Just Be Tavi Gevinson: An Interview with the Rookie Editor

On the occasion of her online magazine’s second anniversary—and second publication, Rookie Yearbook Two—the 17-year-old empire operator talks about art, commerce, ’90s nostalgia, and getting off the internet.

Haley Mlotek is a writer living in New York. 

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I called Tavi Gevinson on the day Mercury went into retrograde and, predictably, technology was not on our side. The recording service I use for phone interviews was malfunctioning and I had to call back twice. Tavi was on the train leaving her Chicago high school and our conversation was riddled with muffled beeps and automotive shuffles. We made small talk about the book club we both belong to—a Facebook group devoted to the works of Chris Kraus—until our respective technologies behaved. And then, Tavi talked and talked and talked. Over 500 miles away, I nodded and nodded and nodded.

I should mention that I’m not exactly impartial when it comes to Tavi Gevinson. You might say I know several different Tavis. There’s the Tavi who wrote an article for WORN Fashion Journal, where I work as publisher, several months before I started; the Tavi who now employs several of my friends as the editor of Rookie, her brilliant online magazine; the Tavi who belongs to the same Chris Kraus fan club as I do. And then there is the Tavi Gevinson, the precocious fashion blogger turned media magnate, or child prodigy turned red carpet star, depending on which impartial journalist is presenting the narrative.

The truth is that Tavi Gevinson is all of these things and none of them. When she first appeared on personal style blogrolls in the mid-2000s, she was accused of being a novelty, perhaps some J.T. Leroy-style sham. Established, supposedly more mature fashion editors took to Twitter to contest her front row seats at fashion shows. Later, once the Fashion-industry-with-a-capital-“F” had decided that Tavi was indeed worthy of existing, she was breathlessly referred to as a wunderkind who would no doubt employ the lot of us one day.

To call Tavi a prodigy is to reduce her accomplishments. It’s true that Tavi’s exceptional intelligence, as well as her insights on publishing, adolescence, and art, are rare for a 17-year-old. But she’s not simply a teenage girl blessed with a remarkable brain, like some blogging-era Rain Man; she is someone who has worked tirelessly to make her visions real. Her ambitions fuel an entire payroll of other young, intelligent, hardworking writers and artists who are collectively creating one of the most original and necessary publications today. That’s not the stuff of prodigy. That’s being a complete boss.

This week, Tavi will visit Toronto for a talk at the Toronto Reference Library and a costume party at Magic Pony. Both events celebrate the release of Rookie Yearbook Two, an anthology of Rookie content from this past year. Tavi and I spoke about the link between art and artifact, getting off the Internet, and the future of Rookie.

You’ve just celebrated your second anniversary publishing Rookie, the website, and Rookie Yearbook Two was just published by Drawn & Quarterly earlier this month, so congratulations! In your words, can you explain what Rookie is for people who might not know?

Yes! I think of Rookie in a few parts. There’s the website, the book, and then our live events. Our IRL community, if you will. Some people have asked me, “If you could, would you put out a monthly print magazine?” But I just wouldn’t. I think the website is the best format for having a community and making it accessible to people. I think the print version is just a way to make that feel more tangible and special, maybe a little aesthetically indulgent. We attract the kinds of readers who value something you can hold in your hands.

A lot of Rookie is about using the online to get people to do things offline. We only have three posts a day, which for a lot of other websites is a low number. But I feel like I don’t want teenagers sitting at their computer all day, you know? We have a lot of content about DIY, you know, starting a band, things to do on your own that are outside of just reading our website. I think having book, something that you can read in bed, that was important to me.

And this Yearbook Two, it’s longer than the first one because it covers a full year, right?

Yeah, it’s the same number of pages, but Yearbook One was just a school year, September through May. This one is June through May.

You’ve spoken before about wanting to document or archive everything, and that that’s the reason you started a fashion blog. Now Rookie really encourages teenagers to do the same thing with their lives. Why do you think it’s important for teenagers to document their own experiences?

I think for anyone, of any age, your problems can feel more manageable when you’re able to look at them on a piece of paper. Kathleen Hanna talks a lot about archiving zines, and how it’s a feminist act because you’re giving these things a second life. You’re documenting a history that might otherwise not go documented.

I don’t know if encouraging girls to keep a diary is necessarily the same as what Kathleen Hanna’s talking about, if I should say it’s like a feminist act…But people my age are used to sharing everything. I think it’s a good exercise to have experiences and thoughts and feelings that are meaningful to you without needing to share them and get validation of some kind.

Definitely. I mean, for me, that’s what drew me to Chris Kraus initially.

Oh totally. She has that quote about how there’s always a link between art and artifact. At the same time, by documenting everything, you’re setting yourself up for embarrassment. You’ll be able to look back and be like, “Oh god, I was into this, I was the worst.” That’s something I definitely think about, because I’ve been putting things online since I was 11 and a larger audience caught on really quickly.

I interviewed Lena Dunham almost a year ago, and she was saying that she has short films from when she was in college on YouTube. She even included them in the special features of the Criterion edition of Tiny Furniture, which was pretty brave. She said you have to see sharing your early work as generous, generous that you’re leaving this trail behind. I’ve come to agree with that. You can’t like everything you’ve ever made, you can’t edit everything so carefully that people see you as you want to be seen, especially with the Internet.

But I also think it’s generous in the Chris Kraus sense of thinking, that it’s important to share your story. I think about that a lot with Rookie too. Because, you know, I edit it and curate it, but I don’t write as much anymore. And I think that’s okay because I just don’t have that much to say. I’m happy to have this place be for other people to share their stories.

Yeah, It’s like this whole idea of vulnerability as a radical act and you’re seeing it from both sides. You’re an artist who creates something and so you want to be vulnerable out there, and you also have other people wanting to be vulnerable for Rookie.

Yeah. When I think about it, I stopped blogging when Rookie started, and that’s when I started journaling obsessively and making a lot of things for myself.

A couple of months ago, I gave a talk at the Sydney Opera House, and then I fixed that talk and gave it again at the Melbourne’s Writers Festival. And that felt…I think I made myself very vulnerable with that speech. I think people were expecting something like, “Media! Journalism! Blogging!” And instead I just showed pages from my journal and talked abut the way my brain works. I talked about being depressed and breaking up with my boyfriend. I feel like you do make yourself vulnerable when you do something like that, but you’re also in control of it. It’s not like people are finding that out without your consent, you’re not powerless.

But there’s another thing I think about Chris Kraus and Lena Dunham…you know, I got up in front of 2,000 people and just talked about myself for 40 minutes. I think about that a lot, about what’s art and what’s self-indulgent, and when is writing self-indulgent. I think girls think about that a lot. Much more so than the male writers I know.

Lena and Chris are good examples of how, when you’re writing a book or making a TV show, you’re already saying people should listen to you! You may as well just own it and not make these constant little disclaimers, constantly apologizing for talking about yourself.

I remember in your TEDxTeen talk, you summed everything up by telling people to “Just Be Stevie Nicks.” Do you ever hold up a real person or a fictional person in mind when you’re working? Is there someone you always look at and say, that’s what I want to be doing?

No, not for Rookie specifically, I don’t really have a human reference, someone who did the job we want to do. There are people I look to because I admire their work ethic, or their attitude about success, stuff like that. I don’t have that many direct inspirations for Rookie.

I do have a list above my workstation titled “Just Be.” Like, “Just Be Stevie Nicks.” And it includes people like Zadie Smith, Bruce Springsteen, some Rookie writers, Jenny Zhang and Lola Pellegrino

Beautiful geniuses.

Beautiful geniuses, yes, but for different reasons. I mean, Lola is an amazing writer, but her full-time job is as an OB-GYN. I don’t necessarily pull from that for Rookie inspirations. It’s more about her point of view and how she’s so logical. I’m inspired by people I admire, but not necessarily as direct reference for my work on Rookie.

Oh, you know what actually? I’m really into Lorde right now. I like that you can tell she’s from a small town in New Zealand and an online community, she has a kind…I’m totally assuming, I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I think she has spent a lot of her time on Tumblr. And I think, sometimes, those kinds of communities, small towns and Internet subcultures, can make you feel guilty if you want to succeed. But she wants to be a pop star. She isn’t making this cool music and trying to be precious about it. She really wants to rule the world.

With Rookie, because of the nature of our style and our subject matter, I think there is always a bit of a voice that’s like, “The noble thing is for no one to know who you are.” But Lorde is inspiring to me, because she wants to share what she does. She wants to be huge.

People are always associating us with 1990s nostalgia. At least they used to. But there were things about Sassy that I don’t think age well. There were issues with riot grrrl that we all know and have talked about. But the one thing about riot grrrl is, one of the reasons it disbanded, [is] you had some grrrls saying, “We should share this with people, we should do these interviews,” and then other people say, “No, we’ve created this safe space, we don’t want people to ruin it.” So with Rookie we decided we should do the former. We should share our message and encourage our readers to create their own little communities and spaces. That’s very important.

Totally. That leads to another question I had, which was: what do you think you do better, professionally, than anyone else?

Oh. Well. I think…being the head of an operation like Rookie, it’s a combination of convincing yourself that no one else can ever do what you do, and that there are always at least a hundred people in the world who could do it just as well as you and better. But for what nobody else can do…I don’t know! I think by now, we’ve reached a place where people apply for editor jobs and there are just so many people who could do it. And that makes me really happy, because Rookie has a life of its own, people get it, it could stand on its own feet. I love that. That’s the goal, to be an empire where we can have a million editors. I think…maybe I’m good at…

Don’t be afraid, think of Lorde! What would Lorde say?

Lorde!! I’m actually hesitant because what I’m talking about seems kind of stupid. Well, the art direction side of it, especially with the books, I think…here’s what it is. There are a lot of magazines that are maybe like Rookie in that they are feminist and they appreciate fashion, but they’re very specific in their aesthetics. They’re girlier, like Lula or Frankie. I think, after years of watching the Internet and paying really close attention to fashion and style, I have a unique sensibility for what appeals to different kinds of people. So the way every month on Rookie there’s a different theme, or how the book feels like a different book every few pages…I don’t know, this doesn’t sound like such an amazing skill.

But it is! I mean, it’s never just the art direction; you’re creating a visual language so that people can scan their eye over a page and understand what they’re getting into. I do think that’s the first, most important part of drawing a reader into a book or an article, those visual clues. And so many people look at Rookie and decide it’s for them.

Yeah. I mean, people are always like, “How would you describe yourself? How would you describe your style?” But it changes all the time, over the years. And I think with Rookie, it’s been helpful because I’m never into just one thing that dominates the site and the book. That would really alienate people. I think I’ve done a good job of building up this mental archive of different little worlds and how to translate them to spreads in the book.

And then, on the reverse, is there anything professionally you wish you were better at?

I mean…I wish I was better at my inbox? I don’t know. The biggest thing I can think of is not having enough time. I’m just waiting until high school is over and I can maybe put more time into stuff. Everything is closely related to having enough time and editors so that I can pay really close attention to stuff. This sounds like a cop-out answer! I tend to be really hard on myself about Rookie. I just think of it in terms of Rookie goals instead of making it really personal and about me.

I get like that with WORN, where I’m like, “Oh, the answer to all my problems is more time and money,” but no one ever has enough of that.

Right, yeah. Well one day, when Bryan Goldberg mysteriously disappears we’ll be very rich. JUST KIDDING. That was a joke about murdering him and taking his money. It was too dark.

We’ve gone too far now. MOVING ON. How often do you think about the future for yourself as an artist? Do you ever make five-year goals for yourself personally?

I do think about the future all the time, especially lately because of college and everything. There are a lot of things I want to do. I have the luxury of getting to spend college focusing on education and not necessarily what I need for a job or making connections or whatever. I just want to use that time to develop my point of view, to read a lot of books, take a lot of different classes. Hopefully then I’ll be able to apply it to different things I’m interested in, different aspects of film, other kinds of writing than what I’ve already done before.

And how often do you think about the future of Rookie specifically?

All the time. I just want…there are so many things I want to happen. I wish we could have events more often, and we have a beauty editor and a music editor and I just wish we had every kind of editor. Being bigger, having more hands on deck, getting it to a place where it’s well developed enough that there are all these different people who understand how to make it what it is. I don’t want to jinx it, but I just want so much more.

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