The first time Wilkinson applied for a writing spot on the Lampoon’s masthead she was declined. It was her freshman year, and at the time, comedy didn’t sound like a realistic career path, but she knew she was funny. She reapplied that spring and snagged a spot.
The perceived white, male dominance of the student population at Harvard inevitably permeates its associated fraternities and social clubs. The Harvard Lampoon, despite its lighthearted nature, is no different. The publication is known for its mostly male alums who include Conan O’Brien, Colin Jost, B.J. Novak, Simon Rich, and Andy Borowitz.
But coming from a small town outside Milwaukee, Wilkinson is no stranger to a lack of diversity.
“The first thing people say when they learn I’m from Wisconsin is like, ‘My grandmother’s best friend is from there,’ or ‘I didn’t know there were black people in Wisconsin,’” she says. “And I say, ‘There aren’t a lot, but we all live in the same 10 mile radius, and we all know each other. And my family makes up about 50 percent of them.’”
The frequency in her byline and the buzz increased following her barrier-breaking presidency last winter. New York magazine profiled her in their Encounter series, writing, “Wilkinson claims not to be a performer, but 10 minutes in her presence disproves this.” NPR had her on “Tell Me More,” and host Michel Martin congratulated Wilkinson and her vice president, Eleanor “Ellie” Parker, on their recent win. The Chicago Tribune interviewed her mother, Regina, who said, “So there was no stopping her, which is fine, I suppose. It’s not like Harvard gave Conan O’Brien a comedy degree either.”
Publications asked Wilkinson to pen pieces for them as well. For TIME, she wrote a supportive letter to Maya Peterson, the black female student body president of a prestigious prep school, whose presidency was redacted after she playfully mocked her white, male classmates on Instagram. Curators of fashion coolness, Opening Ceremony, asked her to write a series of stories, ranging from tracing the origins of the “bad bitch” to a personal manifesto against the special hell that is the shopping mall. In addition to her comedian confessional for Cosmopolitan, Wilkinson gave the lowdown on the power dynamics of hooking up at Harvard.
“Sex at college is all about finding what does it for you,” she wrote. “It’s a salad bowl of sexual experiences — the slutty cherry tomatoes and virginal carrot slices are all in this together.”
The attention has had its ups and downs. And online commenters have done what they’re known to do: post cruel, presumptuous, and unwarranted opinions.
“I stopped reading the comments. I used to before, and it really bothered me,” she says. “You get really surprised by how much people think they know you… Especially coming from [Harvard] and the Lampoon, people make so many assumptions. Thinking that I’m rich and saying, ‘Oh that’s just another spoiled little rich girl.’ You mean my growing up with a single parent with two children? It gets to you. It’s like, how dare you try to discredit me when you don’t know anything about me?”
The real story is that Wilkinson’s father, a chemist, died when she was four, leaving her mother, a computer engineer, to raise her and her younger sister, Rachel, on her own. The sisters, only a year apart, grew up close — petty arguments aside. When their mother took a job in Louisiana, the sisters stayed behind, opting to finish the year at their high school together.
“I think that’s the sort of situation that forces you to look at each other and say, ‘I won’t bail on you and you can’t bail on me,’” the younger Wilkinson explained.
Rachel Wilkinson, 21, is as vibrant, articulate, and charismatic as her sister. She’s pre-med at Yale, a school she chose because of its proximity to Harvard.
Following a glowing review of her sister’s character and charisma, the Yale junior confirmed, “Alexis was always the entertainer. She’s always been the life of the party. And yes, she knows how to tell good jokes.”
And with two high-achieving sisters, both excelling at Ivy League schools, Wilkinson recognizes the value of independence and self-sufficiency taught at a young age.
“My mom was working full-time the entire time we’ve been alive. I realize more and more with time that we were very independent at a young age. Especially coming here, where a lot of kids grew up with their parents never letting them out of their sight,” Wilkinson says. “My mom stopped checking my homework and signing my permission slips when I was in third grade. I think especially now, the two of us are way more capable than a lot of other people our age. Not that we get it right all the time, but we’re used to having to do it by ourselves and not having a backup plan.”
“I really liked growing up in a state that was relatively safe and having a backyard and a treehouse,” she continues. “It was so fun to go exploring and not have people worry about me. I watch way too much ‘SVU.’ But if my mom was cleaning the house and wanted us out, she’d be like, ‘Go look — what’s that outside?’ And then she’d lock the screen door and be like, ‘Run, play, come back in three hours.’”
When you ask Wilkinson about aspirational goals, they mostly involve one coast or the other: Los Angeles for TV and film writing, or New York for comedy and late night. But she admits that eventually, the idea of settling down and raising a family in a small town might be appealing.
“I don’t know what I’d be like if I hadn’t grown up in a very safe place and not had the room to run around,” she says. “People say, ‘Oh, you can live by a park, but I think you need to feel ownership over your whole domain. Run wild a little bit, and feel like you can run away, because then you don’t actually have to run away.”