In any case, her new milieu is a notably forgiving one: If Huffington began her adult life as a 23-year-old surrounded by men in their fifties, she is now a 56-year-old surrounded by twentysomethings, none of whom cares much about the minutiae of her life history. “The Internet is a young person’s business,” she says. “And they are denizens of the new world; they were born in that world.” (She certainly seems to have a seductive sway over this coterie: Max Blumenthal, a Huffpo blogger I met at the IFC event, responded to my question about what he thought of Huffington by saying, “Let me put it this way: If she were twenty years younger, dot dot dot!” He repeats the phrase to make sure I get it right.)
And the Huffpo is expanding. A few months ago, a “Contagious Festival” section was launched on the site, a monthly competition for satirical songs and video presentations. The new “Becoming Fearless” section is an offshoot of Huffington’s book, featuring upbeat tales of readers’ overcoming life challenges. The company is about to expand into a new wing of the building in New York, and its ambitious goal is to launch the new satirical site in time for the election. Her aim, Huffington explains to me, is to ignite “a 24-hour satire cycle” of “irreverence with a purpose”—much like The Daily Show, but faster, bigger, and stranger, with video blogs and viral jokes.
“You’re the village explainer, but you also shape the debate,” she says. “The key is to put it out quickly. We’re going to have rooms—as they call them in the comedy world—in L.A. and Washington as well as New York.” As with the Huffpo bloggers, this comedic think tank will consist of impassioned people willing to contribute for free: “Comedy writers in L.A. who have jobs at sitcoms in order to pay the mortgage—this is their outlet.”
As we race uptown for another interview, I show Huffington one of the nastier articles written about her: Jesse Kornbluth’s takedown of her in this magazine, published in 1983. Titled “The Rise and Rise of Arianna Stassinopoulos,” it portrays her as a social climber floating on a sea of favors from wealthy friends. The piece is illustrated by a portrait of Arianna as a gilded courtesan, with her hair piled on her head and a gold dress wearing her. The caption for a busty shot on a boat sneers that she is “breasting the current.”
She remembers the piece. But it turns out that she and the author are now friends. And like everyone else, he’s blogging for her. “I don’t believe in holding grudges. Not for the sake of the other person or because I’m such a wonderful human being, but because I think it’s one of the ways we drain our energy,” she says. “I just feel it’s like, the more I can live in the moment and not carry with me my past, the more happy and effective I’ll be. I honestly can say now that there’s nobody I would …” She trails off. “I’m sure it stung. I know it stung at the time.”
If Huffington is not precisely immune to such jabs, she has had years to become inured to them. Born in Athens, the daughter of a freethinking mother and a feckless newspaperman (the pair were divorced when Arianna was 11), Arianna Stassinopoulos set her sights on Cambridge for what seems like the most random reason: She spotted a picture of the university in a magazine when she was 16. Her mother supported that dream, and the family pulled up stakes and moved. In London, the teenage intellectual made an awkward impression: She was a five-foot-ten oddball with a thick accent, a puff of red hair, and a hyperemotive style. But she persevered, becoming the third female head of the Cambridge Union debate society and a Tory talking head, dating a string of prominent conservative fellows. When she was 23, her best-selling book The Female Woman—a response to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch—made her the first of the great anti-feminist media stars, the Caitlin Flanagan of the seventies.
By her account, innocence played as large a role in her rise as ambition. “I wrote my first book by accident,” she says. After she participated in a televised debate on feminism, Greer’s editor came calling, dangling a nice advance for a 23-year-old who’d never published an article. From living in one bedroom with her mother and sister, she was “suddenly financially independent.” She canceled her postgraduate plan to attend the Kennedy School at Harvard.
Huffington insists that her first blockbuster has been misrepresented: “It’s a profoundly feminist book,” she says. “It’s about equal respect for the women who chose to be mothers. A really instinctive book on my part, it came out of my reactions to life.”