juxtaposed with their previously chaste public personas. “They were kind of like big sisters,” said Courtney, who’s 25, almost a decade younger than the 33-year-old twins. “So seeing them smoking at first, I was like, ‘Whoa.’ Now I’m like, ‘Well, the world’s about to end, so have a cigarette if you want to.’ ”
Together, we had an epiphany: Part of what we find so relaxing about watching them smoke is that it’s an open fuck-you to their previous image — a clear demarcation between a childhood they gave away to the rest of the world and an adulthood that’s just for them. “It’s almost like they’re breaking away,” said Courtney. “It’s subversive: ‘This is who we are.’” In other words, the placating effect of the photos is in part a sense of vicarious thrill: Two women doing whatever the hell they want in public after spending two decades with absolutely zero agency.
It reminded me of a story Viviana had told me earlier that day. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a part of their fan club, but it cost money and we were poor,” she said. “One time, they came to the Adventuredome theme park in Vegas, and it was like, ‘Meet the Olsen twins!’ We waited in line for three hours. When we got there, they were really tired and sad. I was like, ‘Oh, this is dark. I’m gonna cool it for a little while.’” Viviana took a few years off from stanning the twins — that is, until they began smoking outside. “When I saw them smoking at NYU, I started back up again,” she said, laughing. “I was like, ‘Dang. These girls are cool.’”