As the Illinois-native celebrates her eighteenth birthday, we find out about her plans post high school, her take on fashion and feminism and her newfound friendship with Stevie Nicks.
I’m lying on my bed, chatting on the phone to Tavi Gevinson, and it feels like a 90s teen sitcom, which is perfect when you’re talking to someone who champions today’s teenage girl and has a nostalgia for that decade. (Tavi loves My So-Called Life and Freaks & Geeks.) She has recently graduated from high school and is about to leave her parents’ home and move in with her BFF, photographer and artist Petra Collins, in New York City. Considering what she’s achieved so far in school in Oak Park, Illinois, it’s thrilling to think what’s next for Miss Gevinson.
On the phone, Tavi’s smart and charming, full of wry humour and intellectual confidence, occasionally deferring to her dad for answers. A month ago she turned 18 (she went roller-skating with a couple of girlfriends and blew out the candles on a funfetti cake). It’s a far cry from the 12-year-old suburban girl who came to the world’s attention dressing like a kooky granny on her blog Style Rookie. Some thought she was a fashion flash in the pan, but she’s proved the haters wrong. At its peak, Style Rookie was getting 50,000 hits a day, and before long she was fronting the cover of POP magazine and frowing next to none other than Vogue editrix Anna Wintour at fashion weeks across the globe.
"When I wrote my blog and went to fashion week, I got a lot of shade from older editors about paying my dues and educating myself. I get where they were coming from, but it’s also weird now to see their institutions scramble to use the internet in a way that’s not savvy, but genuinely effective and exciting to people. I’ve been doing that for years."
Tavi is modest about starting the whole fashion blogging phenomenon. “I know Susie Bubble and other people were already doing it,” she points out. But she was undeniably one of the pioneers and quickly became the movement’s poster girl. “I guess my story was the most quippy and interesting, so I’m often credited for it, but there were a lot of other people doing something very similar,” she humbly admits. Truth be told, Tavi opened the fashion floodgates for a new generation of talented and opinionated young stars. The dusty walls of the fashion establishment crumbled, cliquey catwalk shows suddenly became more democratic, and young voices mattered more than they ever have before.
Then something even more interesting happened. Rather than just carry on reviewing fashion shows (she had the best seat in the house) and playing dress-up with fashion’s finest designer clothes, Tavi turned her attention to her fellow teenage girls and set up Rookie Mag in 2011, a website that features monthly, themed issues covering everything from technology to sex, love, books, comics, movies, TV and fiction. Rookie Mag gets 3.5 million hits a month and publishes a glossy magazine that boasts an enviable roster of contributors who include Lena Dunham and Sarah Silverman. It even has a print offshoot, Rookie Yearbook, published annually with all the really special stuff.
Since Rookie Mag launched, Tavi has hosted a TED talk, appeared in a Hollywood movie (James Gandolfini’s last flick, Enough Said) and this summer she will be making her Broadway debut opposite Michael Cera in This Is Our Youth. This girl is so bright, capable and connected beyond her years that when a friend joked, “One day Tavi will be President!” it didn’t seem like a joke at all!
Tavi, you and your friends have been doing it for yourselves since your early teens, carving out your own career paths and showing the rest of us how it’s done…
Yeah, that’s definitely the goal! Beyoncé said, “I have no desire for anyone else’s throne” and I feel the same. I like building my own throne, letting myself dip into different mediums, and being in control of Rookie. I don’t think our culture is completely without hierarchy yet. I think it’s time for cultural gatekeepers to give up these illusions of who “deserves” to be famous, be heard or have influence, based on old-fashioned ideas about success. Literally none of it matters. The guy from 30 Seconds to Mars has an Oscar, you know? Kimye is on the cover of Vogue! So I hope this glorification of old institutions and prestigious publications can be balanced with consideration for what audiences are actually responding to. When I wrote my blog and went to fashion week, I got a lot of shade from older editors about paying my dues and educating myself. I get where they were coming from, but it’s also weird now to see their institutions scramble to use the internet in a way that’s not savvy, but genuinely effective and exciting to people. I’ve been doing that for years.
Do you still hold the fashion industry in high regard?
I didn’t go to the last fashion week and I didn’t look at it online until I had to pull clothes for this shoot. It’s not out of any negative feeling, more indifference. My headspace has been filled with different things. In middle school, it was a really amazing alternate universe to go to, but once high school started and Rookie started, I really liked everything I was doing here and I didn’t feel the same desperation to get out. I’ve probably become less interested in fashion, but I still love clothes. I love getting dressed and I admire it in other people. A lot of what I liked about fashion was creating these little worlds. Now with the Rookie books, I art direct them; the background is a fabric of mine I scanned, or stickers, or pages from my diary. I really like creating little worlds and that’s become more satisfying for me.
Congratulations on your Broadway play. I hear your character Jessica is an “anxiously insightful fashion student”. Is that true?
Yeah, but the fashion student is not a super central part of her character. She is somewhat insightful, but is mostly anxious and feels challenged if people don’t agree with her.
What are your plans for after the play?
I believe I’ll be going to college in New York in Fall. I think I’ll probably do school and Rookie, but I want to be able to give school the attention that I should be giving to it.
The courses in America are much more fluid than the ones in England. What kind of classes do you think you’ll be taking?
I’m hoping to design my own major. I know that I want to take a lot of creative writing classes. It may be obvious from Rookie, but I’m very interested in the intersections of society with pop culture, so I’ll probably be taking Beyoncé theory, or whatever!
"I recently interviewed Miley Cyrus for Elle and said to her, “Everything you’re experimenting with is totally normal, but why do it in public?” But it had never even occurred to her to do it in private. I’ve grown up in a very different way to her, but we’re similar in that sense. I don’t see lines between public and private. The idea of sharing your life with the world - as long as you feel you have nothing to lose and nothing to prove - isn’t scary."
Do you know where you’re going to live in NYC yet?
Yes, Petra and I are gonna live together. We don’t know where exactly yet, but we definitely want a sitcom situation. It’ll just be the two of us, but I want all my friends to come visit, so hopefully it’ll be bustling at all times.
What kind of sitcom will it be like?
Broad City, if they were more productive.
Tell us about your relationship with Petra…
Petra is one of my best friends. I guess we connect because we look at the world in similar ways, but different enough that we can learn from one another. If we drive around my hometown, we’ll be obsessed with the same houses and the same spots. That could be that we’re both growing up, so there’s this pining for anything that seems sentimental. She always eats either really healthy or pure junk. And she works from bed, which I can’t do. She looks like a worm. It’s horrible. I don’t know how she does it.
What do you think she thinks of you?
Petra came to my hometown the other weekend to do this shoot, and we went around my favourite places… the roller rink, the bowling alley and my school, which isn’t really one of my favourite places, but it looks really nice on camera! And she said that in a lot of ways she feels like my little sister. She’ll probably say that I’m bossy and I tease her. I’m 18 and she’s 21!
Your mum’s Norwegian and your dad’s Jewish. Did those cultures have a big effect on you growing up?
My mum being a textile artist from Norway has made her very conscious of how our house looks. She’s so obsessive about light, atmosphere and has always had this great attention to detail. Her sensibility and way of creating a space are part of how I work. With my dad being Jewish, I was raised in reformed Judaism. With our synagogue, there’s a lot of social responsibility. Oak Park, the town that I live in, is very liberal. So all of that has informed the attitude that I bring to Rookie.
Your style was quite granny-ish when you were young. Why was that?
My heroes at that time were Iris Apfel, Edie Beale and Isabella Blow: women who were at an age when - I’m told - you kind of stop caring. So I thought, if I start not caring aged 12, then I’ll be good. I was trying to combat what I saw at school: girls feeling this pressure to look a certain way and sexualise themselves. Not necessarily for political reasons, but on a personal level, that wasn’t appealing to me. It was more fun to go in the complete opposite direction.
On Rookie, you post three stories daily during the week and one on the weekend. I like that you’re not flooding the site with stories. Even though you found fame and a career through websites, you’ve said that you don’t think it’s healthy for people to be constantly online.
With Rookie, a lot of it is about using online to get people to do stuff offline, so we have a lot of DIYs and really try and inspire our readers. I’ve never wanted to do a link baby website. There’s enough of that! I was just reading this book by Carl Wilson, and he says, “I hate Céline Dion, but I want to find out why.” He talks a lot about taste, class and elitism and he quotes Richard Sennett, who wrote a book called The Fall of Public Man, and talks about the idea that solitude is the only way to get truth and anything public or in a crowd of people is inherently compromised. I’ve never really thought that you have the more truthful experience when you’re writing alone in a journal by the sea in a lighthouse. For me, it’s all the same. I recently interviewed Miley Cyrus for Elle and said to her, “Everything you’re experimenting with is totally normal, but why do it in public?” But it had never even occurred to her to do it in private. I’ve grown up in a very different way to her, but we’re similar in that sense. I don’t see lines between public and private. The idea of sharing your life with the world - as long as you feel you have nothing to lose and nothing to prove - isn’t scary.
Would you say Rookie is a feminist site?
Me and many of our staffers are feminists and that informs how I approach everything. When I started, I felt like a lot of women and girls had carved out a lot of space to discuss feminism and I wanted to create a place that would maybe be more introductory for girls who would not normally look at that stuff or read feminist theory. Girls my age are used to being fed a lot of girl power rhetoric, so I wanted to do something that would be more in-depth, something that isn’t intimidating or alienating to girls who were not spoon-fed this stuff from a young age.
A couple of years ago, you did a TED talk, in which you said that all women should be more like Stevie Nicks. Do you still stand by that?
It’s always about Stevie Nicks. Maybe the pool has expanded. Maybe I go to her when I’m trying to balance the emotional with the strong, then I’ll go to Joni when I’m doing emotional only, or I’ll go to Beyoncé when I’m doing just strong - although with that new album there’s so much going on! Stevie is my security blanket. Oh, and Stevie saw my TED talk and I got to go to a couple of Fleetwood Mac shows. I have now been lucky enough to meet her a few times. She’s the best argument for meeting your idols. I saw her twice backstage and then we had dinner. She’s not on email or anything, but I’ll get a random handwritten letter from her once in a while. It’s unreal.