Look! Here's the recent high school graduate Tavi Gevinson swinging from a crab apple tree in her Oak Park backyard — as photographed by Annie Leibovitz and published in Vanity Fair. Look! Here's Tavi Gevinson lying on her single, teenager's bed — looking a bit like a postmodern Egyptian mummy — as photographed by Martin Schoeller and published as part of a cover story in New York Magazine. Look! Here's Tavi Gevinson in The New York Times' T Magazine, clad in a $1,000 top, a $1,240 skirt, a $3,000 Calvin Klein dress, talking coming-of-age with writer Emily Witt. Look! Here she is being interviewed in Time, The New Yorker. Where else is there to be interviewed? Nowhere with any prestige.
Granted, Gevinson, the founder of Rookie magazine, has been showing up regularly in newspapers and magazines, including this one, since she was 13 years old. Still, this summer has seen a stunning — and, for a Chicago-area teenager, surely unparalleled — barrage of A-list profiles of the 18-year-old multihyphenate, set to make her Broadway debut Sept. 1, acting in director Anna D. Shapiro's fine production of Kenneth Lonergan's aptly titled "This Is Our Youth," which took its first steps at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in June.
This breathless selling of Gevinson has come with some collateral damage. Like to Oak Park.
"It's much more the Chicagoland of sports talk radio," Witt wrote, contrasting the suburb with Ferris Bueller's leafy North Shore surroundings, "the sidewalks weedy, the lawns not so green." In Witt's story, Oak Park plays the locally unfamiliar role of "this anchor of middle-American, middle-class reality," which in bicoastal media-speak means a place where it is just fine to be raised as a child, but not somewhere to remain in creative adulthood.
Gevinson hardly is the first Chicagoan to hit the big time. Still, one struggles to recall any other Chicago-area celebrity so rapidly or spectacularly launched. The more traditional narrative — that of Tina Fey, say — involves climbing up through the myriad levels at Second City or — that of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, say — graduating from Northwestern University and sweating it out in your own off-Loop theater company before somebody writes the right review or a powerful person shows up in the audience. Both Jeremy Piven and John Cusack had to bide their time. Jessie Mueller worked in suburban theaters for years. Nobody launched John Malkovich or Gary Sinise in Vanity Fair; those guys had to take themselves to New York before anyone noticed them. Kanye West had to pay his dues as a producer; he was in his mid-20s before anyone took him seriously as a recording artist.
Even Kim Novak, a Chicagoan whose beauty, elegance and determination to be an original had much in common with Gevinson, did not really begin her career until she was 21. When she was graduating from Farragut High School, her mind was not on lunching with a Taylor Swift precursor, but on the class schedule at what was then Wright Junior College.
So why has it been different with Gevinson? There are many reasons.
Unlike those who came before her, she was able to create her own following via her blog, at a very early age, an age before good parents like the Gevinsons let their daughters talk to agents. She has been a beneficiary of technological change. Nonetheless, despite the democratizing promise of the digital age, young creative types like Gevinson who hit the big time from their Midwestern bedrooms still are surprisingly rare; the old gatekeepers hardly have been anxious to give up any serious turf to the self-created. But since Gevinson's primary topic was fashion, and since fashion is dependent on tastemakers and peer ambassadors, that gave Gevinson enough perceived clout to attract the attention of Hollywood agents who found their way to Oak Park.
As Witt noted in her story, they came offering Tavi and her parents "resources" rather than a prescription for a young woman who clearly could write, speak and influence, but who also seemed to be forging her own path through a new media/culture landscape that the smartest agents are willing to admit they do not themselves understand. In some ways, they were not unlike an old-media company deciding it was easier to buy a hot digital brand than to struggle to build its own. Actually, Gevinson already had all the resources she needed — inside her own head — but what she needed most, as those agents surely knew, were a media strategy and access to similarly influential friends. They could be sold as pals and peers, but they allowed for connections to be made in the consumer's (and thus the producer's) mind.
Friends and a strategy most certainly have been provided. "This Is Our Youth" is an inestimably shrewd way to launch (or ignite) Gevinson. It offers both exposure and a measure of protection. As anyone who saw her work at Steppenwolf knows, it is a role she can play well and that embraces both her individuality and her vulnerability. It's a coming-out party with some highly experienced and protective chaperons. And it's surely no coincidence that the show is launching the Broadway season, meaning that the pre-show publicity has hit when the media is hungry for copy, especially that which might evoke the freshness and excitement of a new cultural season.
Unless we're talking about a comeback narrative — such as the one that has been attached to the musician and actress Jenny Lewis — the summer after high school is the perfect moment, perhaps the only moment, to tempt a writer (and a photographer) with a series of the dichotomies that the best journalistic profiles always need: childhood/adulthood, maturity/silliness, calculation/spontaneity, sophistication/naivete. Most of the Gevinson sagas this summer have been forged along those lines. So have the photo shoots, with images of the fashion maven swinging in a suburban backyard or wearing haute couture in her prosaic teenage bedroom. If Gevinson had been even a year older, that would have been a much tougher sell.
"From tween blogger to feminist editrix to Broadway actor, Tavi Gevinson is embarking on her next project: being a grown-up," read the headline in the T Magazine story (it could have been the headline on most of those stories). There is a very brief window for that. It lasts for one summer, then shuts down like the gates at Six Flags Great America.
Of course, none of this would have worked were Gevinson not so charming and so singular a talent and so brilliant at controlling her own narrative. In the New York Magazine story, for example, Gevinson decides to take the visiting writer, Amy Larocca, to the Adler Planetarium — Gevinson's decision, apparently — because, she says, "sometimes, when you're doing a magazine interview, it's good to remember that you are not, actually, the center of the universe. Like, at all."
Wow. What writer could resist that bit of shrewd self-deprecation as a theme of the story? And, even if a writer could, the location of the interview actually does not allow it to easily be resisted — unless one wishes to replace it with some narrative about a young star reaching for the outer reaches of the universe. However unconscious, this is sophisticated stuff. While most teenage celebrities have no more imagination than wanting to be seen as masters of their own hotel suite, Gevinson has an innate understanding that if you spend all day saying you are just an ordinary teen trying to figure stuff out (to paraphrase how Gevinson titled her TED Talk; watch it at ted.com/speakers/tavi_gevinson), then you will make it eminently clear how far that is from the case. That's not to say Gevinson was being disingenuous — there's no evidence of that. She just really understands image and story. They are in her bones. They will function like calcium.
Of course, it helps that Gevinson is far smarter than most of her interviewers. "She has already navigated a model path through her own precocity," Witt wrote this summer, both hitting the nail on the head and only adding to the phenomenal G-force of the model.
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