I t’s the night of the premiere for God Spoke, the movie about Al Franken’s crusade against the right, and the converted are out in force. The Independent Film Center is filled with documentary filmmakers, lefty progressives, political bloggers, journalists, and comics—an aggressively dowdy crowd lugging messenger bags. Then Arianna Huffington arrives. In heels, she towers over the tiny people around her, and she is wearing all the colors of beige that have special names: taupe, sand, cream. Her deep-brown slacks are beautifully cut, as are her thick belt and her enormous leather handbag. She looks slightly ridiculous and totally lovely.
And of course, she knows everyone. She and Al Franken embrace. The Huffington Post’s media blogger Rachel Sklar hands her Dave Zinczenko’s new advice book for women, for which she will participate in a reading days later. An adviser for Ned Lamont rushes over to thank her for her advice about wooing a reporter. “I did what you said, I took her to lunch,” he tells Huffington enthusiastically. “She explained all about this editor, the one who was behind the takedown of Dean, the takedown of Kerry … ”
Quite a few members of the audience are bloggers for the Huffington Post: Huffington greets Eric Alterman, Max Blumenthal, and Ben Wikler. A genial, shaggy 25-year-old former editor of The Onion, Wikler is collaborating with Huffington on a new political-satire site, funded by Barry Diller. Like Huffington, he’s working the room, inviting young comedians to participate in an upcoming brainstorming session. We chat about his boss’s intense charisma.
“It’s her superpower,” Wikler says. “If she were in the X-Men, that would be her mutant power. If Rogue touched her, she’d take away her charm.”
It might seem odd that a 25-year-old who makes X-Men references would even know a 56-year-old woman famous for her connections to the rich and powerful, but he explains that Franken introduced them. “Of course he met Arianna through me!” Franken interrupts in a mock-disgruntled voice. “Everybody here met her through me! Everybody in the left and comic worlds. I’m sick of it—I made her, dammit!”
But that’s how it is and how it has always been with Huffington: Everywhere she goes turns into a series of links, links that lead to other links. She’s a human blog. Tonight she’s in town to publicize her eleventh book, On Becoming Fearless, and these skills—networking, connecting, befriending—are out in full force. The flamboyant talking head has been accused all her life of what might be called crimes of charm: intellectual dilettantism and opportunistic shape-shifting, most notoriously for her late-nineties slide from the Gingrich right to the Franken left. She has attracted ridicule for seeming just a little larger than life—too friendly, too flashy, too weird for any given room. But at 56, she seems to have found a culture almost supernaturally suited to her strengths: her endless blogroll of friends, her fascination with “contagious” ideas and the uses of popularity. The very things she has been mocked for over the years—her ability to shift swiftly from topic to topic, her swashbuckling political rhetoric, her penchant for attention-getting—are what the online world is all about. She’s found her home in the blogosphere.
Walking into the offices of the Huffington Post, I have a dizzying flashback to 1995: It’s an airy dot-com loft that—unlike, say, Air America, whose corporate cubicles we’d visited that morning—feels exceptionally well funded. Bright Pop Art splotches adorn the walls. Twenty-five-year-olds huddle on sofas eating takeout. There’s an MTV-logo-shaped fish tank in the lobby and a massive portrait of Muhammad Ali and, of course, a pool table.
Huffington has spent the week on book promotion— a friendly interview with Rachel Maddow at Air America (she solicits her as a blogger), a showdown with Bill O’Reilly (they square off over the Kurds), a tête-à-tête with Franken (who invites her to his premiere). At each juncture, she has stayed adamantly on message, each seemingly spontaneous anecdote practiced and polished. Her book, she explains, concerns both personal fearlessness, the kind she hopes to inspire in her daughters, and political courage, the kind she hopes to inspire in the Democrats. Asked by reporters for one small, quotidian fear, she inevitably mentions eyelash curlers. One afternoon, she tells me about her struggles with post-divorce dating; three hours later, I hear her deliver the same story at Barnes & Noble. In between interviews, Huffington BlackBerrys in her Town Car, fielding phone calls with imperial calm, checking in with her sister, Agapi (who lives with her and is taking care of Huffington’s daughters in her absence; their mother lived with them as well, until her death in 2000), and occasionally stopping to pick up friends in an impromptu manner that is driving her book publicist bananas.
Now she’s having a snack, and she even manages to make eating lox look elegant, perhaps because instead of eating a bagel she’s delicately forking folds of salmon out of a white porcelain bowl. She had two inspirations for Fearless, she tells me. The first was watching her daughters turn from “fearless, bold” little girls into self-conscious adolescents. “One of your first instincts as a mother is to shield your children from pain, and make easy their path, and you know that you cannot really do it. How can I help them get that wisdom that was hard-earned for me?”
The second inspiration was her frustration at the Bush administration’s use of fear as a weapon and her own party’s corresponding cowardice. “As I was marveling at this spinelessness, timidity, and general lack of backbone in Democratic leaders”—and there’s a smile in her voice when she says this, she loves speaking about this—“I kept asking myself, Why are they so avoiding leading? And really, the conclusion to me was fear. Fear of losing, fear of saying something that would be taken and turned against them. Ultimately, though, there was fear of challenging not just the status quo but their own staffers and their pollsters and maybe not winning the next election. In private, a lot of them admitted they only voted for the war-authorization act—whatever they may say now, they knew what they were doing—because their pollsters told them if they didn’t do that, they would have to kiss the 2002 election good-bye. And ironically, they did kiss the election good-bye. I think of that and am newly, freshly angry, which you can hear.”
It’s true; although her delivery is practiced, the anger in Huffington’s voice starts to crackle when she gets to Iraq. Luckily, she has a daily outlet for these reactions: the Huffington Post, her progressive group blog featuring hundreds of her friends and acquaintances, ranging from Larry David to David Frum. When Huffington launched the “Huffpo” in May 2005, it was perceived as a vanity project. Wasn’t the blogosphere a place for the powerless to rant? Why would the powerful do it for free? A year and a half later, the Huffington Post is the fifth-most-popular site online.
But then, Huffington appears to be the rare person in her fifties who understands these technologies beyond their financial potential. “First thought, best thought” is what she tells her bloggers. She posted much of her book on her blog as a work-in-progress, soliciting user feedback. (She also keeps track of the book tour there, posting links to interviews and “extras” like a video of Jill Sobule singing a Fearless theme song.)
As the Huffington Post staffers tap their keys around us, Huffington delivers further fiery condemnations—of Hillary Clinton, among others. “In Dante’s Inferno, there’s a special place reserved for those who know best and are not doing it. I always get more upset with Democrats who are not doing the right thing than with Republicans doing what I expect them to. It’s like, if the good guys are not going to stand up for what is good, what hope is there?”
It is surreal, still, to hear her talk about Republicans, her former compatriots, as the enemy. Was she one of the fearmongers when she was on the right? She shrugs off the question, pointing out that she wasn’t running for office. “When we talk about the leaders, what they’re demonstrating is fanaticism. And the hallmark of fanaticism is to not be willing to look at fresh evidence. Because then you have to be willing to change course.”
As for Huffington’s own course change, it was, in her account, not nearly as radical as it looks: a simple matter of accepting that 1,000 points of light was a scam. She was always socially liberal, she claims, just against big government. Then she realized that small government wasn’t working. “There was only one primary interest for me, which is, how can we deal with the huge inequalities through the private sector? My awakening was really very personal. I actually believed, you may call me naïve, that we could create a country where people would tithe 10 percent of their income, where we could have the private sector step up to the plate and huge fortunes would be given to inner cities and homeless shelters. And I found out firsthand how difficult that was, a lot of the same friends that I had gone to to raise money for the opera were now turning me down.”
For many, this is a little hard to take. Certainly her credibility has been called into question on a regular basis: During her husband Michael Huffington’s Senate race, it was revealed that she had an illegal nanny. She rails against SUVs but takes a private jet. And during her run against California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, it came out that she had paid only $771 in taxes in the previous two years.
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.”
She herself was desperate to marry and have children. But her famous boyfriend—journalist Bernard Levin—wouldn’t tie the knot. So at 30, she came to New York and became an iconic figure of eighties Manhattan, a much-ridiculed exotic “It” girl and the author of controversial biographies of Picasso and Maria Callas (the first made waves for accusing the painter of misogyny, the second for a plagiarism scandal). Then it was off to California, where she married oil millionaire Michael Huffington, had two daughters, became part of the Gingrich revolution, and oversaw her husband’s disastrous race against Dianne Feinstein. When the couple divorced (and Michael Huffington came out as gay), Arianna was again a bit of a laughingstock: the flashy divorcée whose gay husband had tried to buy an election. So when she underwent her political transformation—catalyzed by new friends such as Franken, with whom she literally shared a bed on Comedy Central’s political-debate show Strange Bedfellows—it raised eyebrows. Her 2003 run against Schwarzenegger was treated as a sideshow. How could she be trusted?
But the truth is, there are as many consistencies to Huffington’s history as there are variations. Wherever she’s gone, she’s thrown her famous “salons.” In her twenties, in her thirties, her forties, and now in her fifties, she’s thrown out contrarian arguments—on feminism, on art, on politics. Bold and seductive, with that memorable Zsa Zsa purr, Huffington has continually argued for, and modeled, a (depending on one’s perspective) disarming or maddening archetype of female power that draws little distinction between personal relationships and professional ones.
The other factor that links all of Huffington’s various personae is her spirituality. She’s been a spiritual seeker since she was 17, when she studied comparative religions in India. And her penchant for cultish ideologies has allied her with figures like John-Roger, the leader of the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, an old friend who attends her salons in California. If there is a precursor to Fearless, it’s the far-more-intellectual Against Reason, the book she wrote after her smashing success with The Female Woman. It was rejected by 36 publishers—a dense spiritual manifesto that seemed like a baffling follow-up to her best seller. “I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of leadership, and what makes leaders, and the crisis in leadership. So I literally locked myself up and wrote a book which I thought—so naïve!—I just worked around the clock, because I thought this book is important, I really need to get the book out!”
If critics call Huffington a shape-shifter, this does not bother her. “I hope I’m not the same person. There’s a core that is the same, there is a kind of blueprint to our personality. But I’m consciously working on my flaws.”
She knows that her new crowd—people from The Onion and The Daily Show, as well as Franken, whose Stuart Smalley skits were an affectionate satire of precisely the type of self-help rhetoric she wields in Fearless—might not necessarily jibe with her spiritual side. But she greets that possibility with positive serenity. “I see these as eternal verities, not as New Age–y. If you read the sacred texts of every religion, they all preach the same things. If they resonate, it’s because they’re in our DNA.”
We’re gliding up the West Side Highway, late for an appearance on the radio show “Left, Right & Center,” where she is introduced as “coming from the fourth dimension of political time and space.”
At tea the next day at the Plaza Athénée, where Huffington is staying, we share scones. Upon entering the lounge, she as usual ran into someone she knew: Bob Hertzberg, a former Los Angeles mayoral candidate.
We talk about her daughters, Christina, 17, and Isabella, 15. She writes about them quite a bit in the book, describing Christina’s desire to get her parents back together and Isabella’s bout with anorexia. “It was hard for me to notice,” she tells me. “Because she started eating unbelievably healthy, the way I taught myself to eat, to keep my weight down as I grew older. But then at her 12th birthday she refused to have her birthday cake, and her doctor said if you don’t put on ten pounds in the new month, you’re going to be hospitalized. I was really upset at the doctor at first, because I never—my whole thing is not to make children afraid, not to threaten them, it’s not my parenting style. But it had a very deep effect on her. It put the good fear into her.”
Huffington tells me this book is her rawest, most confessional writing, inspired by the courage she’s seen on blogs. And it’s true that it is studded with descriptions of her most vulnerable moments: her miscarriage at five months, her monomaniacal wooing of Levin (she studied the works of Wagner before attending the opera with him), her anger at being condescended to during a debate with Schwarzenegger. And yet it often doesn’t feel very confessional. She has turned her life into a series of lessons.
If critics call her a shape-shifter, this does not bother her. “I hope I’m not the same person, because I really do believe in this American sense that there’s value in learning and growing,” she tells me. “There’s a core that is the same, there is a kind of blueprint to our personality. But it’s almost like a honing process: There is like a sandpaper that happens. And not just because we’re being sandpapered by life. A conscious sandpaper, where I’m consciously working on my flaws, on not being as reactive, not being as impatient.”
The night before, Huffington had appeared at a slightly peculiar stop on her book tour: a Junior League gathering at All Souls Church on the Upper East Side, blocks away from the apartment she stayed at during her wild New York years, on 66th Street near Lexington. It was hard to tell if this would be her crowd. She began with a Bush joke and then noted that this would be the last political thing she said all evening. Then she proceeded to knock them dead. She shucked her cinnamon-colored sweater to reveal a creamy sleeveless top, and as she spoke—espousing fearlessness in sex, fearlessness in parenting, fearlessness in leadership—she extended her long arms and elegant tapered fingers for emphasis. She talked about women and power and the need to get past the anxiety of being ridiculed. “The reason I’m here tonight is because a man wouldn’t marry me,” she said to a burst of laughter.
At the book signing that followed, a leggy blonde came up to tell her, “I love a woman who can keep talking even when all the male pundits talk over her. You inspire me to keep talking when I have something to say.”
And maybe that’s the secret to Huffington’s charisma, her ability to walk through the most flaming wall of rhetoric with her smile intact. For some, her latest turn as a self-help guru may seem suspect: Can anyone so unsubtle, so unafraid of cliché, be for real? But the women who approach Huffington for her signature (“Sign it ‘to a Red State Republican!’ ”) seem truly inspired by her myth of personal transformation. This may be her most radicalizing influence as an opinion-maker and role model: the undeniable appeal of someone who is perpetually unafraid of being the tallest girl in the room.