Taken from the February/March 2014 Issue, guest edited by Emma Watson.
Velvet cape MIU MIU, white shirt and skirt RYAN LO, beret stylist’s own
In her current incarnation Tavi is Editor-in-Chief of Rookie Magazine, the online publication for teenage girls with a huge and obsessive international readership. As you can tell from this interview I think she is pretty great. She agreed to talk to me about feminism, fashion and Beyoncé.
You’re still in Chicago right?
Where it is freezing right now…
Yes I was saw! You are in the middle of a polar storm or something?!
Yeah it’s negative 10 Fahrenheit.
That is crazy, that is so cold. So, where are we at? You graduate this summer and you go to university in the fall, is that right?
I’m actually taking a gap year before I go to college. I think the attitude here is very ‘go go go’. Everyone goes straight to college, even if you don’t really know what you want to do, so I just thought it was important to take some time off.
I have so many friends coming out of college who, even now, after their three or four year process, don’t really have any idea of what they really want to do.
Absolutely and I’ve never heard people regret taking a gap year, I’ve only heard people regret not taking one. It just makes so much sense, like it is in England, it should be standard for people to take that time out and realise what they are going to spend all this money and time on.
So have you decided where you are going to go to college?
I applied to Barnard and NYU. I want to be in New York but I don’t know where I’ll get in to or where I’ll choose or whatever yet so I’ve just sent my applications. Trying not to stress out, there is nothing more I can do at this point.
So, what are you up to at the moment?
At the moment there is no school but yesterday, we had a piece go up on Rookie where one of our writers, she’s 19 and she is studying journalism, wrote this piece about how frustrating it can be when male journalists, especially in music, discount a young woman’s opinion – you know, all those attitudes that girls who like indie music are posers, or that pop music meant for girls is vapid on account of its demographic. So now, some of the writers we called out are responding, and it’s very amusing.
It’s great that you are able to stand back far enough from it and find those kinds of comments amusing. Is she having trouble doing that or is she taking it all in her stride?
I think she has taken it in her stride, she has made it an event, like you know on Facebook on your timeline you can make like a life event, she added one that said like, “making male journalists butt’s’ hurt” or something.
That’s brilliant. Which brings me to one of the questions that I sent you, you said being an editor and an actress are not too dissimilar and I’m curious about that.
I definitely approach them differently but I think at the root of both is empathy. With acting you go into it trying to find a point which you can relate to an experience, that may or may not be like your own, and then with editing a lot of it is about saying this might not be something that relates to my life directly but someone else could benefit from it.
That’s really interesting. I watched yesterday the talk that you gave most recently in Sydney and you said that it was important to kill your idols. That’s interesting. Is that how you find acting – being able to put yourself and your own original work out there in the world because you realised you had a place amongst the people you admired?
It’s definitely challenging. We talked about imposter syndrome when I interviewed you, and there are real shades of that in writing and journalism. So many of the actors in “Enough Said” are people I really admire so that was intimidating too. But I had to remind myself that even though I’ve been really lucky, I also work really hard. I auditioned for the part and I got it, and I started Rookie myself. Girls are taught not to take up space and it holds a lot of us back, so I am all for conquering imposter syndrome.
It was interesting because when I was doing my research on you, I thought, “Gah! I would love to see Tavi as a young woman, as an editor of Vogue one day!”, like a Diana Vreeland, and then actually I wonder whether, for you, Rookie is a space where you have all this freedom and I would hate to see you having to conform in any way?
I have thought about that where I’m like, do I want to, not exactly use Rookie as a stepping stone, but is the goal to get to that position where these ideas can be more widespread? But I am just too accustomed to my way of doing things and my creative control and freedom.
First of all, I have a better understanding of how journalism should look in a daily website than a monthly print magazine but I also, I’m just too used to what we have. We have the best of both worlds, I love that we can do a book once a year but also think that for the sake of our community it is really important to be this online accessible publication and I don’t think that I would ever want to be, I mean not that anyone is knocking on my door right now, but I don’t think I’d ever want to head a magazine that has this legacy that goes back for so many decades. I’d maybe rather be a friend with that editor-in-chief and send them links to things.
I completely understand.
I don’t actually want to be that person.
“And the fact she wasn’t doing it for a label, she was doing it for herself and the control that she has directing it and putting it out there, I agree is making her sexuality empowering because it is her choice.”
I really hope you don’t mind me saying this, and I say it as a compliment, but there is this really very interesting almost Benjamin Button-esque thing going on with you in that when you were younger you portrayed this much older person and then I was looking at pictures of you recently and you look really young and fresh and it’s really interesting to me that you have kind of done things the other way round; you have gone back to front. I know it’s so difficult to look at yourself from outside but I was wondering if you had any insight into yourself on that?
I love how you say that and I think that is so interesting and I definitely think that is the case. There is that Bob Dylan lyric which is, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now” and I think that when I was younger I felt like I had a lot to prove. I felt like I had to really challenge beauty standards and I had to show that teenage girls are really smart and only talk about music and fashion and whatever in an intellectual context and since then it’s been different for me. I have nothing to prove and I want to write about pop music, not prestigious fashion shows, and I think I have just become more open minded in terms of my style. I love that you look at it in that way, for me it would be so much more tragic if I had kept my more eccentric style of dressing up just because it had gotten me so much attention a few years ago, because it’s genuinely not my impulse when I get dressed now in the morning or when I get dressed for something when I will be photographed, it is genuinely not my impulse to do what I did before. I’m glad I had that time in my life and it made me extremely happy but it’s just not…I have my energy in so many other places right now that I don’t really use fashion as an outlet in the way I used to. I remember when I was a freshman, at the end of the school year I wrote a post about feeling like, maybe I do want to wear make-up and feel pretty and feel girly and that doesn’t have to be so evil and that doesn’t have to be detrimental to my other issues as a writer and as a person who is interested in other things. I love that you look at it that way and thank you because it’s frustrating to see it simply dismissed as selling out or something like that.
It shows self-assurance, it shows a kind of nakedness. It looks as if you have come to a place where you just feel very ok with yourself in a much simpler way.
For a long time I utilised fashion to be reflective of myself, so that who I was on the outside would match who I was on the inside. I still believe it’s a powerful tool, but not one that I need anymore. When I gave my talk at the Opera House I just wanted people to focus on what was inside, I wanted to wear something simple, I wanted to put my ideas out there and not feel like I was delivering them as some kind of eccentric. I think what you said is a really great way of putting it. I mean I knew I felt these inclinations now but I hadn’t thought about it in that way, when I get dressed now for an event or whatever I just genuinely feel like keeping it simple and whatever I’m comfortable in and I feel less of a need to make a statement or whatever and draw attention to myself.
So one last question, it’s a big one and I’m quite nervous to bring it up because I still haven’t really formulated my own ideas about it but [both laugh] Beyoncé’s new album.
I don’t know whether you have spoken to anyone about it, but my friend and I sat and we watched all the videos back-to-back and I was really conflicted. I so admire her confidence to put her music out in that way, in amidst all these very sensationalist sort of MTV performances, I was so psyched about that. On the one hand she is putting herself in a category of a feminist, this very strong woman – and she has that beautiful speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in one of her songs – but then the camera, it felt very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her and I just wondered if you had thoughts about that?
That is very interesting and I have definitely been thinking about this since the album came out. I don’t always buy that “it’s empowering” argument when it comes down to a female pop star being explicitly sexual. For me, it takes a lot of convincing. But I actually found this album very inspiring and feminist and, overused as this word is, empowering. The first thing is that she released it as an album all at once. They are not singles, so you have to consider them as one big self-portrait. There are lots of songs about sex, but also songs about being a mother, and being her own person. And I don’t think there’s tension between these different parts of her life – instead, they seem to inform one another, you know?
I also think seeing these images of her help to change the standard of what we think of as beautiful or sexually desirable, and she expands it to include someone like herself, a woman of colour. Girls who feel underrepresented now feel less so. She definitely shows off for her husband a lot in the videos, she definitely performs for him, but again, it’s so much her choice. It also shifts the male part of it from a male audience to her husband, and I’m happy that she shows off her marriage in a world full of stereotypes about what monogamous relationships look like for African-Americans.
The album is not perfect and Beyoncé is not perfect but I think it is very generous of her to let us watch her relationship to feminism evolve publicly. I know I’m getting into the nitty gritty here! It’s just been on my mind so much.
I would say two things. One is that in her position, and for a lot of young musicians, actors or people in our industry, it’s as though you get a memo: don’t be seen with your boyfriend or your wife or your child because you still want your audience to believe or male fans of Beyoncé to believe that they could possess her; that in some alternate universe they could be with her. So by publicly exposing her marriage, that she is in a committed relationship, that she has a child, is probably really against that kind of memo and she does make it clear that she is performing for him. And the fact she wasn’t doing it for a label, she was doing it for herself and the control that she has directing it and putting it out there, I agree is making her sexuality empowering because it is her choice.
The second is that I would say you do get sense of, “I can be a feminist, I can be an intellectual, I can be all these other things, but I can also be ok with my femininity and being pretty and with all these things that I thought might negate my message or negate what I am about”. That really is the most interesting thing about the album. It is so inclusive and puts feminism and femininity and female empowerment on such a broad spectrum.
Absolutely. I hadn’t thought about the celebrity part of it either – that so many pop stars sell us a fantasy of getting to be with them, and by featuring her husband in her music, Beyoncé doesn’t let anyone feel like they own her. I think she also makes it as known as much as she can without putting it in her music that her dad was her manager, she fired him, she started her own company, and she calls the shots. When I watch this album I feel like she is truly displaying her own sense of agency and it is hard to look at a lot of other pop stars right now and say the same. I don’t mean for that to sound condescending, and I’m obviously not one to argue that young women have no self-awareness or autonomy, but it makes a difference that Beyoncé is the head of her own empire. And, because I’m such a fan of hers, I was also able to compare it to old Destiny’s Child videos and just be blown away by how much more self-possessed she seems now. Anyways, I am so glad you asked me about this because I want to be Beyoncé’s scholar and just talk about her all the time.
Moving on, and this sounds like a really silly question on the back of quite a complicated one, but… dealing with a bad day or a bad situation, do you have like a go to thing? For me, it is going to sound really old womanish but I like a hot water bottle and Joni Mitchell. I was just wondering what your comforting equivalent is. Do you have a cat, do you knit…. what do you do?
Joni Mitchell is a big one. I think you do just have to listen to Joni Mitchell and all this sad music and really wallow in it, after that I don’t have to look back. I just try to make sure I don’t let things linger and I really try and face them and not just face them but think about them too and then I move on. At the time [me and my boyfriend] broke up, even though we got back together, I was listening a lot to Joanna Newsom, I listened to Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks, a little Beyoncé, but also at the time I had to go to my friends’ wedding and I was travelling for Rookie stuff so it was really good for me to be reminded of other things in my life. I think it would have been harder if I was just at home by myself.
Throwing yourself into work is always a great comforting method.
And I ended up being able to use it in my talk. You don’t have to turn bad experiences into art and put that pressure on yourself, but that experience did spark the idea of the talk for me. I couldn’t make or write anything good, so I talked about what you do when you can’t turn your experiences into art.
You have been doing what you are doing for so long, and you have to be incredibly mature for your age and I know this is a really annoying question to answer but do you have an opinion on what expedited that? The environment you grew up in? Your parents? Or was that just a natural thing?
I think being a writer makes me very aware, even to a point of paranoia, about how I speak and how I express myself. It’s weird because there are some people who grow up giving interviews and everything and you can really tell in that. For some reason I was watching all these old interviews with Lindsay Lohan and she sounds like a young adult, but she doesn’t sound necessarily self-possessed. So I’ve always told myself to let myself sound like a kid, that’s how I’m feeling, but also to make sure that there is maybe substance behind what I say and I’m not just trying to sound fancy. I think all of this happening from a young age, and my spending a lot of time reading other interviews, my brain has just been shifted to be extra cautious.
Reading, always a good answer. Thank you so much Tavi.