16-Year-Old Media Mogul Tavi Gevinson Is Expanding Her Empire

Including online mag Rookie

Tavi Gevinson has been called everything from the future of fashion to the future of journalism (by Lady Gaga, no less). Pretty heady titles for anybody, especially a blogger who has yet to finish her junior year of high school. But if the media insist on labeling anyone “the future of fill-in-the-blank,” they could do a lot worse than Gevinson.

Gevinson created her first blog, The Style Rookie, at age 11. At the time, she didn’t have a grown-up helper or connections in the fashion world or access to designer threads—just a fascination with high-concept design (Comme des Garçons and Rodarte were and still are among her favorites), a gift for writing and the sensibility to turn a thrifted sweater, her mom’s skirt and a pair of oversized sunglasses with the lenses popped out into a full-blown fashion statement.

In no time, the pixieish Gevinson was taking breaks from her middle-school studies to sit front-row at Fashion Week, contribute to Harper’s Bazaar and serve as muse for Rodarte’s collaboration with Target.

Now 16, Gevinson’s focus is Rookie, an online magazine for teen girls she launched in 2011 and where she serves as editor in chief. Independently owned (ad sales were originally handled by New York Media, and currently by Say Media), the site is a mix of personal essays, nostalgic musings and cultural tidbits with a feminist slant, and counts more than 40 contributing writers. Advertisers have included Target, Urban Outfitters and MTV.

Gevinson runs her budding empire from her parents’ home in Oak Park, Ill., where she attends public high school. She’s been heralded as both a modern fashion icon and an arbiter of teen taste. In conversation, she comes off as self-effacing but confident. Her image is that of both cool kid and outsider—in other words, she’s the girl you wish you could have been best friends with in high school. Now, thanks to Rookie, an entire generation of teenage girls is getting that chance, as the worlds of fashion and media follow her every move.

Watch your back, Anna.

So, Lady Gaga called you “the future of journalism.” How does it feel to have that weight on your shoulders?
I don’t know. Anxiety is kind of my comfort zone when it comes to that kind of thing, but not in a bad way. I just try and remind myself not to get too comfortable. I’m happy to take credit where credit is due. When I heard the Lady Gaga thing, I was like, “That was really nice of her!” But she’s not a journalist, you know what I mean? With Rookie, I didn’t think back when I was 12, “How do I stay relevant? In a few years, I’ll start a magazine.” It happened organically. If the next thing I do is not necessarily filling the role of “the future of journalism,” it’ll probably be whatever is making me happiest, and that’s enough for me.

What’s interesting is that, through all of this, you’ve led a pretty normal life with your family in the suburbs of Chicago. How did you reconcile your two worlds?
It’s definitely a balancing act. But I prefer it to the alternative, which is to pick one. I don’t want to just go to high school, and I don’t want to just be homeschooled and live my life working behind a computer. It wasn’t easy at first—I remember being really sad going home after my first fashion week because I felt like, “Oh, it’s just back to middle school and all of these people who don’t understand me and make fun of my outfits.” Now, I’m in high school and I have really great friends and more to look forward to when I come home.

Most people look back at middle school as such an awkward time in their lives. And you’ve got that whole period documented on a blog. Does it feel weird to have those personal moments available for everyone on the Internet to read?
It’s not that weird because I never felt like it was that private. I wasn’t prepared, necessarily, for the number of people who read it to read it, and there have definitely been times where it’s 3 a.m. and I’m looking back through stuff and deleting things from my Tumblr. I haven’t deleted much off my blog because that’s kind of crystallized and needs to stay where it is. It’s part of my personal—forgive me for sounding pretentious—evolution. I think that when you’re leaving that kind of trail, yeah, you’re bound to be embarrassed. But that just means that you’ve changed and, hopefully, grown. It brings me no joy and not enough comfort to dwell too much on things I’ve said or written or made or worn in the past.

It also must have been tough, at 12 or 13 years old, to be in the public eye and getting attention that was sometimes negative. People were saying that an adult must have been writing the blog for you or that you were a gimmick. Was that hard for you?
It was. Sometimes I wish I could go back and say, “Dude, that person commenting [on my blog] is bored at their job.” But at the same time, it was like, “Do I just stop?” I noticed a pattern after some time that, no matter what I did, people would be very skeptical of it. I knew that I could continue to go in a direction where I would just try to feel inspired and do what makes me happy, or I could get caught up in the mind games of taking all of these opinions into account. And I chose the former.

That’s a really mature decision for a thirteen-year-old.
I don’t know that it was maturity as much as extreme immaturity in that I just hadn’t had that adolescent self-esteem drop yet.

Why did you shift from writing primarily about fashion on your blog to exploring culture and movies and music?
One thing that I always liked about fashion was that it was tied in with music and art and film. At a certain point, I think that I naturally got bored of who I was and my interests just sort of shifted organically. I did have an experience at Fashion Week my freshman year of high school where I realized how that world can make you so caught up and anxious about how you come off that you can’t really see outside of yourself, and I was just like, this is bad. I would like to avoid this.

It must have been a huge jump for you to go from writing Style Rookie on your own to managing a business.
Oh, yeah. I didn’t sleep all of sophomore year.

Are most of the Rookie writers also teenagers?
It’s pretty evenly divided into teens, 20s, 30s, and then we also have some in their 40s and 50s. But mostly teens and young women.

What’s your editorial involvement with the site? Do you read everything before it posts?
The first year, I read everything before it went up. Recently, it got to the point where I was extremely exhausted and had to reevaluate and reprioritize. But at the beginning of each month, I decide on the theme with our editorial director Anaheed [Alani], and she’ll ask me what kind of aesthetic I’m into now, we’ll find a theme that goes with it, and I’ll make a mood board and send our staffers a bunch of thoughts that I have for what I want them to write about.

How involved are you in the business side?
My dad’s office is right next to my bedroom. We have a managing editor, and [my dad] is the business adviser. All the ads go through me, and any ideas that we come up with for [advertising] content that’s not just banner ads goes through me. When it comes to planning our events, I’m involved in that, and obviously I was really involved in the book that we did.

Do you make sure that all of the advertisers on the site mesh with the Rookie message?
Yeah. It depends on how closely we’re working with them—like with banner ads, I feel like I’m standing by their message less than with a sponsored post. For example, for a few sponsored posts, we worked with that show Awkward on MTV, and that felt right to me—it’s a show around high school. We have vetoed some things, like anti-aging, wrinkle shit. I’m like, “Why would we be selling this to 13 year olds?”

Rookie has a unique publishing schedule where you post three articles a day around after-school, dinnertime and bedtime. How did you come up with that?
I remember when I wanted to start Rookie, my dad said, “How will you even be able to keep up with it yourself?” And I was like, “We’ll do it on my schedule”—which also happens to be the schedule our entire readership will be on. So it just made sense.

Another thing that makes Rookie unique among teen-oriented media is that it’s actually edited by a teen. Do you think that adults can speak as effectively to your age group?
Yeah, I mean, a lot of our writers are adults, and to me, the strength is in the balance. With adults, it’s nice to have someone who can look back on something and have a perspective on it.

Are there any teen magazines that you really connected with when you were younger, or now?
I feel like I mostly just read other girls’ blogs or zines. I had old issues of Sassy. And I like Teen Vogue—I think they have really great, creative styling, and I like their attitude about fashion.

When you originally came up with Rookie, you were working with Jane Pratt. Is she involved in the site at all?
We’ll hear from one another every once in a while, but her involvement was really important in the beginning. She’s the one who said, “Let’s do this,” so I wouldn’t have even tried to make it possible if she hadn’t, but she was also starting her website at the same time, so her time was limited. I can’t say how important it was to have [Jane’s] support in the beginning, but I would not say that she is a mentor now. That’s just how things have happened.

There were a lot of comparisons made between Sassy and Rookie. How do you think you speak to your readers vs. how Sassy did in the ’90s?
Our medium allows us to put out more content, which means putting out more points of view. I haven’t looked at my issues of Sassy since before I started Rookie just because I thought Rookie needed to have its own life. And it’s hard to compare because we have a lot more leeway. We don’t really have to please advertisers the way that a print magazine did.
 

Do you think that a print magazine can still be as influential as Sassy was?
I don’t know. I think of a magazine like The Gentlewoman, and it’s not on the newsstand at the grocery store, but the people who do read it really like it and take it really seriously. Then you’ll have, like, Entertainment Weekly, and a lot of people read it, but it’s not the same kind of dedication. I guess it’s different kinds of influence and in different amounts.

Considering you’re in school eight hours a day, you probably don’t have that much time to be reading blogs.
If I’m extremely bored and I don’t have a book with me and I’m being an obnoxious teenager, I’ll read BuzzFeed on my phone. But even that just leaves me feeling icky because I think for some reason my comfort zone is to just not really be in the loop about stuff like awards shows or things like that. And I think it’s so annoying when people say that! It’s like, ugh, get over it. But it’s not a moral thing—it’s just that I feel physically uncomfortable being taken out of my bubble.

I get that. It’s like you don’t want to be taken out of the moment you have in your world with your things.
Yeah. In my brain, I know it’s really a nice thing that I can like Taylor Swift and so can millions of other people, and that’s one thing we can all share. But on an emotional level, I’m like, get away!

You like Taylor Swift?
I love Taylor Swift.

Really?
I do. I have a 4,000-word guide to my favorite songs of hers that I send to any friend who’s a new Swiftie. I’m very serious about my fandom.

Have you ever written about that for Rookie?
No. I don’t know how to do it. I’m really tired of the conversation about her feminism, but I also know that it wouldn’t be right with the readers we have and with the way we usually deal with things to write about her without addressing that. I will one day, maybe.

There’s so much conversation around whether you can like fashion or read fashion magazines but still be a feminist.
Oh, totally. Sometimes I even still get embarrassed when people are like, “You have that blog, right?” And I worry that they’ll think I’m shallow because I write about fashion, or used to. I definitely think that fashion and feminism can be friends. I even think that fashion can be a tool of feminism and of self-expression and individuality and empowerment. But clearly there are flaws with the industry that still really grind my gears.

So many of Rookie’s cultural touchstones are from the ‘90s—My So-Called Life, Daria, Freaks & Geeks. Do you think there’s any media out there now that resonates with young women the same way that those shows did?
Aesthetically, there’s a lot from the past that resonates, but I actually am really happy to be alive now. I think TV is better than it’s ever been—maybe not teen shows, but I think it’s easier for teens now to watch whatever they want. All of my friends watch Girls or Downton Abbey or The Wire, and they’re ages 15 to 50. I guess a lot of my tastes and Rookie’s are based in nostalgia for things that I’ve never actually experienced, but the good thing about nostalgia is that you can take the parts you like but not necessarily mimic it in every other way. This month, our theme is Age of Innocence, and it’s the kind of aesthetic that has really been reserved for thin white girls when it comes to fashion photography and the stuff that was inspiring us. But that’s why, in our photos, our models will not all be white and skinny. So I guess there’s nostalgia, but we want to do something with it that’s more inclusive or modern.

Obviously it’s a long way away, but as you age out of being a teenager, do you think this is still an audience you’ll want to talk to?
I’ll have to see how I feel then. I will always feel a kind of obligation to these readers, I think, because we’re going through all this at the same time, and they’re going through things that I can’t imagine, and Rookie has somehow been a resource for them. It’s just all really tied into a place in my heart. At the same time, a message of Rookie has been to do what you’re passionate about, and you don’t necessarily owe anyone anything, so I think if I get out of college or if I even start college and I think, “I want to study neurology…”

Are you planning to go to college when you graduate from high school?
Yeah. I’m taking a gap year but I’m going to college.

I remember reading a profile of [Sea of Shoes blogger] Jane Aldridge where she said something like, “What’s the point in going to college? I’ve got the career that I want.” When you’re a teenager and successfully blogging, is college even important?
I mean, I really like Jane, so I don’t mean for this to be in contrast to what she said, but first of all, you don’t go to college for fashion blogging, and second of all, there are too many things I’m curious abut, too many things I want to learn.

What do you think is next for Rookie?
I want to put out a total of four yearbooks [annual best-of-Rookie compilations in print] so that there will be one for every year of high school. In a way, I can’t imagine ever not deciding themes and stuff. At the same time, the tone is there. I don’t need to go in and be like, “Please don’t use this clichéd phrase.” So I think if I were to go off to college and go into my own head a little bit, Rookie would be in good hands. I wouldn’t be OK leaving it if it wasn’t. But I don’t think I’ll ever leave it fully.

Outside of Rookie and going to school, do you even have time for a personal life?
Yeah! After I get off the phone with you, my boyfriend’s coming over [laughs]. I just don’t really have time to slack off, which is fine, because I feel really unhappy when I’m idle or when I procrastinate. Everything that I do is either something that I love or necessary to doing something that I love. There’s a lot of decision making, but for the most part, I’ve kind of figured out a way to do everything I want without exhausting myself.

That’s pretty impressive.
The thing is, I think I have it down right now, but something’s going to change, like, tomorrow, and I’m going to have to figure it all out all over again.