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.