The Art of Being Arianna Huffington

Interview with socialite turned candidate turned online empress Arianna Huffington.

By Melinda Henneberger
Arianna Huffington (Photo: Francois Dischinger)

My first impression of Arianna Huffington, whom I met when she was in the middle of a divorce from her conservative, bisexual husband, Michael Huffington, was that she was willing to tell it all, even if I hadn’t asked. Over let’s-get-acquainted tea, she told me how Michael had revealed, not long before their wedding, that he’d been to bed with men. She’d thought it a brave admission, she said, and let it go, because their sex life was always so good. Yet what then seemed like candor now strikes me as more strategic than undefended, a shortcut to familiarity. Over the next several years, I got to know Arianna socially and worked for her briefly on what became her wildly successful huffingtonpost.com. No one I know has gone through more iterations, and done it more publicly. But what fascinates Arianna watchers is a sense that they can never be certain who Arianna really is.A Greek newspaper publisher’s daughter, Arianna Stassinopoulos pulled off her first transformation by getting into Cambridge University, where she became one of the first foreigners to head the Cambridge Union debating society. Since then she has moved from conservative to liberal, from zaftig to thin, and from wealthy socialite wife to divorced political candidate. And somewhere along the line, she briefly became a punch line. I’ve never cringed more for someone I knew personally than when Huffington, running for governor of California in 2003, knocked over a whole bank of press microphones while scrambling to horn in on a photo op with her opponent, Arnold Schwarzenegger. By 2007, at Nancy Pelosi’s election as speaker of the House, it was Huffington who was mobbed by senators and other prominent politicos panting for a nod from the new media queen. During the long presidential election season, the site, which she built with business partner Kenneth Lerer, formerly a top executive at AOL Time Warner, became the premier online home for progressives, turning her name into a brand that is now instantly recognizable, even though not yet profitable. (Investors are enthusiastic though; they recently anted up $25 million in new capital.)Given these many mutations, here’s what surprised me most when we sat down to talk late last year: At 58, Huffington says she’s assumed her more or less final form.Q. Why do you think you’ve moved on so much, been through so many reinventions? If you stopped now, would you feel trapped? A. I don’t think that way. I’m not thinking, what am I going to change next? I am what I will be. I don’t feel I have another act. An act only has so many scenes.Q. What’s the whole play about? A. Ack, you make me sound like a Miss America contestant. Bringing world peace? What I want to keep doing is stop us from seeing politics through this tired right-left prism. Q. You’ve been slammed for remaking yourself so often — accused of changing your political stripes for opportunistic reasons. A. Oh, that kind of criticism hasn’t hurt me for a very long time. My political transformation was so out in the open…it wasn’t like there was a moment I woke up and said, "I don’t like what the Republicans are doing." It was about an issue: the role of government. The Republicans have been allowed to be schizophrenic about it — coming to the rescue of the private sector while refusing to acknowledge how important government is.Q. I’ve also seen you blow off criticism, such as "she married for money’‘ that’s more personal. A. Well, I never believed in having a thick skin. I wanted to be permeable, because if you grow a thick skin, you pay a price. I wanted to be more like a child, because children let things in. They get very upset, but then they let it go just as quickly and they’re not upset five minutes later.Q. What does have the power to sting? A. The things that are much more intimate and personal and true. If you’re accused of something that isn’t true, why would that hurt your feelings — unless you are psychotic! Look at Obama. I think this is his great strength. When he’s attacked, he smiles, and he’s not just pretending; you can tell the jab is not getting to him. It’s a mastery; it’s like he’s been through thousands of years of therapy.Q. How did you do it? A. I’ve done a lot of work on myself!Q.

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