CNN | Abbey Goodman | January 2, 2013
CNN interviews Tavi Gevinson on “the power of teenage girls”
(CNN) -- Tavi Gevinson started a blog at age 11, became a front-row fixture at Fashion Week, was called "the future of journalism" by Lady Gaga, delivered a TED talk about feminism and female role models in pop culture, is the founder and editor-in-chief of Rookie, an online magazine for teenage girls and, to commemorate its first anniversary, just published 'Rookie Yearbook One,' a hard-copy scrapbook of the best pieces from the site.
And, oh yeah, she's 16 years old.
In five short years, the wunderkind from Oak Park, Illinois, has gone from self-proclaimed nerd to full-blown media mogul, using her platform to champion important teen girl causes ranging from How to Bitchface -- a step-by-step primer to "reacting to varying levels of stupidity" (see her demonstrate on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon") to organizing a Get Well Soon card drive for Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl activist who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen.
Rookie launched in Fall 2011 and broke 1 million page views in under a week. Since then, the site has explored monthly themes like obsession, drama, play and paradise. Right now, it's mythology. Or, as Gevinson explains in the editor's letter: "lies, exaggerations, legends, the works."
To kick off each theme, Gevinson creates a mood board using fashion photos, film stills and album art as inspiration. Then she and the site's 50 contributors -- including fellow teens and more than a handful of celebrities -- go about interpreting her vision through articles, interviews, photos, playlists and illustrations. To accommodate kids' schedules, Rookie updates three times a day: after school, around dinner and before bed.
Before she was named one of Huffington Post's most amazing young people of 2012, Gevinson spoke with CNN about the power of teenage girls, making angst romantic and the one secret Jon Hamm must never find out.
CNN: Can you take us back to when you were 11 and why you started your blog Style Rookie?
Tavi Gevinson: I don't really remember what was going through my head like a month ago, but I think I was just super-bored with what I was wearing and kind of getting into fashion. My friend's older sister had a fashion blog and sent me links to something she liked and told me which magazines she liked. Fashion intersects a lot with art and film and music and that was appealing to me. I read a bunch of fashion blogs and wanted to be part of the community. I was just used to using the Internet because of the time that I'm growing up in, so I just sort of started it.
CNN: Why do you think the site became so popular?
Gevinson: I think, at first, my age. Whether people liked that factor or not, that was what got attention. I guess if it was only my age, then I probably wouldn't still have the audience to start something like Rookie, but I think at first it was a shocker that someone so young was using the Internet publicly for some reason. I never imagined it would be seen outside of these other girls and young women who were also playing dress-up and making collages of movies they liked.
CNN: What is it like to be a part of that community now that Rookie has taken off?
Gevinson: This past summer we took a Rookie road trip for the book and we stopped in 16 cities. We had events with our readers where we got to meet all of them and they got to meet each other. At Space 15 Twenty in Los Angeles, there was this installation that was supposed to be a teenage bedroom, so we asked girls to bring us souvenirs from their rooms. I was just going through the five boxes I shipped home from L.A., thinking I would put it all in storage and make a time capsule, but going through it all, I'm like, I have to have that in my room. It's just so special. I have one girl's journal. I love "Sweet Valley High"-type stuff and I was looking for gossip or drama. Her journal was like, "I went shopping with mom and watched 'Harold and Maude,'" and I was like, "Wait! This is even better!" It was really fun reading this girl's diary and reading all of the feelings she had about watching "Rosemary's Baby" for the first time.
CNN: You also have mingled with designers, editors, artists, celebrities and other industry types. Of all the people you've gotten to meet, who has been the greatest hero to date?
Gevinson: Taylor Swift. Her new album is so good. She was absolutely just smart and funny and kind and genuine when I met her. At the end, I very nervously was like, "Your music means a lot to me!" And she was of course totally kind about it because at this point anyone who says they don't like her music is kind of lying.
CNN: For someone whose cultural references eclipse your average 16-year-old's, it's endearing that you say someone so current and mainstream and teenager-y.
Gevinson: Sometimes Rookie is written about like, "Finally! Something for alternative girls" and I'm like, "No!" Obviously it's not for everyone, but I used to think that there are cheerleaders and there are art kids. And then I realized that's really silly and sometimes you feel like a cheerleader and sometimes you feel like an art kid, and there's a part of everyone that feels lonely or like an outcast. The idea that feeling confident and feeling misunderstood are mutually exclusive really bugs me. So a lot of what Rookie is about is just showing that you can be both and you can like whatever you want. In short, yes, I love Taylor Swift. I love One Direction and stuff like that. Sometimes you want something really serious that makes you feel emotional and makes you think, and sometimes you do just want a pop song. What I love about Taylor Swift is that she offers both.
CNN: In addition to writing by women like Zooey Deschanel and Lena Dunham, you have Paul Rudd, Joss Whedon and other cool men contributing to Rookie...
Gevinson: ...Many of whom do not have a target audience of teenage girls, so it's very generous of them.
CNN: But they're beloved by teenage girls.
Gevinson: Yes, they are. That's what they don't know. Jon Hamm made an "Ask a Grown Man" video for us, where we have grown men like him answer questions girls send in for our advice section of the site.
At the end of his video, he was like, "Watch 'Mad Men.' No! You're too young to watch 'Mad Men' --watch 'The Hunger Games.'" And all of the comments were like, "I'm 16 and I watch 'Mad Men.'" He has no clue that the only people who watch "Mad Men" are teenage girls, but if you tell him it'll just break his heart.
CNN: You also tried to get President Obama to be a Grown Man.
Gevinson: Yes, but we took that campaign on at the wrong time. He had a few other things on his plate (in September 2012). I wanted him to win and if he had lost, I would have had it in my brain like, those five extra minutes we stole for Rookie would have made the difference. ... But, we might pick that back up now that the presidential election is over. He was always on our wish list, but then people felt really passionate about it so the teenage girls of the Internet joined forces.
CNN: That's a powerful group.
Gevinson: I mean, if you've seen the Justin Bieber documentary, you know.
CNN: Yes, but what in particular resonated with you?
Gevinson: I have a lot of feelings about it; that could be a whole interview on its own. I just watched the Joan Rivers documentary and I thought that might be up to it. I watched Katy Perry's movie. It made me really emotional and made me want to see her live. I think Justin Bieber's story is so ... forgive me for wording it like this ... unique to our time. That movie is like a three-hour-long bar mitzvah montage. You know how when you go to a bar mitzvah, which I'm sure you do all the time, and they show a video of the kid through the years and it's really flattering because it's his bar mitzvah, so, obviously? That's what that movie felt like. It was called a documentary, but it was produced by him.
I am a Justin Bieber fan, but I am also so fascinated by how weird pop music can be and how manipulated it can be, so I enjoy thinking about that side of it too. I feel bad for him. I could never imagine growing up that way. When someone starts something like that so young, you have to wonder...
CNN: You've encountered a certain level of fame at a young age. What effect do you think it's had on you?
Gevinson: The scariest thing about receiving praise at a young age is the fear of burning out or losing it, or proving people right that you were just a novelty. Obviously, I can see mistakes in things that I've done or said and can see flaws in things I've made, but that's just part of growing.
The fear of being like, oh no, I made something people like, how do I follow it up? I'm more comfortable with that than feeling like nothing has gone right. I haven't been puppeteered or anything so I don't feel like I lost anything. My dad answers my press e-mails and stuff like that, but I got into this myself.
I am sitting in my room right now and I go to public high school. I leave every month or so for a few days and then I come home and I have to do my homework. At the same time, I don't mean to say I live a completely normal life because I have to do math homework.
Even if you do have a balance between career and school and friends and all of that, you still have to think about things that are different from what other people your age are thinking about and I just don't buy it when someone says that one cancels out the other.
You might be on your phone at school and see something written about you and you might feel weird about it and you can't talk to anybody about it because it's disgusting to talk about how you received attention at a young age for a blog, of all things. I try and keep my room and school a safe space where I can truly feel like I'm not performing for anyone or I don't have anything to prove to anyone.
CNN: It still seems like you have something valuable to offer other kids by talking about it. Your peers would probably like to learn how to deal with negative comments online and more generally how to both embrace and transcend the emotional chaos of being a teen.
Gevinson: I'm really good at making teen angst romantic. I'm really good at dealing with heartbreak and things like that, and making it into this whole experience. But there's no way to make someone-on-the-Internet-said-something-mean-about-me into romantic angst where you can listen to music and cry or whatever. That's just really pathetic. So I just try and think about these worries in their simplest form: Feeling misunderstood and feeling afraid. Being afraid to change because who you've been is so well-documented is essentially a normal fear about growing up. Social interactions are completely mortifying and embarrassment is in store for you, and in a year you'll hate whoever you are now and everything anyway. Just knowing all that helps too.