Arianna Huffington is media royalty in the US. As she launches her influential website The Huffington Post in the UK, Stylist meets the woman who revolutionised news.
The first time Arianna Huffington stands Stylist up, it’s for a dinner party with the Greek prime minister.
On the second occasion, she’s at the opening of the Special Olympic Games in Athens and security concerns prompt a last-minute schedule reshuffle. I finally catch up with her while she’s in transit at Heathrow, en route to LA, whereby she swiftly charms me, thanking me for my patience in her distinctive Greek accent [she was born in Athens before moving to the UK aged 16]. “Well, I suppose you’re worth it,” I joke. She laughs the deep laugh of someone who knows that yes, she is. After all, Huffington is the power behind The Huffington Post, the website which was launched in 2005 as an alternative online news outlet.
Publishing new content on a daily basis covering everything from business to fashion and with articles from 9,000 bloggers including Barack Obama and Madonna, it had 35.6 million visitors in May. (“We are about to hit 100 million comments,” she cheerfully reminds me.) Its challenging yet engaging delivery of world news struck a particular chord with women (it already has many British readers) who appreciated a news site which didn’t dumb down its content or focus on celebrity and lifestyle.
For Huffington, success came early; the Cambridge graduate became a bestselling author at 23 with her book The Female Woman and went on to write a further 12 books on subjects as varied as gender politics, corporate greed, her daughter’s anorexia and Picasso. However, it was in the mid-Nineties that she entered the public eye – in a different role – as the articulate Republican wife during her politician husband Michael Huffington’s unsuccessful Senate bid in the mid-Nineties. (A campaign which remains – at $28 million – the most expensive non-presidential election bid in American history.)
More recently, she sold The Huffington Post to AOL for $315million, securing herself a powerful position within AOL in the process. As a result, she regularly features in the Time 100 list of the world’s most powerful and influential people and rang in at number 28 on last year’s Forbes list of the 100 most powerful women in the world. And she’s now set to bring The Huffington Post to the UK on 6 July.
Why has The Huffington Post struck such a chord with female readers?
We actually have an even balance of male and female readers. But at HuffPost we aim to make our coverage addictive. We infuse everything we do with an element of anticipation, surprise, and playfulness – especially in our headlines and splashes. We’re not afraid to have fun while doing it, because we want to provoke and initiate debate. For instance, when the Pope got a Facebook page, our headline was “Poke The Pope”; when the Dominique Strauss-Kahn story broke, our splash top was “OMG IMF”.
You are one of the best connected people in the world. How are you so good at networking?
I’m sincerely interested in what other people have to say. I’m always asking people to blog. Writing blogs, tweeting, updating your Facebook page, editing photos, uploading videos, and making music are all forms of self-expression. So all I’m doing is offering another outlet for self-expression.
“We want to initiate debate. When the Pope got a Facebook page, our headline was ‘Poke The Pope’”
At 21, you became the first foreign student to head the Cambridge Union debate team. Have you always enjoyed voicing your opinions?
You know, when I first arrived at Cambridge, my accent was a challenge to my involvement in the Cambridge Union. I was a classic fish out of water. But, in the end, my passion for debating overcame my fear of being an outsider with a strange accent. And, as [former US Secretary of State] Henry Kissinger once told me, “In US public life, you can never underestimate the advantages of incomprehensibility.” Students would often gather in my room for late-night discussions, despite the rule that men had to be out by 10pm. One evening there were about a dozen men and women in my room talking and eating stuffed vine leaves which my mother had sent me. The halls monitor caught us and took me into the senior tutor’s office for having “excess men” in my room, and I was fined a shilling per man. It was a bit of a bargain really, because they were pretty decent guys.
Over dinner, do you discuss “big issues” with your daughters and friends [Arianna has two daughters and still lives with her younger sister], or do you like to take a break and focus on something lighter?
I love debating the big issues, and I’m lucky enough that my daughters live and breathe their opinions too! But I also find it helps to break whatever pattern you’re in. I like to do this by hiking with my friends, or doing yoga or meditating. And I love country music. Also, for inspiration, I go to sleep.
You’re an interesting combination of a high-powered, hard-headed businesswoman and champion of meditation, yoga and the meaning of dreams. Can you explain?
I was lucky enough to have a mother who combined an insatiable curiosity in the world with a belief in balance and knowing yourself. She hated BlackBerrys and iPhones, and was a wonderful counterpoint to my hurried existence. The last time she got angry with me [before she died] was when I was chatting to my daughters while checking my emails at the same time. She announced, “Arianna, I abhor multi-tasking.” We’ve actually recently published an article on The Huffington Post titled, “In Praise of Uni-Tasking.”
Surely you’re one of the most adept multi-taskers in the world…
[Laughs] Well, I say these things because I need to hear them. You preach the things you most need to hear, not necessarily the things you do. I admit it. But I look at my schedule every day and work out what time I need to get up, work out a 10-minute meditation session and do my best to get eight hours’ sleep. It doesn’t always happen, of course. But I’m aspiring to being a well-rested, well-balanced woman, which is a start. I learned that I needed time out the hard way. Three years ago I fainted from exhaustion. I smacked my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone and needed five stitches in my eye. That was a wake-up call; I needed to make recharging and unplugging a priority.
You’ve been criticised for changing political allegiances, moving from Republican to Liberal and finally standing as an independent candidate for Governor of California in 2003.
For years I’ve been saying that the big issues of our time are beyond left and right. I have no idea what is left-wing about caring for the middle class. The middle class – or HuffPost’s story about the lost generation and kids who can’t get jobs – these are not left-wing issues. These are issues that are central to the stability and prosperity of every country. I wouldn’t say my goals have changed, only my thinking about how to meet those goals. Even during my Republican interregnum, I was always pro-gay rights, pro-choice and pro-gun control. I have the same values I’ve always had, but I’m always open to better ways to achieve them.
Some of the criticism levelled against you – particularly when you were a Republican wife – seems to be sexism pure and simple. Has being a glamorous woman been an advantage or a disadvantage?
I’ve always resisted that thought. There’s no more stultifying role than that of a victim. Sure, I believe there are certain qualities that are admired in men but not so much in women. Drive and assertiveness are used more pejoratively when applied to women. But I’ve always told my daughters that it’s up to us not to let anything in culture get in the way of what is important to us. We have to work to eliminate barriers. But while they still exist, don’t let them get to you. I have never felt like a victim.
Main picture credit: Rex Features