“I Did Not Wake Up Like This”: Janet Mock and Tavi Gevinson Talk Impostor Syndrome, Celebrity, and the Internet

There may have only been one flower crown in the audience at last night’s launch for Rookie Yearbook Three, but the online publication’s ethos was otherwise on full display: dyed hair, #snackwave, DIY bangs, and the unfettered, post-ironic enthusiasm that leads to fan gestures like bringing a box of chocolates for the editor-in-chief, Tavi Gevinson, and writer/activist Janet Mock. Onstage at New York’s Housing Works Bookstore last night, Gevinson and Mock talked impostor syndrome, public identity, and the platform on which they both established themselves: the Internet.

A combination of questions sourced from social media and questions from Mock and Gevinson themselves, the discussion highlighted the common ground between the 18-year-old star of This Is Our Youth and the author of Redefining Realness. Both have struggled with adapting themselves in order to be taken seriously outside their core audiences; both are figures whose personal brands (ugh, sorry) are a huge part of their work’s reception.

The pressure to represent yourself, and your cause, in a way that’s both genuine and palatable came up repeatedly. Mock’s first question to Gevinson brought up Gevinson’s evolving relationship with fashion, the venue where she first attracted notice with her blog The Style RookieTavi said that as she became less interested in writing about fashion, she also felt the need to establish herself outside of that niche — a need she traced to the stigma often attached to fashion and style writing. “When you’re interested in things that are ‘feminine’ or ‘frivolous,’ there’s a constant need to justify it,” she observed.

When a Twitter user asked about maintaining composure during debates, Gevinson immediately noted how collected Mock had been during her dual appearances on Piers Morgan (Audience member: “He’s the worst!” Mock: “Can we please tweet that, ladies?”) in February. “For me to sit there and visibly express anger,” Mock said, “I didn’t think it would be the most productive use of my 15 minutes on the show.” And as a woman of color, “I don’t think I had the luxury to.” Twitter may be a safe space for Mock to express unmitigated anger, but she knew anger would play very differently to a national television audience: “It’s so fucked up that I have to internalize all these respectability politics in order to be heard.”

The topic then shifted into another part of negotiating celebrity: the fine line between self-indulgent navel-gazing and responsible disclosure. Mock’s “one critique” of Beyoncé, for example, is that “I did not wake up like this. This takes work.” For her part, Gevinson stressed the importance of being honest: “People are always asking me about time management. I have to be like, I got bad grades in high school. This can’t happen without sacrifices.”

But when Gevinson worried that “talking about the experience of being public is navel-gazing,” echoing a line from her August New York profile, Mock pushed back: “But that’s exactly what we need you to talk about!”

“It is good to demystify it,” Gevinson admitted. “You just don’t want to end up like that weird Jodie Foster speech from the Golden Globes.” She mentioned the celebrity photos that had been cropping up on #RookieYearbookThree all day, from Judy Blume to Paramore frontwoman Hayley Williams. “The Yearbook Three selfies were no coincidence!” Gevinson laughed. There’s no shame in a savvy, coordinated marking campaign, but there’s also value in being open about the planning behind that publicity.

When a reader asked about Gevinson’s and Mock’s strategies for being honest in their writing, Mock shifted into a more introspective mode. “You shouldn’t be worried about winning readers’ trust,” she advised. “You should be worried about trusting yourself to be vulnerable.” Mock brought up director Jane Campion, who once told her real creative work doesn’t happen until at least three hours into a writing session. Creativity, for Mock, is about taking those three hours to make “that space for yourself to sit and reflected and be judged by that blank screen. I never worry about the consumption part of my writing. I never worry about the reader.”

“If you think too much about how you want to make the audience feel, it won’t happen,” Gevinson agreed. When a final reader-submitted question asked about fighting off apathy, she continued: “You can’t force people to care. You can’t force readers to trust you. All you can do is give yourself over to your work and put it all out there and not censor yourself, and the humanity of it resonates with people.”