Tavi Gevinson conquers 'the hole of cyberspace' with Rookie's Yearbook Three
You can tell a lot about Tavi Gevinson by the way she wields her silver Sharpie. Her body rigidly bent over a long table, the 18-year-old media wunderkind signs copies of her website’s latest anthology, Rookie‘s Yearbook Three, with mechanized precision. As a preteen, she started her career with that same intentionality, drawing 30,000 daily readers to her fashion blog Style Rookie. Then there’s her signature—a looping heart, accompanied by her first name—on every book’s title page, which represents the Tavi who created the catchall web publication Rookie because she “hated that any girls could feel excluded” from the Internet “clubhouse.” And then there’s her banter.
On this September day, she’s holed up in a windowless room at her publisher’s New York office, signing 4,000 copies of Yearbook Three for an upcoming promotion. Barnes & Noble will distribute the special books on Black Friday, and the idea that people will line up before the sun rises for something she signed amuses Gevinson.
“I hope we can be the one that someone dies at, this year,” she says, pausing between Sharpie strokes and looking around the room. “Just kidding.”
Gevinson’s a joker, but she’s also an old soul and a trailblazer. Indie music plays from her bejeweled iPhone through a magenta Jambox, but Gevinson’s worldview doesn’t quite match her adolescent chic. She’s acutely aware of the media landscape that has shaped her career even as she unites millions of readers.
“Everything has changed so much,” she says, thinking back to launching Style Rookie in 2008 from her suburban Illinois home. “I don’t even really feel like the same person.”
Accolades came quickly for her back then, and invitations to fashion weeks in New York and Paris followed. “I was silently freaking out,” Gevinson said in 2010 after Anna Wintour introduced herself at an event. Through quirky, assertive prose, Gevinson galvanized the fashion world before she could drive. Then, three years ago, she expanded her focus and created Rookie to delve into the experiences of teenage girls.
“I was part of this community with other feminist and fashion bloggers who were young women,” Gevinson explains. “I felt like we didn’t really have a home base.”
Many current lifestyle magazines are filled with words and pictures that try, but often fail, to resonate with teenagers. They share “25 Ways to Kiss a Naked Man” without realizing that readers might worry about kissing itself; they answer sex questions, but leave out the advice uncertain virgins often want. Gevinson intended for Rookie to be more relatable.
She nailed that goal, which explains Rookie‘s popularity. But the publication begs for its audience to enshrine and memorialize its content, something the modern world of disposable media doesn’t really allow. That’s where Yearbook Three, a thick volume Gevinson compiled of Rookie’s best work, comes in.
“I wanted to do something that felt less disposable,” she says. “I’m really happy that we’re online, because it’s accessible and free and it’s easier for girls to find it and to find each other that way. But there’s just so much beautiful content that our staff writers and readers create that just…”
Gevinson looks down at Yearbook Three‘s vibrant pages, all clip art and loud designs and photographs of young women.
“I refuse to let it just fall into the hole of cyberspace.”
Rookie isn’t gossipy, and neither is Yearbook Three. Instead of generic romance and beauty tips, Tavi and her staff packed it with wry humor and off-kilter references. “The Dead Celeb Diner” presents watercolor portraits of vintage hotties like Jim Morrison alongside their last meals (his was sweet-n-sour chicken). Playlists fill the margins, stacked with artists ranging from Glenn Miller to The Runaways to Sky Ferreira.
Gevinson understands that Rookie might come across as the magazine equivalent of the gloomy, Smiths-shirt-clad girl scoffing at Beliebers her own age. But she dismisses that caricature: “There’s this thing that seems to be binding us all,” she says of her readers, “but it’s the warmth of this community, and not, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to meet someone else in this damn town who likes the Replacements.'”
When Rookie tackles typical teen girl topics, it takes a detailed approach. Yearbook Three is divided into months, each with a different theme. The October section, “Haunted,” addresses lost virginity, girl-on-girl violence, and the struggles of coming out. The chapter is a cyclone of conversational angst, but its humor keeps readers grounded. As “The Sex Crylebration” points out, “no matter what goes wrong, you will live to bone another day.”
“Our writers are very generous, but never in an obnoxious, confessional, bad internet writing way,” Gevinson says. “They talk about their own experiences, and it makes you more comfortable. It’s like Sylvia Plath said in The Bell Jar: ‘There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.'”
Despite Rookie‘s success and wide reach—This American Life‘s Ira Glass is a fan; his wife, Anaheed Alani, is the website’s editorial director and story editor—she says she’s leaving more and more of Rookie‘s day-to-day to her trusted team of editors, most of whom are significantly older than she is. Others can now replicate the publication’s well-entrenched brand.
This year, Gevinson moved to New York to take a gap year before her planned enrollment at NYU next fall. She’s performing in This Is Our Youth on Broadway with Michael Cera and Kiernan Culkin. She calls the play the most challenging thing she’s ever done.
“This, to me, is no problem,” Gevinson says, pointing to boxes of books awaiting her signature, “because I’m in control of it and I just have to use my brain. With acting, you learn everything so that you can forget it. That’s hard for me, because I’m used to writing and being in my head.”
With This Is Our Youth, Gevinson says she can “just exist” and “feel every feeling” she’s experienced as a student and writer. Whether she’s critiquing fashion, analyzing the teen experience, or performing onstage, her life revolves around observing the common human themes connecting her surroundings.
“I think a lot of the things you deal with when you’re a teenager, you just continue to deal with all of life,” she says. “I hear from a number of women who read Rookie not to relive the glory days of high school, but because we’re just really reasonable people.”
To understand that link between the struggles of youth and adulthood, Gevinson has taken hints from one of her idols.
“In December I wrote an editor’s letter that was like, ‘Goodbye, teen years.’ I was so obsessed with the idea of the teen experience that I was like, ‘Ugh, being an adult isn’t cool. Being a young woman isn’t aesthetically pleasing,'” Gevinson says. “But then, the Beyoncé album dropped and I was like, ‘Oh! I can’t wait to be a grown woman. This is awesome.'”
Gevinson flashes her signature self-aware wit. “I was able to just be more of a person about it.”