Tavi Gevinson: A Power Teen's New Direction

Photo by Nick Hudson
Tavi Gevinson

Tavi Gevinson became a hero to a generation of girls — then she graduated from high school

Recently, Tavi Gevinson – editor-in-chief of Rookie magazine, budding Broadway star and possibly the most influential 18-year-old in America – went to her first and last high school rager. Earlier that day, she'd graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High in suburban Chicago, tromping around the football field in the blazing heat. In terms of doing the classic high school party thing, she thought, it was now or never. "It was at this guy's house," she says, "and I was like, 'Oh, you know what makes social anxiety better is if you just keep drinking.'" Which she did until things got messy ("There was vomit"), though not too messy ("I didn't try to seduce anyone"), after which Gevinson made her way home, where her mom helped her into bed: "In the morning she gave me a flower and explained why drinking is extremely dangerous and why not to mix stuff and to eat first and to not do it until I'm 21. Then my dad came in, and they both laughed at me."

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If Gevinson has failed to indulge in such iconic teenage pastimes to date, that's thanks to her many pressing duties as our culture's Teenager Par Excellence. Gevinson's role as universal expert on all things teenage has, somewhat ironically, left her little time for iconic teenage experiences like this one. At 11, she started Style Rookie, a blog that garnered the attention of fashionistas the world over with its pictures of a tiny, unsmiling Gevinson, standing in a suburban backyard and wearing the most fantastical of garments. Soon she was flying to Paris for Fashion Week, meeting Karl Lagerfeld and Anna Wintour. Sporting a dyed silver-blue bob, thick glasses and Iris Apfel-inspired outré-granny chic ("People talked about how when you're a woman of a certain age you stop caring about certain things, and I was like, 'If I can try that now I will be ahead of the curve'"), she became a sort of high-fashion mascot, half prodigy, half pet.

And then, just like that, Gevinson decided to leave these childish things behind. "I was like, 'This is so goofy: We're watching people wear clothes.'" Inspired by now-defunct alt-teen magazine Sassy, and with the guidance of Sassy's founding editor, Jane Pratt – who was listed on the masthead as "fairy godmother" – and This American Life's Ira Glass, Gevinson launched Rookie. It since has become the Web's most famous one-stop compendium of what it is to be a teenage girl, ruminating on everything from Carl Sagan to how to wear a leotard "without giving a damn," and casting all of its topics through a smart, feminist lens (instead of dating advice, it has a column called "Ask a Grown Man," to which Jon Hamm and Thom Yorke have contributed).

Rookie's popularity is such that it has created a sort of clubhouse effect, spawning an annual yearbook and a nationwide tour – in which girls crammed into ice cream parlors and record stores from Brooklyn to L.A. in the hopes of meeting Gevinson – and turning its petite founder into both a media juggernaut and a generational spokeswoman with friends like Lena Dunham (who once stopped by for takeout when Gevinson was grounded) and Lorde, who tells me, "Had I not been fortunate enough to grow up with the never-ending wisdom and confusion of Tavi, I wouldn't be the same. She is fearsome. Her writing, her aesthetic leanings, her need to have more, to know more, sparked that in me and infected everyone young today. I'm lucky to have her as my friend."

Gevinson, the daughter of a Jewish high school English teacher and a Norwegian weaver, grew up the youngest of three sisters, watching Friends and That '70s Show, hiding out in the bathroom at school when she felt overwhelmed ("A girl would come and be like, 'Mrs. Carter sent me to see if you're OK,' and I'd be like, 'I'm pooping'") and, until recently, getting an allowance of $8 a week. Then there was the toggling between her middle-class Midwestern upbringing and her international fame; the endless recording of her youth for the masses, which, she says, "made it hard for me to live in a moment because I was always narrating it," and the juxtaposition of standard adolescent milestones with very nonstandard ones. "I went on The Colbert Report. I came home. The next day I went to school, then I lost my virginity," she declares matter-of-factly before cracking a wry smile. "Now someone's going to be like, 'Oh, I'm gonna go watch that video and see if I can sense that she's about to be deflowered.'"

As Gevinson is saying all this, she's sitting cross-legged on the sofa of a high-rise Chicago apartment that represents a decidedly more adult moment for her. After a memorable turn in the 2013 movie Enough Said, she's starring opposite Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin in a Steppenwolf Theatre remounting of Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth, which moves to Broadway in September. The play skewers the rudderless angst of suspended adolescence. Gevinson's performance has drawn raves. Last night, the cast had gathered in Culkin's apartment to play Mario Kart and guitar until 4:30 a.m., at which point Gevinson retired to her place to take a bubble bath and eat chocolate before falling asleep to The Last Days of Disco. When she'd answered the door just past noon, her hair was still wet from the shower, and she was cheerfully dunking a bag of green tea into a cup of hot water. "This morning," she'd said, "I was really pleased at my desire to meet the day."

The apartment is the only place she's lived besides her childhood home, where her room was "the size of a van" and the hundreds of items sent to her over the years by Rookie readers are packed in the basement – an anthropological trove that she "prays doesn't just deteriorate." Only the most meaningful artifacts of her girlhood have accompanied her, among them a box made for her by a Rookie reader labeled FOR WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE SHIT and a book of haunting illustrations by German artist Sulamith Wülfing given to her by Stevie Nicks. "Tavi, study this," reads the inscription. "It will change your life. She is one of us. The eldest angel. I love you, Stevie."

Living alone is still so novel that Gevinson is excited by the mundane chores of housekeeping. "I really like grocery shopping, probably because I'm not a real adult, so it's like a novelty to me," she says. "Kieran and Michael were teasing me yesterday because I was like, 'I can't wait to go home and eat my groceries.' And they were like, 'That's not a type of food. No one's like, "I'm really in the mood for groceries."'"

Though Gevinson grew up acting in school plays and community theater, it's a pursuit she's only recently decided to revisit. And yet, she says, it taps into something that's been an impulse for her all along: a way to try on different identities. "When you're onstage, you can't think, like, 'Oh, how is the audience responding to me as a person?' I mean, it just helped to kind of feel like more of a clean slate."

Which, preparing for her life ahead, is what she feels she needs. This Is Our Youth runs on Broadway through January 4th, and next fall she'll be attending NYU. While her role as top editor and curator of Rookie will remain unchanged, the magazine will not age with her – it will maintain its focus on teen girls.

And, at least for the minute, Gevinson's own focus has returned to fashion: She has begun creating a wardrobe for New York, costuming the version of herself she thinks she'll be then ("I bought a lot of sequined tops"). In the meantime, she's still feeling out what it means to be who she is now. "I know I'm not the person I was in high school," she muses. "But I'm not a new person yet either. It's just that kind of in between."

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