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 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. What have you learned about yourself lately? A. This is incredibly boring but important: I need to get seven hours of sleep. I spent so many years thinking the most important thing was to be productive, and now I think it’s to be joyful. So I leave parties and events earlier now. Our whole culture needs to learn to unplug and recharge, and women have a role to play in that. Men — Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney — have shown us one model for success and for winding up with heart disease. The best concept I took from my economics courses was opportunity cost. Stop doing what you don’t want to do! Saying no gives you more opportunity to say yes.Q. But you’re no less hard-charging than you ever were. A. There are better ways to be hard-charging. Sleep is a metaphor for all the other ways we should take care of ourselves. And I want to age naturally; I believe in maintenance, but not surgery.Q. Never? A. I don’t see myself having surgery, no. There’s so much you can do without it. Q. So when you leave those parties early…are you seeing anyone right now? A. I’m not, no.Q. Do you see yourself getting married again some day? A. No. I don’t rule out being in love, but I have no desire to be married again.Q. You have all these old boyfriends, and you still hang out with them. A. You got married too young, or you would too.Q. I remember that, soon after your divorce, you said that — like a lot of mothers — you got important intimacy from hugging your two daughters. Now that Christina’s off to college, what’s the half-empty nest like? A. The first month she was there, I found reasons to visit her twice!Q. You don’t want us to name the college — is that for security reasons? A. There are crazy people, people who don’t like me. But more than that, this is Christina’s chapter, her time, her life. I told her I was going to be [near her school] and said, "If you have time, I’ll meet you at Starbucks….’‘ I was so excited, I felt like I was meeting a lover. Q. You’ve said that, growing up in Greece, your own mother helped you to find yourself. A. I was incredibly blessed to have the mother I had. It’s a treasure I keep drawing from. We were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Athens, with absolutely no money, when I saw a picture of Cambridge and said, "I want to go there!" Everyone said I was crazy except my mother. She said, "We can get cheap tickets — let’s go to Cambridge.’‘ People sometimes ask me who I met while we were there, who I talked to. But we didn’t talk to anybody; it was pouring rain the whole time and all we did was walk in the rain. But it’s what we would now call visualization; it felt real after I had seen it. That was the big step that changed my life.Q. Did you imagine then any of these lives you’ve led? A. Of course, what I do now didn’t even exist when I was growing up, so I didn’t say, "I want to be a blogger." But my life growing up was about books more than about friends. I knew I would do something with words. Moving people with words is Greek. It’s very much a part of life there. And even then I would get obsessed watching election results in countries I knew nothing about.Q. And now you have everyone throwing rose petals at your feet. Is that fun, or a big pain? A. I feel grateful for it, grateful that people would respond that way because something on the site just resonated. They just want to express it, and you just let them know you’re grateful and move on.Q. You’ve got new competition from your old friend Tina Brown, [an online magazine run by the former New Yorker editor]. In one story about the launch, writer Kurt Andersen was quoted as saying sure, there was room for both Godzilla and King Kong. True? A. Oh, absolutely. That space — for great content — is still so underpopulated compared with what it will be five years from now.Q. And you’re setting up HuffPost sites to do local coverage, starting with Chicago. Then what? A. Chicago is the guinea pig. The goal is to set up from 12 to 24 local sites by the end of 2009. I want to spend the rest of my life reinventing the Huffington Post. We try something, it doesn’t work, we try something else. There’s no limit. But you never know what’s going to come along, and I’m a work in progress.Melinda Henneberger is a contributor to Slate and author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear.Originally published in MORE magazine, February 2009.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:26

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