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.”
* * *
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
The youngest of three sisters, Gevinson launched Style Rookie from her tiny Oak Park bedroom at age 11 with encouragement from parents Berit, a weaver who grew up in Norway, and Steve, a retired high school English teacher. An information sponge, she pulled fashion inspiration from all over the Internet, posting early on about her undying love for austere Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo and blue-haired old ladies. Her musings were honest, funny, and deftly written, and Style Rookie quickly caught the attention of high-fashion designers such as the Mulleavy sisters, the team behind Rodarte, and Harper’s Bazaar, which made her a contributor. Traveling with her father, she jetted from Chicago to the front row of fashion shows in New York and Europe. But in the midst of the Tavi-mania, her interest in fashion became eclipsed by a growing fascination with a new set of subjects: outsider art, feminism, gender identity and media. “I have a bit of a request, my dear friends,” Gevinson wrote on Style Rookie in April 2010. “I, like many, would like another Sassy Magazine”—the ‘90s teen-girl publication known for its feminist attitude. (Gevinson had discovered it online and bought back issues on eBay.) “While fancy fashion magazines are nice,” she continued, “they don’t always catch my drift.” She wanted to create her own version of Sassy.
Sassy’s founder, Jane Pratt, 49—who had learned of Gevinson’s ambition by reading Style Rookie—contacted her, and they hatched a plan to collaborate. In 2010, Pratt and Gevinson (with her father’s help) began negotiating a deal with Say Media, the company that signed on to finance Pratt’s site. A few months later, the Gevinsons backed out. “It’s important to me that we’re independent,” Tavi explained to WWD at the time, “and not so that we can be indie and ‘down with the man,’ but because I find a lot of comfort knowing that it’s all in my control.” She says there are no hard feelings between her and Pratt, who went on to launch women’s lifestyle site xojane.com. To this day, Rookie lists Pratt under its staff as “Rookie’s fairy godmother.”
Going off on their own to start Rookie “was risky, and it still is risky,” says Steve Gevinson. “We have financed it on family borrowing.” He will not divulge how much money they invested but says that the family owns the venture: “The decision to launch Rookie on our own was essentially a decision to take on risk in order to gain more control and ownership.”
With the help of NPR’s Ira Glass and his wife, Anaheed Alani, whom she had been corresponding via email about a different project, Tavi decided to take the risk and take Rookie independent. A former editor at the Chicago Reader, Alani, 42, became Rookie’s editorial director. Lauren Redding, 28, a former marketing and sales manager at a furniture and textile design company, signed on as the managing editor. They both shrug off the strangeness of reporting to a boss who is barely old enough to drive. “I always said I wouldn’t work for anyone who isn’t smarter than me,” says Alani, “and she definitely fits the criterion.”
In Rookie’s first editor’s letter, dated September 1, 2011, Gevinson wrote: “I don’t have the answers. Rookie is not your guide to Being a Teen. …It is, quite simply, a bunch of writing and art we like and believe in.” Content ranges from discussions about the works of writer Joan Didion to sex and relationship questions answered by the likes of actors Paul Rudd and Jon Hamm. There are tutorials on how to wear red lipstick and how to look like you weren’t just crying in less than five minutes. Fashion stories feature models in various shapes and sizes wearing everything from high fashion to Wrangler to vintage.
Many of the articles are written by teens, who are paid a nominal fee for each post. (Rookie would not disclose how much.) The result: “a more real voice than the voices we have in magazines like Seventeen or TV shows,” says Charlotte Sommerville, 14, who attended the Brooklyn event. Gevinson decided to post articles—which hew to a different theme every month (August is On the Road)—only three times a day: after school, around dinnertime, and before bed. “I never wanted to just have filler posts, the way websites churn stuff out just so they will get more traffic,” she says. “I feel like if what you make is good, people will read it. . . . I want to give them three different things at three different times that work with their schedule, and I want them to use the other time to be creative and go outside and stuff.” In her free time, Tavi draws graphic novels, plays guitar and sings.
The roughly 350,000 monthly unique users that Steve Gevinson says Rookie currently draws are impressive (though still a fraction of the 1 million average monthly uniques Compete recorded for category heavyweight Seventeen). But to succeed, the site needs to make money—which means (absent a paywall) that it needs to sell ads. The Gevinsons have outsourced that job to New York Media, which sells ads for New York magazine.
But selling ads on a website that tells readers things like, “in all honestly [sic], the best place to pick up slips is a thrift store, where they’re cheaper and cooler than any you’ll find in a ‘real store’”—isn’t the easiest task. A scan through the site in mid-August shows no advertising at all except for a mention of clothing retailer Urban Outfitters, which sponsored the Rookie road trip. “We say no to a lot of ads,” says Alani, “which means we are still broke.” (Rookie’s first year was “very successful,” insists Ron Stokes, New York Media’s executive director of digital ad sales.)
While Steve Gevinson declines to predict when the magazine will become profitable, he says it should be able to survive on revenue from ads and other sources, such as Rookie Yearbook One, for the foreseeable future. Published by the Canadian company Drawn and Quarterly, and retailing for $29.95, the book collects articles, musings, photographs and illustrations from Rookie’s first year. It also includes some extras such as a paper crown, stickers and a 7-inch flexi-disc record. This year, Rookie plans to add another revenue stream: merchandise such as stickers, T-shirts, and posters. The Chicago launch for Yearbook One is September 20th at Unity Temple in Oak Park with the Book Table, a local independent bookstore.
* * *
Before this road trip—four weeks of zigzagging the country in a van/mobile office with spotty internet while organizing such events as banner-making parties (New York) and pinball tournaments (Ann Arbor)—Gevinson said that her biggest worry was falling short of her readers’ expectations. What if they didn’t actually like her? What if she was more exciting on the Internet than in real life?
So she seems genuinely touched by the reaction she gets. When one girl tells her, “I just want to tell you that your blog changed my life. It changed the way I look at myself and the way I think about myself,” Gevinson’s eyes well up. Petra Collins, 19, a contributing photographer to Rookie, called the trip “the happiest, best girl party ever.”
Less than a week after being swarmed by fans in Brooklyn, Gevinson was at Saki Records in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood for a Rookie-sponsored zine-making event. A quilt on the floor was strewn with old issues of Rolling Stone, Seventeen, and Nylon; the girls in attendance were invited to rip out the pages and glue them on or into journals of their making. Gevinson loves collages—Rookie’s entire design is meant to resemble one as much as possible. A collage-esque visual calendar for the recent Power issue, for example, mashes up images from the ’80s movie Pretty in Pink, a New Order album, an Afro-ed Naomi Campbell, and plastic roses.
In a long flowing dress, wearing her hair pinned in two braids on either side of her head and a little gold crown, Gevinson flitted from group to group, welcoming guests. About 45 minutes after the event began, a straggler arrived. A 14-year-old from Burbank, Illinois, and her mother had hit traffic on the way. She stood uneasily by the door; her charcoal-lined eyes darted around at the nearly 40 girls sprawled out making zines. Her shoulders slumped slightly.
As if sensing the girl’s fear, Gevinson looked up from her conversation and walked over to greet her. Taking her by the hand, she led her to a small group on the edge of the quilt. “Hey guys,” Gevinson said as she introduced the girl to the group. “She’s really cool and wants to sit with everyone.”
She cracked a timid smile, waved, and slowly sat down.