Tavi Gevinson Got "Horrible Grades" To Run Rookie

Photo by Petra Collins.
Maybe it's finally time to stop calling Tavi Gevinson a wunderkind. Since she began writing at 12, it's been a journalist's favorite cliché to label her "wise beyond her years," which is, of course, as true as it is backhanded. This year, 18-year-old Gevinson moved to New York for her role in This Is Our Youth, and celebrates the third anniversary of her website with the release of Rookie: Yearbook Three. Edited by Gevinson, it's a love letter to Rookie's "junior year," and is as funny and warm and smart as the singular space she created online.
We spoke with Gevinson (who, full disclosure, used to be my boss when I wrote for Rookie) on Halloween, as she drove to the Cort Theatre in Midtown for an evening performance of This Is Our Youth, about making the book, moving away from nostalgia, her future plans for the site, and the one thing all Rookie girls have in common.
Hi, Tavi! What are you doing tonight?
“I have a show, then my friends and I are going out dancing at this place that’s not really a dancing spot, but my roommate’s boyfriend DJs, so we can kill everyone’s vibe and just play disco.”
Disco's a real obsession of mine. I did a story for Rookie once about my love of big, spiral disco curls and Scavullo makeup.
“I remember that! I’m dressed as Chloë Sevigny and Last Days of Disco tonight.”
So, I love that Rookie still posts three times a day, and preserves these stories in the book every year. Would you say being “slow” is part of Rookie’s values?
“Yeah, definitely. Part of it is that it couldn’t be any other way. Because, when I started Rookie, my dad was like, ‘How are you going to run this?’ And I said, 'Well, the people writing it have my same schedule, and we’ll just do three posts and they’ll go up after school.' And, I didn’t want to make something where people felt forced to turn out content and talk about things that they didn’t really agree with or believe in. I wanted every piece to be carefully edited. And, with the book, I get this selfish creative satisfaction out of it, because I love the process of putting it together and art directing it. So, I think it’s really important that Rookie exists tangibly, too. It’s something that people can have a closer relationship to than just reading it online.”
And, the Rookie audience is super passionate about having something they can hold in their hands.
“300%, yeah. 2013 was the best year for vinyl since tape cassettes or something — I may not be a great source on this.”
I read that, too — Urban Outfitters is now the biggest source of vinyl sales. [Editor's note: This claim has since been debunked.]
“It’s funny, I look at Instagram, and girls love putting the book with their other cool shit, and that’s so special to me. I mean, I have a huge magazine collection myself, and always loved biannual, book-like magazines, so that’s the kind of thing I wanted [to do] myself.”
I think that’s why Rookie inspires such devotion, too. It doesn’t feel like one of those places on the Internet where content appears, only to disappear into this black hole. Have you had to fight to maintain that slower pace?
“Well, on one hand, I do love every post being super edited and scheduled on time — but there are definitely instances where I wish we could say something about something right now, current-events wise. So, I do foresee some kind of in-between in the future. It won’t be churnalism exactly, but [we] can make Rookie more like the conversation that happens online when shit happens.”
Rookie occupies a really interesting space online. I used to describe it as a site for cool teenage girls, and now I describe it as “The New Yorker for girls.”
“I actually disagree with that. Because, I want to make sure there’s light stuff, as well, like DIYs. I mean, New Yorker is probably one of the only magazines I read, but I think branding like New Yorker junior would feel inaccessible or exclusive. I tried to avoid that, which is hard when you only do three posts a day. But, I totally get what you’re saying and thank you for that.”
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Random House.
I think that’s my way of communicating how smart it is, and not this volume business the Internet’s become.
“Well, I just think on the Internet, stuff happens, and then it explodes, and everyone has to react right away and everyone feels like they have to form an opinion about it right away, for reasons that really only come down to traffic, and that just creates such a snake-eating-its-own-tail situation. I think the finest pieces come from people actually taking time to sit with an idea, instead of coming up with the most contrarian thing they can say and just putting it out there immediately.”
I also think you’re an archivist at heart, a collector and a sorter of stuff, so it makes sense that you’d want to memorialize and recontextualize all these stories via the yearbooks.
“Yeah, and I want that feeling to bleed into every last detail of the book. I can walk you through the book and point out something on every page — like, the fabric in the background is a dress I had since I was 13, the stickers were scanned and cut out and pasted from my diary, and some of it is just shit I bought on Etsy just for the book and has no meaning for me and that’s great, too."
Is it important to you that the book has that sort of homespun feel?
"Yeah. The book has the feel of something like a diary or a zine — basically the outlets you have when the media that’s being thrown at you isn’t meant for you or isn’t accessible. And also [on the site], I like that every month is a different theme and I really like rounding those out as completely different, individual worlds. To convey that visually is so fun. The fonts, the borders, and even the light in the photos changes month to month. And, I don’t know how important that is. I don’t know if there’s even an ethos behind that, but it's something I take immense pleasure in.”
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Random House.
I think it’s really important. When I wrote for Rookie, I remember being amazed by those monthly briefs you’d send out to all the writers with concepts and visual inspiration for each month’s theme. It was so well thought out and inspiring.
“Sometimes, I’m writing those emails and they’re so incredibly detailed and long, and the mood boards are so much work. And, I have to remember that it is actually impactful when it comes to what our contributors are trying to think of to write for us. Rookie kind of has an aesthetic, and early on there was definitely a flower-crown thing, but I think another reason I like changing not just the subject matter, but also the visuals, month to month is that I don’t want to have too narrow an aesthetic. I don’t want to phrase it like, ‘Well, we appeal to many different kinds of people,’ but I’m just not content to limit it in any way, or limit my influences.”
I think it makes sense to have your site’s look change month to month, because you’re talking to an audience that’s in flux, too.
“Yeah, exactly. When I started, I was 15 and my personal style was and is changing all the time. And, I document my life in diaries, and every few months when I start a new one, the handwriting changes and I choose a bunch of images to go inside, and I cycle through a different section of my wardrobe, and listen to very specific playlists. Similar to the way the yearbook feels like a different book every 30 pages. And yeah, if we had to come up with some definitive visual brand for Rookie, there would be a question of age-appropriateness — not wanting to be too precious or too girly, but not wanting to alienate someone who is looking for something more girly. This way, there’s room for anything. Like October’s theme, The Other, is dark…"
I love all the Charles Burns stuff.
“Exactly, like Charles Burns. And then November's theme is going to be super cotton-candy princess-y — Princess Peach was on the mood board that month. So, creating those little worlds month to month is just something I love to do. When Michael Chabon wrote about Wes Anderson, he compared his movies to Joseph Cornell boxes. Part of a Joseph Cornell box isn’t what’s inside the box but the box itself, and I guess there’s something kind of inherently warm, or almost immediately nostalgic, about consuming something that has a kind of outline around it.”
I think that’s why [Anderson's] movies are such comfort food for people. It’s like entering into this little world.
“And, at the same time, the actual content on Rookie is not too nostalgic or romanticized…”
It's funny you say that, because I think it has that reputation still. Because, when it started out it was exploring this view of teenage life as seen through a nostalgic lens, and it still makes heavy use of vintage imagery, where the backgrounds will be an old picture from Quadrophenia or something.
“I feel two ways about that. One is, yes, when I was in high school I thought very much about all the influences I was walking into school with every day, and all the cultural touchstones, and then how I was also documenting everything for myself. Like you said, I’m such an archivist, so I think that naturally made its way into the theme emails or pitches that writers had for us. I also think that something happened where, before I started Rookie, I talked about Sassy a lot, I wrote once about My So Called Life, and then there was a wave of '90s nostalgia on the Internet and Rookie got lumped into that. So yeah, I think it's both things at the same time.”
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Random House.
So, how do you choose what ends up in the book?
“It’s a handful of factors. The biggest thing is that I look at a list of every single piece on Rookie... I’m so immediately uncomfortable to even begin to compare all of them, but not everything works in the book format. There are so many good DIYs, but there will be one where I’m like, 'This is too narrow, and I’m so glad it's on the site, but there are three DIYs in the book, it would be weird if one was super, super specific and the kind of thing that not a lot of people would wear.' Or, for example, Marie Lodi is our beauty editor and does such an amazing job, and does all of the film style posts, and it’s insane to me that she doesn’t have a piece in book one because I think of her as so important to what Rookie is, and such a part of the fabric, but we can’t include film stills from movies, and boring shit like that.”
Yeah, and you can't be like, “Go Google Earth Girls Are Easy, it’s amazing!”
"Exactly. And, there are pieces where they need the videos. So, it’s really thinking about whether or not the better version of [this story] would live online, and we won’t replicate something for print if we can’t fully do it. But, the good news is that there’s so much good content that even when there are things where I’m like 'Oh, I can't include that, it's too Internet-y,' there’s still so many pieces I’m excited about that end up in the book."
I know you’re going to be based in New York for a while due to the play. Were fans upset that you couldn’t do a full-scale Rookie tour for this book release?
“I think people were bummed, but we don’t really have the kind of readers that act entitled. I’m happy to generalize, here: They’re really respectful and seem to understand that I have some other things on my plate, as well, and that I’ve been doing this since I was 15 and there are other things I want to pursue. And, it would actually be antithetical to what Rookie is if I limited myself, or kept to myself and changed for the sake of running it.”
I admire you for staking out that ground early. I remember when you first wrote on your blog that you didn’t want to just talk about fashion anymore, and there was some backlash, but I think people learned that whatever Rookie is, it’s going to follow your passions, rather than be put in this “fashion blog” box. It's your vision that readers respond to.
“And, in a way, in the first year of Rookie, I didn’t sleep and got horrible grades and that was necessary to establish it so that now, there are a whole bunch of people that understand it, and understand the workings enough to run it. And, I’m not going anywhere, but my responsibilities are certainly changing…and I’m actually arriving at the theater now.”
Okay, so one last question: Can you tell me a little bit about how you see the Rookie girl evolving?
“I would hate to lump them all into one thing. It just makes me really happy that at our events, I meet girls who are so different from each other, but are there for the same kind of reasons that are more important than your tastes or aesthetic preferences. Alright I should probably go, but it was so nice speaking with you.”
You, too. Have a great show and thanks for talking to us!
With that, Tavi announced that she’d run into a friend of hers who was dressed as a fish, and off she went.
Rookie Yearbook Three is available wherever books are sold.

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