Fitting into Tavi Gevinson’s schedule is difficult. First there is the workload, as editor-in-chief of Rookiemag, the web magazine she launched in 2011. Then there is her school timetable. For Ms Gevinson, part ingénue, part savvy businesswoman, is only 17. She has been working around her school lessons since the age of 11, when she started her fashion blog, Style Rookie.
According to Lady Gaga, the 17-year-old represents the “future of journalism”. While the pop star is no guide to future Pulitzer prize-winners, she is the master, or mistress, of capitalising on her brand, particularly on Twitter. For teenage girls, in search of an identity, Ms Gevinson represents indie cool. A Twitter search yields plenty of girl-crush evidence.
It would be easy to dismiss Ms Gevinson’s youth. But her style blog came at a time when bloggers were in the ascendancy and seen as democratising fashion. So she caught the attention of designers and fashion editors. As a diminutive teen, her kooky outfits hodge-podged together from thrift stores, her family dressing-up box and designer, silver bobbed hair and oversized specs attracted attention. She became a tiny fixture on the front rows of fashion shows.
Her infant passions were dressing up, acting and storytelling. Her mother, a weaver who also prepares Jewish adolescents for bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, quips that she was sarcastic and cynical when she left the womb. As a child she became confident and opinionated, or a “show-off” as she puts it. “I was always a bit obnoxious, in a musical showtunes kind of way.” But that is what happens, she notes wryly, when your sister dresses you up as Shirley Temple.
Nonetheless, she still felt like an outsider and underdog. “Blogging was a way of fitting in and hoping to be part of a wider community. Most people aren’t happy with themselves. That’s why there are pop songs sung by beautiful people, describing how miserable they are.”
Moreover, her love of clothes was not shared by her friends and family. Blogging became a channel to talk to fellow enthusiasts.
Why does she think she was such a hit? “I’ve seen myself described as a breath of fresh air. Designers saw my enjoyment of fashion. I’ve always been cynical and sarcastic but I had a lot of room for childish cheer-leader enthusiasm too.” Also, she believes that her appeal was in part because she was seen as a novelty, a curious prodigy, and because she gave them a link to their childhood.
The bitchiness of the fashion world, she says, would have been harder to take if she was less tough. She recalls a fashion event where one man pointed at Ms Gevinson and asked his friend in a stage whisper: “Is that a boy or a girl?”
“I was very aware of the madness of it. But middle school can be so much more bitchy than the fashion world.”
Rumours swirled that she was a fake, that her parents penned her blog. That is perhaps not surprising. After all, children have been at the centre of some literary hoaxes, most notably JT LeRoy. Jeremiah ‘Terminator’ LeRoy was purportedly the Aids-afflicted son of a truck-stop prostitute, who had lived rough on the streets of San Francisco as a teenager, before having a sex change. After his first book was published in 1999, he was proclaimed a precocious talent. Later it was discovered that LeRoy was a fictional creation.
“When you are an adult you sometimes see children as a pile of inchoate mush. It can be difficult for adults to conceive of a young person writing well.”
Moreover, because she was a product of the Illinois suburbs, whose parents had no media and fashion connections or spare cash, people found her rise from seemingly nowhere hard to believe. “I was pleased that, in the end, people realised my parents didn’t get me started or give me financial help.”
Samuel Johnson once said: “Youth is the time of enterprise and hope.” In keeping with this, Ms Gevinson deployed her personal brand two years ago to launch an online magazine that has attracted the likes of children’s author Judy Blume and Lena Dunham, who created and starred in the hit series Girls, which follows four women in their early 20s.
“I was inspired by starting high school and not relating to many publications out there for teenagers,” she explains. (Today she is in her senior year, studying calculus, physics, French, humanities and American literature). “The gap was a respect for teenagers’ intelligence coupled with fun, inspiring, creative content. Our readers have responded in many heartfelt comments, emails, handmade letters and gifts.”
Interviewees have included Morrissey, the former Smiths frontman whose autobiography came out last month. In the magazine, he describes his junior attempts at writing: “I had no creative process, just pain, which I mistakenly assumed might be creative process. Well, it wasn’t.” Rookie magazine taps into teenage girls’ aspirations to be part of the gang as well as the exquisite agonies of being misunderstood. A book of the year’s highlights is on sale in time for the Christmas stocking market.
The magazine features advertising that helps to sustain its existence. Ms Gevinson will not say how much money the enterprise makes, except that it is in profit. The financial side is overseen by her father, a retired English teacher, and Lauren Redding, the managing editor, who is based in Brooklyn, New York. “We make enough to sustain the site and pay our editors [a] salary.” Ms Gevinson points out that she does not need a living wage as she is still at home with her parents. But speaking events are lucrative – she is paid to address marketers and consumer bodies about younger age groups.
Advertisers are keen to build relationships with young women, who have grown up immersed in digital rather than print. This year British Vogue launched a youth-targeted version, Miss Vogue, following the precedent of Teen Vogue in the US, and two years ago Elle magazine launched an annual “edited by the interns issue” in the UK. The print publications are an attempt to secure a future generation of readers and to tap teen pocket money.
Ms Gevinson’s site appears to be doing something right. The aesthetic is not slick and polished but home-made: much like an adolescent scrapbook. It posts three times a day – after school, after dinner and before bed, or as she wrote in her initial editor’s letter, “when it’s really late and you should be writing a paper but are Facebook stalking instead”. At the weekends it comes out once a day.
She will not be pinned down on how long she spends on the magazine. “It’s much more when I’m working on our books, plus there’s travel to events with our readers; sometimes I have to adjust it based on my school schedule . . . the first year of the site was extremely intensive. However, it was very important to me to feel in control while we were still defining our tone. I pulled many all-nighters that school year before even getting to my homework.”
Nor will she confirm her future ambitions. She plans to study “writing, types of history and sociology, philosophy and humanities” at college. And she believes her career will be “full of range”, insisting a “portfolio approach” is more conducive to online media. The best aspect of her work is “making something that can make people feel connected to each other”, the worst is the volume of emails.
She is trying to capitalise on her early success. “All of us are utterly powerless at how successful we can be. There might be a time when people are not interested any more.”
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