Six years after her popular blog, Style Rookie, made her the fashion world’s class president, Tavi Gevinson has matured into the head of her very own media empire. Now, as teenage girls and their older counterparts flock to the precocious 17 year old’s online magazine, Rookie, by the millions, Gevinson balances her time between book launches, movie premieres, blogging, and yes, homework. Here, Fiona Duncan taps into the infectious energy of this kindred teen spirit. Photography by James Orlando. Styling by Jessica Bobince.
Tavi Gevinson wears voices like she wears clothes: no matter what she puts on, it becomes her. Her range is teenage, spanning from disaffected like Daria to true Belieber, sometimes within a matter of syllables. When she fangirls, which is often, she’ll trill until she’s short of breath. When she is self-deprecating, which is just as often, she’s Lisa Simpson affecting, “like, you know, whatever,” cool. Her jokes are deadpan—enthusiasm, curbed; her wisdom comes, like Yoda, couched in a smirk. “I was always drawn to fictional characters who had their own world,” she drawls, stretching the world into whiiirled, “ones with a sense of pride, honesty, and—” this with an eye-rolling grin, “truth.” When she recites gained knowledge—paraphrasing neurologist Oliver Sacks or astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, for instance—her voice booms with the authority of her subject. But on matters of taste, be it fictional characters or footwear, the underage editor is assertively girlish. “I feel like” is her go-to transition.
“I feel like this one won’t work,” Gevinson suggests to the stylist, flopping her hands in a sweater’s excess fabric, like Angela Chase in flannel. A wardrobe to rival Cher Horowitz’s has been thrown up in the Chelsea studio leased for Gevinson’s BULLETT cover shoot, but at least half of the designer samples overwhelm her Didion-tiny frame. Gevinson sorts through the racks, sizing up looks and pulling ones she likes. “I feel like this is too busy, and that’s too long. I feel like mod Margot Tenenbaum— what do you think?”
But Gevinson isn’t bossy, she’s boss. She knows what she likes and can articulate why diplomatically. She’s practiced: Gevinson has been working in media since 2008, when, age eleven, she started posting eccentrically styled selfies and runway commentary on a blog she titled Style Rookie. Her earnest enthusiasm, humor, and eloquence, combined with the novelty of all that coming from some freaky geeky junior highschooler in suburban Illinois, brought her tens of thousands of daily readers. The media frenzy that followed was inevitable. Gevinson landed front row invitations to fashion week, interviews in Vogue Paris and The New York Times, and a profile in The New Yorker. She appeared in photos next to Anna Wintour, and on the covers of the magazines L’Officiel and Pop. She collaborated with Rodarte on the fashion house’s 2009 Target collection, and wrote a column for Harper’s Bazaar.
In 2011, Gevinson embarked on the next logical phase in her career by founding Rookie, a for-us-by-us online teen magazine for little women like her—the strong-willed and creative Jo Marchs of the world. She also edits the Rookie Yearbook, a printed compilation of the best Rookie had to offer that year, “because it’s good to have something to hold in your hands.” (The sophomore edition, published by indie press Drawn & Quarterly, landed on shelves in October.) Last summer, Gevinson and her collaborators took Rookie on all American road trip, rallying readers across the country with glitter bombed picnics, sleepovers, film screenings, and Urban Outfitters art installations. A self-described “dabbler,” Gevinson also draws, sings, and acts. She recently starred alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in Nicole Holofcener’s latest film, Enough Said. She’s also a senior in high school.
The weird thing about writing about Gevinson is that she already writes so well about herself. The six years she’s spent self-publishing are forever in teen time: the difference between junior high and college applications, first bras and first loves, an awareness of recess and one of death, all of which her fans have seen—and heard—her go through. For a culture as obsessed with teen girls as ours, it’s rare we hear directly from them. We know Lolita through Humbert Humbert through Vladimir Nabokov. We know the Lisbon sisters through their boy neighbors through Jeffrey Eugenides. We know Buffy through Joss Whedon, Tracy through Woody Allen, Enid Coleslaw through Dan Clowes, Lindsay Weir through Paul Feig. And these are the “strong female characters,” ones that Gevinson, a media magpie, has penned into her canon of references. Not without asterisks, though. A full-bloom feminist critic, Gevinson would be the first to note how many of her fictional heroines are authored by men. Rookie encourages girls to reclaim the conversation.
“What makes a strong, female character is a character who has weaknesses, who has flaws, who is maybe not immediately likeable but eventually relatable,” Gevinson explained in her 2012 TED Talk, “Still Figuring It Out.” At Rookie, she continued, “we want to help represent girls in a way that shows those different dimensions” by having them represent themselves. It was an Internet native’s perfect recapitulation of the Riot Grrrl Manifesto. See Clause #3: “Because we must take over the means of production in order to create our own meanings.
The original premise for Rookie was to make a Sassy for Generation Y, an alt teen publication for Millennials inspired by Jane Pratt’s riot grrrl era anti-Seventeen. Gevinson had been writing about the glory of Sassy on Style Rookie, and when Pratt heard the praise, she approached the young blogger to collaborate. In November 2010, Gevinson made an announcement on her blog that she and Pratt would be joining forces to start a Sassy reboot. In that post, Gevinson made an open call for submissions. She received over 3000 replies.
Rookie, which was viewed over one million times in its first week, eventually got made without Pratt; that would have meant partnering up with Say Media, Pratt’s company backer. Instead, Rookie remained independent so Gevinson could retain full ownership. Gevinson was guided through that decision by several people, among them Anaheed Alani, who is now the editorial director for Rookie (and to whom Gevinson gives profuse, tearful thanks whenever she can), and Alani’s husband, Ira Glass, who lent them an intern from his NPR program This American Life to research the logistics of staying indie.
At the time, Gevinson, whose mother is an artist and whose father doubles as her manager, was in tenth grade. “Ira sat me down at one point and said, You realize you’re not going to be a normal teenager now,” Gevinson recounted. “He was like, after school, you’re going to have all these responsibilities other kids don’t have. And I was like, a lot of kids have responsibilities. Besides, I’m not normal anyways. I don’t even know what normal means.”
The first time I experienced what journalists have echoed as “the Rookie generation” was in September 2012 at the New York launch for Rookie Yearbook One. The basement of independent bookstore McNally Jackson was over capacity with several generations of women. Rookie’s inner circle (among them, Petra Collins, Hazel Cills, Jenny Zhang, Emma Straub, and Laia Garcia) were there, plus Lena Dunham, Sarah Sophie Flicker, Karen Elson, Dave Hill, and gaggles of girl readers. There were tears, there was candy, there were Kahlo floral crowns; motivational speeches, dirty jokes, definitions of feminism, debates on Taylor Swift, music, dancing, more tears. At one point, Sarah Sophie Flicker, a local performance artist, took the floor and announced that the night’s festivities had renewed her hope in the future of feminism. Where she, a new mother, once felt anxious about bringing a girl into the world, she now felt excited. The basement rose up in ovation.
“It’s not a rulebook,” says Gevinson of the site and its politics, “but a discussion, a conversation, a process.” Rookie feminism is about self-knowledge and self-esteem, about fostering a community that shares, in equal measure, ideas and compliments. The magazine’s 80-odd person staff—most of whom are teen girls, though there are also some men and several adults on the masthead (“It’s good to have grown-ups around,” Gevinson once casually told me)—guide its legions of readers (Rookie broke 1 million page views within its first six days and is read internationally) in a kind of consciousness raising 2.0, sharing anecdotes and advice on everything from writer’s block to coming out to Victorian style. All posts are signed by the author’s first name. This personal touch is classic Tavi. As Lola Pellegrino, a recent but “senior” (she’s 27) inductee to the Rookie staff, expressed her editor-in-chief’s approach to me, “she is just so fucking human and personable, with her willingness to show vulnerability, with her strength in vulnerability, and her persistence in pursuing that as knowledge.”
Rookie publishes three posts a day (after school, after dinner, and before bed) and once a day on the weekends. Regular features include “Ask A Grown Man/Woman,” where grownups like Jon Hamm, Bill Hader, Beth Ditto, and Tig Notaro answer teens’ questions; “Literally the Best Thing Ever,” where Rookies rave on things they love; and “Live Through This,” a memoir series named after Hole’s CLASSIC second studio album. Then there are the editor’s notes. Here Gevinson’s voice has matured into something grave, graceful, hilarious—and highly philosophical, like Aurelius’ Meditations or Montaigne’s Essais washed in internet speak, pop references, and reflexive asides, which are often in parentheses “(then again, “WHAT’S CONSCIOUS, MAN?” —the tiny stoner living inside me who mocks my every semi-deep thought)”).
This is Gevinson on “‘authenticity,’ camouflage, that stuff Baudrillard wrote about our world being a simulation of reality and all that”:
The way people imitate feeling high or drunk or sexy, and how teenagers fall into that because we’re just grasping for how to act in those new situations. It doesn’t do any good for anyone—it’s just a lot of people pretending to be having a good time and not getting what they really want.
I think I’d always assumed I’d at least get to watch my funeral go down and have a few suspicions confirmed concerning who would write awkward “Happy Birthday! Miss you :(” messages on my Facebook wall long after I’d passed. I thought I’d get to still see how this whole “world” thing turns out: Do we all explode? Do things start to suck less first? Does everyone get sick of technology and start to live like the Amish, inspired by that one episode of Arthur? DO PEOPLE STILL WATCH ARTHUR?
But a few experiences take me out of all the stupid, floaty thoughts you get alone in your room and it hits me, quite tardily, that death is really the end.
“These are universal concerns,” Gevinson explained to me during our longest sitdown, in the snack-stacked green room of the Brooklyn concert venue, the Bell House, where the Rookie Yearbook Two launch party was about to go off. “Like, so many common themes on Rookie are about dealing with change. I think that’s one of the hardest things about growing up: having to find your identity, how strange it is to feel attached to things and then not. These are human things that happen through your whole life. Bob Dylan stuff.” (Dylan, with his indifference to press and persona play, is one of Gevinson’s role models.)
Gevinson is careful to point out that she’s not ungrateful for the attention that has, for half a decade, spotlit her coming-of-age. “But sometimes,” she says, “I felt so condescended upon, like when an adult reporter treated me like they were Santa Claus and I was a kid on their lap at Macy’s. So it was helpful for me to be obsessed with someone like Bob Dylan.” Or Rei Kawakubo, founder of Japanese design house Comme des Garçons: “I loved Rei Kawakubo because she was in fashion but she was a little mean, kind of antisocial, maybe even snobby or elitist, but it was just because she saw the urgency of containing her world and the things that were important to her.”
Asked to list more of her role models, Gevinson started precipitously: “Courtney Love, Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, Joni Mitchell, Chris Ware, Fiona Apple—oh my God, Fiona Apple!—Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, Rashida Jones, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Iris Apfel,” but then stopped herself, amending that if she continued, she would only forget to mention more. “It’s good to have role models for different parts of your life,” she notes, “Like, I was nervous about going to TIFF [the Toronto International Film Festival, which Gevinson attended in September to promote Enough Said] and Anaheed was like just do what Tilda Swinton does: she wears pajamas to interviews.”
Gevinson speaks like she writes like she collages: in cited quotations. Describing the Chicago suburb where she’s grown up, she compared parts of it to Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World (“dull in an aesthetically pleasing way”) and others to Stepford, the fictional Connecticut town in The Stepford Wives. She also made mention of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses and The Virgin Suicides. “So, it’s not like a depressing, uncultured suburb,” she concluded, “But it can be fun to pretend it is and have, like, a Bruce Springsteen experience.”
Rookie’s aesthetics are similarly multimedia. The magazine is nostalgically crafted. The logo looks handdrawn. Inside, the fashion is vintage: thrifted or retro-inspired (think contemporary designers like Meadham Kirchhoff, Rodarte, and Rachel Antonoff). Again, that’s Gevinson’s move. As Tracy Hurren, a designer at Drawn & Quarterly, the house that publishes the Rookie Yearbook anthology, explained, “Rookie is a team effort, but it stems from a singular, unique vision. From the tiniest collage detail to font selection, Tavi knows exactly what she wants.”
The team at Drawn & Quarterly refer to Gevinson as Tiny Genius (as in her initials, T.G.), and yes, she might be that very recently discovered unicorn: the female genius. Gevinson would probably recoil from such an assertion. Plagued with “impostor syndrome,” she preemptively apologizes for pretentiousness in conversation. Her tone is advanced but never precocious; it almost seems as if she’s curtailing her intellect with all her “likes” and Liz Lemon “blergs.”
“I’m very happy when I meet a Rookie reader who didn’t know who I was,” Gevinson will repeat, “readers who didn’t read my blog, who may not even know who I am now. Because then I think, oh good, this is a real thing in the real world that people understand, it has a life of its own, it’s not just this thing in my head, it’s not about me.” Still, to the ever-expanding band of young Rookies, as to the grown women readers who utter the common refrain, “Imagine what I would have been if Rookie had existed in my day,” Tavi Gevinson has become the kind of role model—“those with a sense of pride, honesty, and truth”—she always sought out for herself.
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