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Tavi Gevinson On Growing Up In The Public Eye And Her Role In The 'Gossip Girl' Remake

·14-min read
Photo credit: Lia Clay Miller
Photo credit: Lia Clay Miller

Tavi Gevinson was 14 when she sat front row at the Dior Couture 2010 show in Paris. She’d been a familiar face on the fashion scene ever since Style Rookie, the blog she started when she was 11, caught the attention of designers and editors. It had led to her being flown around the world to review shows and interview major names for magazines, TV and websites. Her petite size (she was, as she puts it, ‘an actual child’) and larger-than-life personal style, coupled with an impressive understanding of cultural context and sartorial milieu was met with a mix of curiosity, affection and over-the-top reverence. For the shows that year, Tavi had dyed her hair blue but it faded to grey. In Paris, Karl Lagerfeld told her he liked it. ‘Normally, children – young people – don’t have this hair colour,’ he reportedly said. ‘It’s great to have it.’

‘I think so, too,’ she replied.

At the show, Tavi wore upon her head an oversized cartoon-like bow by Stephen Jones. A Grazia reporter sitting behind her tweeted: ‘At Dior. Not best pleased to be watching couture through 13-year-old Tavi’s hat’.

The creaky mechanisms holding up the fashion industry – which was only just starting to evolve into the globalised, digitally aware business we know today – were challenged by the existence of a child who understood the internet as a native and could translate the most esoteric of style references with genuine excitement. Her talent threatened a generation of professionals who had enjoyed the exclusivity of their careers and ignored the unspoken question behind the glamour: what is it you actually do?

More than a decade on and Tavi is a creative polymath – actor, writer, editor, director. I get the sense that she doesn’t give a hoot about any kind of prescribed career trajectory. Here is a 25-year-old woman with a lifetime of personal and professional possibilities ahead; a Gen-Zer whose talent is sprawling and matched only by the breadth of its ambition. She is evolving and exploring in a way I find inspiring. I wish I’d done the same at her age, rather than hanging my hat on a career I’ve been stuck with since. But no matter the surprises to come, in the short term, Tavi is about to go from a ‘publicness’ she finds comfortable to another level of fame altogether, thanks to a starring role in this year’s hotly anticipated Gossip Girl reboot.

Tavi video-calls me from her apartment in New York. It’s early morning and she’s fresh out of the shower. She’s wearing a black T-shirt and thick-framed glasses that are the same pearly peach colour as her skin. Her blonde hair dries over the course of our long discussion, which charts her evolution from fashion blogger to Broadway star, via roles in films and TV, to a writer with a powerful voice and platform that she’s using to affect real change.

Photo credit: Lia Clay Miller
Photo credit: Lia Clay Miller

We start by talking about what ‘fashion’ meant to her as a fabulously precocious young teenager. ‘Characters and storytelling,’ she decides after a long, thoughtful pause. ‘And the tactile pleasures of clothes.’ As for fashion as an industry, Tavi says she didn’t know what she wanted from it then. "Sometimes I thought, I’ll turn this into a real career." And then sometimes I thought, "This will just be a weird footnote in the rest of my life."'

When she started Style Rookie, Tavi had no idea that anyone other than her digital community of teenage fashion-lovers would find it. But such was the wildfire of internet fame in the nascent age of social media, that one well-connected ‘share’ led to articles in The New York Times, then invitations to sit front row, collaborate with brands and interview designers. Rei Kawakubo flew her to Tokyo for a Comme des Garçons party after seeing a video of Tavi rapping about her love for him. The Mulleavy sisters behind Rodarte enlisted her to star in a video promoting a line they’d designed for Target. But what did the industry really want with this child star? She was smart, had good taste and unjaded creativity. But mainly Tavi was an emblem of youth and digital knowhow when the industry was struggling to adjust to the internet age.

Tavi loved these ‘fantasy trips’ to Paris or Tokyo, where she was treated like an adult. ‘It was always painful going back to school,’ she tells me. Her parents chaperoned; her father Steve is an English teacher and her mum Berit Engen is a weaver and part-time Hebrew instructor. The family couldn’t afford frequent trips abroad, so Tavi relied on brands covering their expenses. It meant she lived with a sense that the rug was going to be pulled out from under her.

At school Tavi felt both proud and embarrassed by her success. ‘Embarrassed that I apparently had the impulse to do this stuff and share it. And proud that I was taken seriously by people I respected. With some friends, we’d do photoshoots together; with others, we never talked about it. It always felt like something I was in alone. It was my hobby.’

Photo credit: Lia Clay Miller
Photo credit: Lia Clay Miller

I ask if she felt ‘looked after’ by the fashion industry. Her eyes dart upwards as she considers the question. ‘There were people who were very nurturing and protective. The Rodarte sisters, for example, wanted me to feel supported, creative and to protect the joy it gave me. But I also had shoots where I realised, "Oh, this isn’t about what I want or how I see myself at all." I was a commodity, even if I didn’t know that word.’

This is a subject that Tavi tackled in an essay published in February: Britney Spears Was Never In Control. In the piece, Tavi talks about the moments in her career when she, perhaps like Spears, felt that she had power over the way she was being portrayed when the reality was far from it.

In the essay, Tavi opens up about her experiences of being in an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship with an older man when she was 18. She tells me, ‘I had no appetite for the week that the story came out. My apprehension was around just wanting to look after myself with these experiences that I’m still very much processing.’ But she feels a sense of relief at having shared something that’s lived in her head for so long. ‘Now what’s out there reflects this shame, this secret, this thing that I felt I needed to protect. But why would I need to protect something that isn’t my fault? What am I teaching myself by holding this back? I didn’t do anything wrong.’

In the weeks before the essay was published, Tavi had a series of dreams where people who she thought wouldn’t believe her experiences of abuse said "I believe you" or "I already knew". ‘I don’t know what those dreams meant, but every time I had one, I woke up in a state of complete peace.’

In April, Tavi followed up with Art Doesn’t Need Tyrants, an essay taking aim at the distribution of power in creative industries. She explored her working relationship with Hollywood producer Scott Rudin, accused of abusive behaviour, and how his attitude is fed by systemic inequality in an industry that’s finally being held accountable.

Of why she felt compelled to speak out about the Oscar-winner, who could be said to have paved the way for her success as an actor, Tavi says: ‘There are many reasons [no one has spoken out sooner]. It’s not those people’s fault, and we need to stop making the capacity to tolerate abuse a form of currency. But for me, trauma buries itself and people find ways to rationalise horrible experiences. It doesn’t surprise or bother me that, in time, people can look back and say, “Oh, that was profoundly damaging.” It doesn’t mean norms should never change, just because it was OK before.’

Photo credit: Lia Clay Miller
Photo credit: Lia Clay Miller

As we discuss these subjects, Tavi speaks carefully. Watching her stop in the middle of a thought, silence hanging like ellipses as she grasps for the right words, I imagine a cursor flashing behind her eyes, letters being typed, erased, typed again. She talks as she writes, in balanced sentences.

‘One thing that scares me,’ says Tavi – having spent a minute deciding how to articulate it – ‘is that people are not exploring why [abusive] behaviour can be harmful or how it’s related to systems of oppression that govern our lives. When someone asks, “Is it still OK to like this person’s art?” It’s not a question of ethics. It’s a question of optics. What I see happening behind the scenes within these industries is an understanding of what is bad for business. A lot of powerful agents will not have a change of heart. They simply need to be told that it’s now a liability to throw a stapler at someone.’

It’s a theme that’s explored in the new Gossip Girl, in which Tavi plays English teacher Kate Keller. ‘To make a show about the internet now has to involve public shaming, and the fine line between an appetite for spectacle and justice.’

She says that one of the biggest shifts in culture since the show’s initial incarnation starring Blake Lively is that social media creates a place where people can be celebrities in each other’s lives, even if no one is famous. ‘You’re just engaging with this extension of people, almost as avatars. And I do think in some ways the hellishness of having a public persona has been democratised.’

Becoming a professional actor coincided with Tavi figuring out who she was as a young adult, having spent so much of her childhood as a brand – something she was even more aware of when she launched and edited the magazine Rookie for teenagers. ‘It was a big part of my identity. So much so, it was hard for me to see when it was time for me to move on. And then if [that identity] is affirmed by other people, it is easy to be like, “Well, I guess I’m this person.”’

She says that when Rookie folded in 2018 (to an outcry from its devoted readers) it caused ‘a mild identity crisis’. Tavi asked herself: ‘What else did I just decide was my thing a long time ago, and I don’t actually know if I enjoy it?’

She was 17 when she landed her first major acting role, in the film Enough Said, alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini. The following year, Scott Rudin cast her in This Is Our Youth. A leading part in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard followed, as did a well-received performance in Rudin’s Broadway revival of The Crucible as Mary Warren – a young girl whose ethics are challenged when she becomes the subject of terror and intimidation. After reading Tavi’s essay on Rudin, it’s impossible to ignore the irony.

Tavi joined theatre and film casts at an impressionable time, when the pieces of herself were being constantly rearranged. ‘I noticed myself taking on other actors’ mannerisms,’ she says. ‘When a show closed, those things would either fold themselves into how I acted socially, or go away.’

The Crucible was her most defining role, not least because of the craft she learnt from co-stars Ben Whishaw and Saoirse Ronan. At first, she was unable to mediate her performance to sustain it over a long run (125 shows over five months). At 20, it was only her second professional stage role. ‘I had to learn how to think about what I was doing from a technical standpoint, to physically try to hold less tension. Or how to yell without screaming and hurting my voice. I wanted to give it everything. But I worked with amazing actors who know how to give the appearance of embodying what they’re feeling without totally feeling it.’

It strikes me as an interesting parallel with finding her voice as a writer, and in doing so learning what to give, what to hold back and how to be real without leaving herself raw.

‘It’s unburdening to write and publish something that feels true to me,’ she agrees. ‘But there’s also still a feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop.’

The past year’s enforced hiatus gave Tavi the space she needed to come to terms with her formative experiences and give them shape in her writing. As a result, it’s been about ‘understanding sexual assault and abuse, justice and victimhood, and all of these concepts in a different way. I’ve realised that you can recognise harm without thinking that someone should be treated punitively. That helped me look clearly at what actually happened.’

Photo credit: Lia Clay Miller
Photo credit: Lia Clay Miller

Tavi is increasingly politically outspoken. She’s supported lobbying for legislative change in New York as she’s concerned by the state’s ‘complete inequity, and the fact that it’s preventable through policy’. She’s been working to improve the welfare of Excluded Workers – those who didn’t receive government support when lockdowns meant they lost their jobs. ‘I took cues from Make the Road, which has been working on the Excluded Workers Fund, and Amplifying Activists Together, a phone bank started by activists in the theatre community.’ I ask if, by highlighting a cause, she invites criticism that she isn’t giving the same prominence to another.

‘But that’s just like everything,’ she says. ‘I could post a picture of an outfit and someone will be like, “Why are you not wearing a sustainable label?” I just think the internet creates this illusion that you can make people virtuous and perfect by correcting and deleting things. In my position, I accept that to some extent I’m an abstraction to people. I have to be prepared that I can’t control people’s responses to anything I do in public.’

To relax she’s been taking Zoom dance classes, which have made her ‘long to dance to Janet Jackson – in a place with people!’ Her social scene spans childhood friends, those from her Rookie magazine days and the theatre world. She doesn’t mention the mega-famous people she’s close to, most notably Taylor Swift.

It sounds as though she knows how to have fun, but on our call she strikes me as intensely serious and burdened by the knowledge that everything she says will be interpreted by me, then by readers, as we impose a meaning and a narrative on her life.

I discover some of her first Style Rookie posts from 2008, before she realised important grown-up ‘fashion people’ were reading the blog, and there’s a sweet silliness, a playful, quirky, slanted view of the world that I’m sure remains part of her unfiltered offline self.

I read 12-year-old Tavi’s list of ‘things I always wanted to do’. Thirteen years later, I’m interested to know if she’s ticked anything off. First is ‘own a joke shop’. Tavi squirms, then laughs. ‘No, I’m fine to let that one go.’ Next on the list: ‘Cook something very impressive like a soufflé and have it actually not taste like deer poop.’ Tavi smiles and shakes her head. She’s still not a good cook and hasn’t made a soufflé. I ask what it’s like being confronted by these relics from her past – old diaries that exist online for anyone to discover. ‘It kind of depends on how insecure I already feel that day. But I think it used to be a lot more cringey. And it’s become easier.’

At 25, she may no longer dress with the eccentric theatricality she did as a kid – that giant Paris Fashion Week bow filed alongside the dream of a joke shop and an unmade soufflé in the archives of her spectacular childhood. But as Tavi Gevinson embraces Gossip Girl fame and the upcoming publication of a book of her essays, one thing seems certain: she’ll never stop challenging the view from the front row, and there will always be a disgruntled older person bristling behind her.

Gossip Girl is out on the BBC this August.


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