Rookie no more: Tavi Gevinson is now wrestling with more adult issues, and not all of them involve fashion. Photo: Nick Hudson
Tavi Gevinson is a list maker. It's one part of her talent for self-help, a process she might refer to as "giving myself therapy" or "being my own best friend."
To understand how Gevinson has maintained the integrity of what she calls "a core me", you need to begin with her lists. In late April, about a week after her 18th birthday, Gevinson had several lists tacked to a wood-panelled door in her bedroom. The cluster began with an exhortation in pink watercolour paint: "LIVE THROUGH THIS." "THIS" was the aftermath of her first serious relationship, which had ended two weeks earlier, amicably but sadly.
As one list put it: Loving him now means:
• Letting him go
• Loving myself
• Becoming myself
Gevinson might know her "core me," but she has not yet become herself, at least not the "grown woman" she intends to become. At 13, two years after her fashion blog Style Rookie had introduced Gevinson as a creative young person with very good taste, the tiny figure with granny glasses, grey-blue hair and extraordinary millinery appeared at the runway shows as more of a mascot than a human being.
She played the dwarf in a Fellini-esque array, placed somewhere between a socialite's teacup chihuahua and the Olsen twins. The perfumed tribe of ethereal beings had adopted her, but that story is over, their images at the bottom of the Tumblr feed.
Gevinson asserted her autonomy early on. From a fashion blogger, blocking views with her giant bow at a Dior couture runway show, she morphed into Gevinson the 15-year-old editrix of the girl-power internet nexus Rookie magazine, the print annual of which she edits after school. Last year, we met Gevinson the indie movie ingénue, playing a child who charms adults in Enough Said. There is also Gevinson the generational spokesperson, joking with Jimmy Fallon or clicking through a PowerPoint presentation on being a fangirl at a "festival of ideas" in Australia. She interviewed Miley Cyrus for the May 2014 cover of Elle; she voiced a character on The Simpsons.
Today she is a suburban teenager wearing a Bruce Springsteen T-shirt tucked into black jeans. Her blonde hair is bobbed short, her feet bare. She is still small, but not in the least childlike. Her smallness gives her a sort of authority, like a punctuation mark amid words. Her latest project is theatre: she is performing in Kenneth Lonergan's play This Is Our Youth. And she's taking a gap year in New York before college.
Another list, titled "Just be", includes:
• David Bowie
• Patti Smith
• Wayne Koestenbaum [poet]
Gevinson recently cleaned her room, sorting through her vast collection of kitsch, thrift-shop treasures and the tokens of girl love gifted to her by adoring Rookie readers. She pared it all down to the most important things: a piece of the Berlin Wall; "rare hair slides" that were merchandise from a tour of Courtney Love's band Hole; a matchbook from a kitschy Chicago motel that offers "short-hour stays"; the school photos of her closest friends.
She has a shelf of Sweet Valley High books; a jacket of psychedelic fabric printed with jokes from the show Laugh-In. Her walls are covered with stills from Salt-n-Pepa's None of Your Business video, drawings from friends and an aerial photo of an island in her mother's native Norway. "If I was super rich I would totally use my gap year to just put a bunch of stuff in a tiny museum somewhere," Gevinson says.
She has hundreds of girls' journals, friendships bracelets and mixtapes in her possession, most of them from a promotional tour for Rookie where she asked readers to bring tokens and amulets from their rooms.
Few American adults born in the past 40 or 50 or even 60 years wouldn't suffer some unsettling memory of shag carpets or processed snack foods upon entering Gevinson's room. Somehow ageless herself, she has perfected adolescence as an aesthetic experience. Like the child-granny she used to be, she is both her age and somehow above it.
Gevinson could become a great actor or a better writer or who knows what else, but her defining talent thus far is her discernment. Aided by her lists and her good judgment, she has already navigated a model path through her own precocity. (Another strategy: drawing self-portraits, "Even if you're not good at drawing", she says. "And then you manifest what you want.")
Part of her success, along with a talent for self-help, is due to her self-criticism. Without losing authority, Gevinson talks about "imposter syndrome" and of worrying she has not earned what she has accomplished. She knows the objections to sponsored content on Rookie and what she might sacrifice in integrity when she thanks Urban Outfitters in her editor's note.
She indicates her awareness of the privileges afforded by her race, class and upbringing. She understands that some people will see her recent move into acting as the default denouement of earning further name recognition in the United States, the way that basketball player Shaquille O'Neal became an actor, or Paris Hilton.
She frets somewhat over this perception but quickly becomes exasperated. It's what she wants, first of all, and the people she admires – Tilda Swinton, say, or Kanye West – don't define themselves only by the role that first earned them an audience. One point of guidance came from a school philosophy class. She can't remember who said it, but it was something along the lines that you shouldn't decide on your identity; that you should just live and your identity comes later.
Grown-up luminaries have practically lined up to offer the mentorship she has shown little sign of needing. For her 18th birthday, screenwriter Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith threw her a party in Los Angeles. Gevinson shows me another gift: a pair of brown leather gloves, with a birthday card tucked underneath that reads, "To: Tavi, From: WR."
"These gloves belonged to Audrey Hepburn, who then gave them to Winona Ryder when she was 18, who I know and who gave them to me," Gevinson says. It's an anointment.
For the adults, one suspects that the imprimatur of such a wise teenager offers some consolation, as only a youth can dismantle the cult of youth. They seem to see her as a protégée and a cause – proof that the kids are all right. What a relief.
Things to look forward to:
• Wearing new clothes
• Moving to NYC
• Doing This Is Our Youth
• Rookie crew hangouts
Gevinson grew up in Oak Park, Illinois, with two older sisters. Her dad is a retired English teacher who now serves on the local school board; her mum is a textile artist who tutors kids for their bar mitzvahs.
Growing up, Gevinson learnt some lessons about the nature of American diversity; the process by which the great mixture of elementary school slowly segregates by the time each generation reaches the high-school cafeteria. Over the past few years, as her life has become more and more improbable, this anchor of middle-American, middle-class reality has helped centre her, but now she is casting herself adrift.
To prepare for New York, she made a list of "the elements I like about being here and being a teenager that I want to make sure I sustain somehow". It includes keeping a diary and allowing herself time to feel sad. In her new environment, she hopes to immerse herself in her community, the Rookie community, "where everyone wants to feel good and there's no snobbishness".
Gevinson might eventually tire of wanting to feel good. She denies that the tone of Rookie will change as she gets older. If that's true, she is more likely to become her generation's Oprah Winfrey than its Patti Smith.
I remind myself of Gevinson's age only when reading Rookie's version of feminism. With its girl power, relentless enthusiasm and celebrations of resilience, it brings to mind Joan Didion's estimation that when what passes for the women's movement is only so many stories of upbeat personal fulfilment and mutual assurance, "the movement is no longer a cause but a symptom".
Gevinson, in contrast, paraphrases the Didion of Goodbye to All That, her awareness that young people are susceptible to "this conviction that what you're experiencing has never happened to anyone else ever before".
Gevinson recently interviewed the singer Lorde for Rookie. They bonded over the agony of the question, posed by so many interviewers, "But do you feel 16?"
We go for a walk around the neighbourhood. Outside Gevinson's house the tulips have come up amid the unmown grass of the boulevard and a magnolia tree is on the verge of blooming. The family's 16-year-old Jack Russell terrier stares, unmoving, with rheumy eyes, through the chain-link fence of their backyard.
We walk past a church where Gevinson took piano lessons as a kid. We stop and look at the backyard of a grey house where she spent a lot of time in a basement recreation room. The graffiti she remembers has been painted over; the house is up for sale or has been sold. We walk over the Eisenhower Expressway, where she once spent a ponderous evening. The walkway is all concrete patched with asphalt, the cars whizzing below towards Madison or Detroit.
One time, during high school, Gevinson sat here with her friend listening to a mixtape of '60s girl groups on a battery-operated tape player. An old man in a blue parka passed them going one direction, and then passed them walking back, when he stopped and said, "If I don't see you again, have a happy rest of your life."
Photography by Nick Hudson. Hair by Taichi Saito. Make-up by Kanako Takase. Styling by Paul Bui.
The New York Times.