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Gevinson at Saki Records in Logan Square for a Rookie-sponsored event in June 2012On a sticky summer afternoon in late June, Marian Chudnovsky waited under a glittering disco ball at an event space in Brooklyn, New York. The 12-year-old was vibrating with excitement—or at least the bobble-head brontosaurus that she had glue-gunned to her headband was in full bounce. “When I see her,” she exclaimed, “I’ll probably die.”
She was talking about Tavi Gevinson, the precocious 16-year-old whose offbeat fashion blog, Style Rookie, shot her to national prominence five years ago. Last fall—even as Gevinson began her sophomore year at Oak Park & River Forest High School—she launched an online magazine for teenage girls called, simply, Rookie. Tonight was the kickoff to a 16-city coast-to-coast road trip aimed at promoting the magazine and the September 4 release of Gevinson’s book, Rookie Yearbook One. In various cities, Gevinson (Rookie’s owner and editor-in-chief), her full-time editor (who is more than twice her age), and a handful of contributors and friends spilled out of a jam-packed van and greeted crowds of creatively attired teen girls ranging in size from 10 to 200.
In Brooklyn, a group of girls stood around chattering as if they had known each other for years rather than 45 minutes. “Never have I been anywhere where people understand the way I dress,” said Chudnovsky, as dozens of other imaginatively dressed teen and preteen girls swirled around her. Meanwhile, Kirsten Elfe stood across the room, smiling. The 16-year-old, who wore vintage glasses and loosely pinned curls, looked as though she walked out of a 1940s photograph. She had traveled to New York from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with her father. “It’s nice to know that these people are real,” Elfe said. “Tavi is kind of like an extended member of the family,” added her father, Charlie, a software engineer.
Suddenly, the room hushed. “Tavi’s here,” a voice called out. Squeals erupted. A petite girl wearing a conservative white ruffled blouse and beige pleated skirt walked into the room. Her bleached-blonde hair was sopping wet from a downpour, causing her bangs to become plastered against her wide forehead. If Gevinson cared about her bedraggled appearance, she certainly didn’t show it. Quickly, she was ushered onto the stage, signing a few autographs along the way. “It’s so nice to see our community in real time,” she said. Shifting her weight awkwardly and stumbling over her words, she read a crisp personal essay called “How to Bitchface,” a guide to how you can react when people say something stupid.
Afterwards Tavi mingled with the crowd, hugging every girl who approached. “Oh my God, I love your outfit,” she told a 14-year-old who, wearing a sequined dress, newsprint-patterned wedge sneakers and a lace shawl draped over her shaved head, looked like a glittery punk rock version of the Virgin of Guadalupe. “I just wanted to tell you that you’re my idol,” the girl blurted out. Another teen presented her with a ring she had constructed out of a pincushion and a bottle cap. It was for the shrine of teenage memorabilia that Rookie’s staff planned to install in a gallery when they arrived in Los Angeles at the road trip’s end.
It’s hard to imagine, say, Seventeen magazine or Teen Vogue enshrining the kooky craft offerings of their readers. And that’s kind of the point. Tavi has become an idol to awkward teenage girls everywhere by offering something different: A community that reconciles fashion with feminism and engages its readers in matters beyond looking good in a swimsuit. What Rookie is not about, according to a July 13 post by Gevinson, is: “how to improve your personality before talking to a boy, because obviously you are straight and obviously that is an important skill and obviously you’re doing it wrong.”
That message is clearly resonating: Within six days of its launch Rookie hit more than a million page views, and the site hit nearly 412,000 unique visitors in May, according to Google Analytics numbers provided by Steve Gevinson. But becoming a hero to teen girls everywhere is something that isn’t always easy for Gevinson, whose interests, it seems, are always changing. In August, it was announced that she had nabbed her first movie role in an as-yet-unnamed project directed by Nicole Holofcener (Friends with Money, Lovely and Amazing). Acting, Tavi told Chicago in an interview in mid-June, was something she hoped to explore—she was considering even taking a gap year after she graduates from high school and moving to Los Angeles.
“It’s a little terrifying that this kind of influential voice is in the hands of someone who is still changing and finding her own [voice],” she admitted in the interview. “But. . . that is something you just come to terms with if you want to put yourself out there in any way.”
Like any teenager, Tavi is still finding out who she is. But, unlike most 16-year-old girls, she has an audience that’s interested in following her every step of the way. She’s not a business-minded media mogul, but even she recognizes that her voice—and the throngs of girls who are listening—is a force with incredible potential. “Her business and commercial mind are still developing,” says her father, Steve Gevinson. “She had a very unrealistic idea about what it would take to do Rookie, but she has had a lot of good fortune.”
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When Tavi met me for an 11 a.m. interview at a Forest Park coffee shop, her hair was wet once again, this time from the shower. She overslept, she explained. On her barely five-foot frame she wore a mustard-yellow band T-shirt (Seattle hip-hop duo THEESatisfaction), blue shorts, white ankle socks, and black patent leather penny loafers. Her faux-lambskin handbag was from French label Sonia Rykiel. She had swapped her trademark plastic-framed grandma glasses for contact lenses.
Over a Belgian waffle with berries and whipped cream, she talked about the challenges that come with running a magazine in her teens while still trying to make friends, study, and learn to drive. “I feel like it’s weird, because I guess [Rookie is] trying to speak to teenagers and represent them. And I think a lot of the time I feel like a really extreme caricature of a teenager,” she said, dipping a bite of waffle in a dollop of syrup that she had carefully dribbled on her plate. This past school year had actually been difficult, she said. But it had also been a year for friendship and finally feeling at home in Chicago. “This year I was both the happiest I have ever been and the saddest,” she said. “I think it’s just part of growing. I never really hated school before. I definitely hated school this year, which makes me a little sad. But I also found my group here and friends who I can relate to who are not grownups.”
In response to a request for a follow-up interview, her father explained that Tavi was “trying to enjoy some normalcy during the summer. It’s been a long, difficult school year, and she rightly wants to minimize or eliminate summer tasks that are not absolutely necessary or things that are not following her creative and personal directions.”
How could I protest? She is, after all, still just a kid.
Photograph: Chris Strong