Tavi Gevinson is acting like a brat.
Manhattan's recurring din of sirens has screamed into the foreground and smack into the middle of her sentence. She tsks and rolls her eyes.
"Shut up, I'm talking about my website," she says in a peevish Valley Girl lilt.
But then she chuckles quietly at herself. Despite what some might assume of her based on appearances only – a 19-year-old publishing phenom who became famous for writing a fashion blog before she'd even started high school – Ms. Gevinson is not obnoxious or self-absorbed. The brat act is a self-deprecating joke.
It's one she's cracked before. In Toronto at the Ideacity conference in 2010, Ms. Gevinson took the stage after a glowing introduction. "I'm totes a wunderkind," she said wryly. She then proceeded to give a talk eviscerating the media options available for young girls. She mused about whether it might be possible to create something today that felt like Sassy magazine, which in the late eighties and nineties sought to be everything other publications for teenage girls were not: explicitly feminist, occasionally snarky and generally respectful of its audience's intelligence. The talk prompted a supportive phone call from Sassy founder Jane Pratt.
Five years later, Ms. Gevinson has created not Sassy-the-sequel, but a kindred spirit for the digital age. At 15, she became editor-in-chief of Rookie Magazine while still in school. At 19, she employs five editors and herself, full time, at the headquarters in Brooklyn.
"It all came together really quickly," she says. "It shocks me, now that I have a better sense of professionalism and how things work, that contributors were like, 'Sure, I'll write you an article for a website that doesn't yet exist and is run by a teenager.'"
This week marks the release of Rookie Yearbook Four, an annual compendium of the best of the site, plus some added content, such as illustrated "brain maps" of artists such as Lorde, based on their influences.
Rookie covers arts, popular culture, style and beauty tips, and first-person essays. It includes subject matter that is absent from much of the stuff written for teen girls (and adult women, for that matter) such as a black girl finding confidence in the face of homogeneous beauty standards; profiles of young activists; and advice on having a healthy relationship, such as maintaining a life beyond a romantic partner. In a piece in 2011, Ms. Gevinson satirized the cultural norms that women should be smiling and complacent, writing that "a bitchface is a beauty essential for any true lady."
"There are certainly other publications for teenagers that I like," she says, cupping an Americano between her hands as we wait for our brunch orders to arrive in a small restaurant in the West Village last month. "But I did have this community of women, or girls my age, or people I followed on Tumblr, and I felt like we were all supporting each other and had things to say, but there wasn't really a home base."
Rookie was a shift in focus. She launched her fashion blog Style Rookie in 2008, just before she turned 12, and gained a following with pictures of herself in inventive outfits concocted mostly from thrift stores. By the time the wider media took notice, it drew more than 50,000 daily readers. Soon it was dotted with references to a dress that was a gift from Courtney Love, or a necklace from Proenza Schouler. Fashion luminaries such as Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Miuccia Prada and the Mulleavy sisters (founders of the label Rodarte) were drawn to her sensibilities.
While Ms. Gevinson was lauded for her vision and her studied approach to fashion, she was also criticized as a gimmick seized upon by a youth-obsessed industry. Some were clearly annoyed by how precocious she was: In movies it's cute when an 8-year-old can tell you the weight of the human head, but in real life, that child is the bane of any cocktail party.
As Ms. Gevinson attended more designer shows, and Fashion Week in New York, her father Steve was her travel companion and fellow bemused outsider.
"I'm really glad we were visiting these little worlds together, and then coming back and going, 'That was super weird,'" she says. "… I'm really lucky that I had parents who were supportive but not pushy."
Because of her mother, Berit – an artist who weaves tapestries with scenes from the Torah – Ms. Gevinson came to see creative projects as a daily habit. (In her Manhattan apartment, she keeps a library card catalogue and fills the drawers with notes on ideas for future projects.) From Steve, a retired English teacher, she inherited a chronic reading habit and the ability to dissect texts.
That's been helpful in her other pursuit, which is acting. Ms. Gevinson had a part in the 2013 movie Enough Said with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini. Last year, she appeared in Kenneth Lonergan's play This is Our Youth, and she has an upcoming role as Mary Warren in The Crucible, both on Broadway. She has aspirations to do more.
"Most people move to New York with their name in a marquee metaphorically," a friend pointed out to her recently. "You actually did it."
And she did it with a mini media company already to her name. When she was still living at home in Chicago, Ms. Gevinson sought advice on starting the publication from a number of people, including Sassy founder Jane Pratt and Cindy Gallop, an advertising consultant and advocate on issues such as portrayals of sexuality in media and how companies can build social conscience into their businesses. When Ms. Gevinson was considering launching Rookie under the aegis of a publisher, Ms. Gallop told her: "Own everything."
Much of the content is unapologetically feminist, but the site is not dour or preachy.
"You could not have a better resource for your daughters than Rookie," says Ms. Gallop, who has contributed to the site and, at 55, is a reader herself. The content is smarter than people would assume given its target audience, she says. "Teenage girls are dismissed, all around the world. … Disregard for teenage girls is not always conscious, but it's endemic. They're someone you sell to, but not someone you listen to."
When Ms. Gevinson put out her first call for contributors, she received 3,000 responses. Monthly, the site declares its "theme" for the next month and asks for submissions. Articles are written by some frequent contributors, occasionally by the editors, and some by readers – who are paid if their pieces run.
Teens are not the only voices on the site. One of its best-known features is Ask a Grown Man, a series of videos in which celebrities such as John Hamm, Radiohead singer Thom Yorke and Paul Rudd answer letters from readers with personal advice. (It has now been expanded to include Grown Women.)
"I mean all of this was just, like, a master plan to get smart people to give me advice," Ms. Gevinson jokes.
That idea for the feature is borrowed from Sassy's column "Dear Boy," which had people such as Iggy Pop answer letters. (Sample advice from the front man of the band Sonic Youth, writing to a girl who was hooking up with a boy who didn't respect her: "This guy's a jerk … Next time you're alone with him and he tries to get 'friendly,' tell him your friend Thurston Moore wants to kick his ass.")
Both in its aesthetic of illustrations and collages, and the bounty of young women's writing, Rookie has much in common with the amateur photocopied zines (blogs' precursors) that became popular in the time of Sassy. Zines were a feature of the "riot grrrl" movement that is among Ms. Gevinson's inspirations. Some still make zines, and Ms. Gevinson's readers send them to her. Unlike zines, though, Rookie is a money-making venture.
Ms. Gevinson insisted that the site be free. It is ad-supported, at a time when advertising, particularly online, is in flux; use of ad blockers is growing; and there is downward pressure on prices. News outlets have been experimenting with digital subscriptions, and have embraced sponsored content – ads that look more like articles – to stay afloat. Rookie's ads are a mix of conventional banners and sponsored content, such as a profiles of activists, all photographed in Doc Martens boots. She is careful to reject ads (such as for anti-aging creams) that do not feel like a fit with the overall mission.
The team is exploring selling more merchandise on the site as well. During our brunch, Ms. Gevinson grins widely at a text from a friend suggesting they make T-shirts with "money and a room of her own" – a fragment of the famous Virginia Woolf quote – printed on them.
A mobile application is also in the works, geared toward the fast-changing way that readers consume media. Advertising is a challenge on those small screens, though, too.
"Rookie is making money, but it has the potential to make a … ton more," Ms. Gallop says. "The brand and business world has not woken up to the money-making power of Rookie. It's a huge missed opportunity … especially considering that my industry so badly attempts to emulate the speech of youth."
While print publications have had to adapt to the digital world, Rookie has pulled off a neat trick: a digital publication that has spawned print products. It's now facing a graduation of sorts, with its final Yearbook, but Ms. Gevinson says she wants to continue publishing books, both under the Rookie name and possibly her own. She's been working on a longer piece of writing, and suggests she might like to publish a book of essays.
Today, Ms. Gevinson says she almost regrets declaring Rookie a publication for girls, since boys also struggle with questions of identity, social standards, and growing up. And as more youth are identifying as gender fluid, she wants it to be inclusive.
"There's the occasional woman in her twenties or thirties, or a guy, who will say, 'I hope it's not weird that I read this.' And to me it's not weird at all," she says. "If anything, it's a testament to the fact that when you make something for young people, you don't have to dumb it down. And you don't reach a point in adulthood where you suddenly have everything figured out."
Place of birth: Chicago
Education: Graduated Oak Park and River Forest High School, 2014
Family: Father Steve Gevinson, a retired high-school English teacher, and mother Berit Engen, a textiles artist; two older sisters
Currently reading: The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson
Books that have been her greatest inspiration: Bluets by Maggie Nelson and The Lover by Marguerite Duras
Person, dead or alive, she would like to have lunch with: Joseph Cornell
How she wakes up in the morning: Reading ClickHole (a website run by The Onion that parodies clickbait sites such as BuzzFeed and Upworthy)
Her social media presence: On Twitter she has nearly 340,000 followers herself at @tavitulle and another 92,000 through @RookieMag; on Instagram the rookiemag and tavitulle accounts have 504,000 followers combined.
How she describes her personal style: Like a kooky aunt, mixed with like a sassy toddler. I've been wanting to wear things that are feminine without really feeling feminine. … I struggle with the idea of femininity sometimes because it's been defined by men or by my own idea of what men want. … I'm really scared of everything I could miss out on if I'm living too much for other people, down to my clothing.
On encountering the fashion industry as a prepubescent girl: It frustrated me when I was younger and random people thought it was really dangerous for me to be in the fashion world; it must be so bad for my self-esteem. I'm like, no, I'm getting to interview [founder of fashion label Comme des Garçons] Rei Kawakubo and spend time with [designers] the Rodarte sisters. This is creative for me. I really only just saw my own body as a palette, not as something I had to hide or change. That comes with the privilege of having always been a smaller person and having a more accepted body type, but it never felt dangerous for me. As much as there were experiences that disillusioned me, I was only ever thankful for the opportunities I had – or even a weird encounter with an adult who was shockingly snarky to a 13-year-old. Because it's important to see through the matrix as soon as you can.
On embracing the "feminist" label in both her life and her work, and how conversations about it need to change: Equality made sense to me. I don't really have the stereotype of the angry feminist with hairy armpits or whatever. Probably because I saw women use the term casually and matter-of-factly, and they are also people who I thought were cool. … I hope the conversation can turn more to people who are currently not so visible. I understand that with the way celebrity culture works, the most visible trans person is Caitlyn Jenner, but that's why I really respect how much her show is about telling the stories of other trans people. I think the idea of the face of feminism, the voice of a generation – all of that is pretty counterproductive. I believe that if things can turn away from the need to put people on a pedestal, and can turn more toward making sure feminists, young people, know that whatever they're looking for, someone else has had that experience too, even if they're not a very famous pop star, that is more important. I don't fault Caitlyn Jenner or Beyoncé for any of that [celebrity focus]. I understand the way the world works. But it would be great if that could change.