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Tavi Gevinson: “What is this exclusivity protecting?”

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Tavi Gevinson
Photo by Larry Busacca
Short Profile

Name: Tavi Gevinson
DOB: 21 April 1996
Place of birth: Oak Park, Illinois, USA
Occupation: Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Rookie Mag, Actress

Ms. Gevinson, even though your online magazine Rookie has become a staple for teenage girls, you’ve said that its not supposed to act as a guidebook. Are you a reluctant role model?

I did resist that for a long time. It’s a weird pressure and I don’t feel like it’s my job, but I do find that it helps to think of in my life. Even in dealing with something like a break up, if I think about the fact that I would eventually be writing about it and reading that piece in a room full of Rookie readers, it helps me make better decisions for myself. Writer-editor Ayesha Siddiqi once said, “Be the person you needed as a teenager.” I find that it really helps me to try to be this strong person – who I know I am deep down – but you get distracted or sidetracked and you forget what’s important. So I don’t know how much people actually care and take cues from me, but I find that it is a nice way to make decisions. It’s actually a really great way to live.

You received a lot of media attention for your fashion blog “Style Rookie” by the time you were 13 years old, at 14 you were profiled in the New Yorker, and at 15 you already started breaking away from the fashion industry and founded your own magazine. Have you ever worried that success will make you less relatable?

Well it would be silly to try and pretend that, even now, my life isn’t different than it was before, but I don’t only read stuff written by people with my exact life situation either. I think there are still other planes on which you can relate to a work of writing. I can know my audience, but I don’t think I’m hiding anything or compromising anything by doing that. It’s not that I’m trying to be relatable. I’m just trying to not alienate someone. I think people can tell when you’re pandering to them and they feel insulted. I think that one thing that is really nice about the work that I do is that I can just sort of make mistakes or try out different ideas or be inconsistent and be vulnerable. I don’t feel like a fraud ever because I don’t feel like I was ever trying to be perfect, or like that was ever expected of me. I try to represent the different parts of myself. That’s always the stuff that’s the most interesting anyway.

“That young people don’t have valid thoughts about the world because they haven’t been alive long enough is sadly a very popular and, frankly, unoriginal sentiment.”

It also seems like your generation has a new sensibility of not being afraid of who you are and showing that.

Yes, I feel very lucky that that was kind of why people have taken to my work. I don’t feel like I have anything to hide, or like I’m censoring myself. I don’t feel like I have to think too much about how sincere I’m allowed to be, or my brand, or the image I’m projecting, or how to stay relevant. It just seems like an empty pursuit. I think it’s good to remember how impermanent a lot of success is when it has to do with being public too. I hope I can kind of just say what I want and approach each individual project with as much sincerity as possible.

Several years ago we spoke with Scott Schuman of The Sartorialist and he said that because of your age – you were about 14 at the time – “it is like a five-year old Michael Jackson singing about love – to him they are just words.”

That young people don’t have valid thoughts about the world because they haven’t been alive long enough is sadly a very popular and, frankly, unoriginal sentiment. When I think about that time, I was just responding to the world around me. And I was perceptive enough that I felt like I could make connections to things in my life. I don’t think it was abstract. And I am basically skeptical of any adults who have those kinds of things to say about young people because it seems to always very transparently stem from fear and insecurity. And to be honest, the fact that he’s shorter than me in real life.

Do you think that young people have more of a voice now than before?

I think people are more constructive now about who’s worth listening to. And actually, it’s shifted in a way where now I feel like, why should this middle-aged man’s opinion about fashion be more important than that of a teenage girl who is interested in it, and who frankly is more of the demographic for most fashion publications? I think, and hope, that it’s becoming more and more clear how faceless cultural elitism is. This whole idea of keeping fashion or art for the elite… What is this exclusivity protecting? What values are you worried are being contaminated? There’s always another viewpoint available and there’s always another perspective. I don’t feel like it’s useful to figure out who deserves to talk about something. Rookie is definitely about inclusivity.

Tavi Gevinson's TED Talk (2012).

What do you hope your audience takes away from reading Rookie?

One of my intentions with Rookie is for the girls reading it to know that they are already cool enough and smart enough and pretty enough. If I am feeling insecure about how I look and I’m going to an event or something, I just remember, “Oh, we’re living in an age where people – at least the people I care about or the people I would want to be reaching – would not be bothered by my make-up being fucked up.” I just remember, “Oh no, we’re at the Girls premiere and we’re all here celebrating Lena. No one here is, like, on the team of weirdos on the internet who say mean things about people’s appearance.” I love the internet, but I think you have to only use it in the ways that are good for you. I think there’s so much speculation that happens.

Does fear hold you back or does it motivate you?

In a weird way it’s motivating. But fear is something that holds me back a lot. The pendulum just kind of swings side to side so after I have periods of depression where I do hit rock bottom and feel extremely fearful, then I just know how horrible it is and eventually feel bored enough of the feeling that I feel extra motivated. And then it’s more like the fear of missing out on something totally outweighs the fear of what could happen if I take a risk. Fear is a motivator for me in that it makes me so sad to imagine looking back and just wishing that I’d gone for something more or trusted myself.

“It was the most amazing thing to finally get to a place where I felt like I could just go for it! Learning something like that teaches you how to live.”

What was the last big risk you took?

I was doing this play for eight months called This Is Our Youth. Even though I’ve been acting since I was a kid, I had never done anything like that. I was working with two older, more experienced actors and it was on Broadway and I didn’t have the experience that most people have of working up towards something like that. And it was risky because there’s kind of no excuse at that point for not being good. I had so many moments of just, like, “What did I get myself into? Why did I think I could do this?”

Well it was a Broadway play, so it’s understandable that you were nervous about it.

But by the end I just remember feeling so stupid for not just trusting myself more and going for it more! I am so, so glad I did it because I learned so much. With writing or editing you can take on an aerial view and you can mess with something until you feel like it’s right. But with acting on stage it was so hard for me to break the habit of after every single beat being like, “How did that go? What worked? What didn’t?” It was just the most amazing thing to finally get to a place where I felt like I could just go for it! Learning something like that teaches you how to live.

You used that skill afterwards in real life?

Yeah! When I feel really insecure or I’m in a social situation where I’m nervous about how I come off or I’m trying to control the situation too much, I literally just try and use the same muscles that I had to use on stage – just paying attention to the other person and trusting yourself to respond as emotionally honestly as possible. It genuinely makes for a much more engaged life, I think. It’s just the most amazing thing to finally get to a place where I feel like I can just go for it. I feel like if I can just have a life where I can have my apartment and my TV and I can put things out into the world… That’s fine. What more do you want? I don’t expect much. I’ve had so many good things already.