For a while there, it looked like all-purpose democratic go-to politician Al Gore might soon be in need of having his eyeballs reattached, so far out of his head had they popped. This was during a recent fund-raiser held in Beverly Hills, at the lovely home of Warner Bros, president Alan Horn. In attendance were Democratic National Committee leader Howard Dean, legendary sitcom genius Norman Lear and any number of major-motion-picture-type liberals. They wandered around, drinks in hand, lamenting the current state of the union, and then, like Gore, they saw this tall, bosomy redhead and went all kinds of goofy. Some of them dived toward her nearly headfirst. They wanted a hug. They wanted a kiss. They wanted to exchange whispery bons mots. They wanted whatever it was she was offering. As Gore said to her, leaning in close, then backing out for a full gander, "Baby, you're amazing."
And yet why — why is Arianna Huffington amazing? What makes her so special? For one thing, in the past year, her first online venture, the Huffington Post political Web site, has become an unexpectedly influential hit, drawing 3 million unique readers a month to read its big, bubbling stew of celebrity bloggers, among them Norman Mailer, David Mamet, Larry David and Deepak Chopra. Also, at the age of fifty-six, she's totally hot and, being Greek-born and Cambridge-educated, she speaks with a voice that reflects both, purringly. She has authored eleven books, some of them best sellers, from the controversial (a biography of Picasso as ultimate misogynist) to the fairly mundane (On Becoming Fearless...in Love, Work, and Life, her latest, which she is still flogging, about how more women can be "bold, bullet proof and positively bullish," just like her).
In addition, she's fantastically rich, due in large part to her failed marriage to reclusive oil heir Michael Huffington (who announced he was bisexual shortly after the union ended). Lastly, she was once a lip-flapping, hard-ball-playing, Newt Gingrich-loving Republican, but a while back, thanks to the efforts of her left-leaning buddy Al Franken, she jumped ship and became a Democrat. And that's not even the half of it, which if you think about it really is kind of amazing.
Along the way, of course, people have said some pretty great things about her. Her friends, at least one of whom is named Sugar, say she is "totally openhearted" and "very thoughtful," not to mention "silken," "spellbinding" and in possession of "such a powerful brain [that] she exudes an intellectuality that is almost sexual." Bill Maher — who has been a Huffington fan ever since she first appeared on his Politically Incorrect show in 1993 — says he has often witnessed the Huffington magic at work. "We used to joke that if we booked Arianna on the show with a guest that we hoped she would argue with, if they spent five minutes together in the greenroom, she'd have converted them [to her way of thinking]. People don't know how seductive she is."
But she's also been called "a consistent self-promoter," "evil," "the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus," a "Zsa Zsa Gabor manqué," "ruthless," "unscrupulous," a "scheming puppetmaster," "an intellectual lap dancer," "a plagiarist," "a hypocrite," "only interested in power and money," "an opportunist," "dishonest," "manipulative" and "superficial," all of it wonderful stuff, when taking the position that if even just some of it is true then it only serves to make her a more comprehensive, well-rounded and zanily fun human being than most.
Nonetheless, pro-and-con opinions about Huffington are so easy to come by that they tend to cancel each other out and render themselves meaningless, leaving you hopelessly befuddled about the true nature of the woman and how it is she can so addle men like Gore. Perhaps it's time to look elsewhere for a little insight, including back to Huffington herself, who in recent portraits somehow seems to have been overlooked as an explicator of her own self, as if she wasn't capable, or honest enough, or couldn't see what was right in front of her own nose.
What shall she wear today? She shall wear shapely buttock-accentuating trousers, a sleeveless cowl-neck sweater (the better to show off her shoulders, the bones and hollows there that she swears are her best physical asset) and leg lengthening high heels. Also, she shall style her hair so that it achieves that saucy flip and height for which it is famous and that has almost come to seem like a moral obligation: She is never seen without it. She will, at times, apply beige lipstick to her lips, but she shall perfume herself liberally with Cartier's Le Baiser Du Dragon, for she believes that its scent (base notes of benzoin, heart notes of musk) defines her now — the kiss of the dragon. She shall not paint her nails, because she has not painted her nails in twenty years. She shall take care that her bra straps don't show, unless she wants them to show, in which case she will show them. She shall assiduously strive to deflect all future talk of the spiritual side of her life — mainly her longtime alliance with John-Roger, a New Age guru and/or savior of humanity — on the grounds that it is too easily lampooned. For the same reason, she shall, when occasion warrants, preemptively announce that she keeps to herself her favorite sexual position. She shall soon get a venti latte from Starbucks and through its lid stick a green straw, always the green one, the smaller of the two offered by Starbucks, and wrap her beige lips around it. But first, she will swing down the stairs of her cozy $7 million mansion in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles and into her cluttered. book-strewn home office, which is candlelit and full of busy HuffPost employees. And once there she will just miss the female features editor of the HuffPost saying, "Does she deal with men differently than women? Is she flirtier? I don't think so. I've gotten phone messages from her where she's like. 'Hiiii, baby, it's Ariannaaaa," in that voice of hers, and I'm like, 'Whoooo!' She's just a sensual person."
"We're leaving momentarily," Huffington herself says. "The car has arrived, and I will blow out the candles now. Do you like candles? I'm going to take extra batteries for the Black Berry. And now we're walking off into the sunset together. I am going to go get a coat and a bag. Five minutes. Can I have five minutes? Would you like some pomegranate juice? We will take my iPod with me. It has great music. We will have time for a Starbucks. I am a coffee addict. We can have endless coffees." Five minutes later, reclining in the back seat of a limo taking her to Palm Springs for a book signing, she cues up a couple of songs from her iPod, the Rivers of Babylon first, followed by Young. Gifted and Black. "Unexpected, right?" she says. And then she says, "Let's talk. Tell me about you.
What everyone wants to know is how she came to be this way. It happened while growing up in Greece, née Stassinopoulos, under the influence of a mother, Elli, who could convert total strangers into complete friends like turning on a light. Conversely, her late father. Konstantinos, a journalist, loving though he was, had learned certain inhospitable lessons in the Second World War while incarcerated in a Nazi prison camp for publishing an underground newspaper. He believed that the universe was indifferent, that life was without meaning and that his wartime suffering entitled him to endless affairs. Elli did not believe any of this and left him when their daughter was eleven. Taking after her mother, who died in 2000. Huffington is equally of the belief that everything in life has meaning. Her favorite verse from the Bible is "Not a sparrow falls but that God is behind it."
And so, on any given day. in the company of any given individual, she bubbles over with questions, looking for the intersections and overlaps, the living sparrows still crossing paths, that might prove her convictions right. "Do you like to dance?" "Can we talk about perfumes?" "Do you think the breast stroke is more feminine than the crawl?" "What do you think Leonard Cohen?" "What do you think of my lipstick?" She says this is all part of her innate "capacity for intimacy," something she inherited from her mom. But this capacity seems to have other sources as well, including the teachings of what a few University of California/Santa Cruz students in the early 1970s called Mind Fucking 101.
Actually, most people know it as Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP. It was developed at the height of the human-potential movement by John Grinder, a UCSC linguistics professor, and Richard Bandler, a psychology student, who theorized that any subjective human experience could be re-programmed in the brain almost instantly, using light hypnotic trance states in conjunction with a particularly cunning way of talking. It was freaky stuff, and aficionados soon realized that the techniques could be employed in darker, more manipulative ways, to maybe persuade anyone of just about anything. These days, it's used by pickup artists to pick up girls, by the self-help guru Tony Robbins (a Huffington pal) and by car salesmen everywhere, who almost always employ it clumsily, hence that creepy snake-in-the-grass feeling you get in their presence. Huffington, though, has it down. Liltingly, musically, always with those exotic, ancient overtones of faraway Greece, the way she talks lulls you into a kind of full-blown dream state while you listen to her say things like "I have a handful of best friends, girls and boys, men and women. Some you would know, like Larry David's wife, Laurie, and Bill Maher, and some you would not know. I call them my tribe. And when you are in the tribe, you are not judged. You are just loved."
The operative sentences here are the last two. As delivered by Huffington, they impart a message that is nearly impossible to resist. You are not judged. You are just loved. This is what everyone wants, and wants to hear, and if it's all part of some grand, mysterious calculation, it does seem to be on the side of the angels, harmless enough. And thus has many a man. and not a few women, succumbed to her charms.
"Did I study NLP? I did," Huffington says. "I took Tony Robbins' Walking on Coals workshop, which was based on NLP principles, read lots of books about NLP, took the concepts that I found valuable and kind of integrated them. There's good stuff in it. Would you like some almonds?"
The driver has gotten her lost somewhere near Palm Springs with time running short, but Huffington does not get upset. She views this as an opportunity to remain cool despite the heat, much like some of the other opportunities that have come her way. There was the time in 2003, during an ill-fated campaign for governor of California, that she knocked over a forest of press microphones while trying to horn in on a photo-op with fellow candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger and wife. The time during the same campaign that she spouted off about tax-avoiding "corporate fat cats." shortly before The Los Angeles Times revealed that she'd paid only $771 in taxes the two previous years. The time that she formed a group to oppose gas-guzzling SUVs. only to have it come out that she once drove an SUV. The time that Time magazine wrote about her "past involvement" with John-Roger, "a former schoolteacher who assumed the name John-Roger in the early '70s after the 'Mystical Traveler Consciousness' entered him after a kidney-stone operation. The Cult Awareness Network classifies John-Roger's Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness as "destructive," its most damning category. The many, many times, ever since she switched political parties, she has been called a feckless hustler. And so on, ad infinitum, such that one might be tempted to conclude that, in addition to a gift for intimacy, she also has a gift for self-sabotage. And yet she remains calm, like these were the most welcome of sparrows.
"Why waste an ounce of your energy?" she says. "This is the only life you have. It's like what [LA. Weekly columnist] Nikke Finke did the day the Huffington Post went online." What Finke did was write a bizarrely scathing review of the Web site titled "Why Arianna's Blog Blows." "It would be a problem if I allowed it to affect me in any way. If you let craziness of that kind affect you, there's something wrong with you. That's what I'm saying in my new book about fearlessness, and that's what I'm telling my own daughters. Those things don't matter. I have zero interest in analyzing them. And I don't think it's my job to have to explain them."
Or, as John-Roger once said, "You can't afford the luxury of a negative thought."
Even so, of course, she still gets them. She checks her BlackBerry compulsively, for instance, even while out shopping with her daughters Christina. 17, and Isabella, 15, and often negatively asks of herself, "How sick is that?" On the other hand, today, she pays no attention to her BlackBerry when Isabella calls asking for help on a school paper about the Rosetta stone. "For a topic sentence, why don't you start with the significance of deciphering it?" she suggests. "What about if you start by saying, 'We cannot overestimate the significance of deciphering the Rosetta stone? Hieroglyphics were a complete mystery until then."'
Afterward, she says. "Ever since I can remember, I've been interested in Socrates' idea that the unexamined life is not worth living." That noted, however, like the Rosetta stone for a good, long 2,202 years, much of Huffington at fifty-six years is still a mystery waiting to be deciphered, largely because as a matter of policy she has always refused to talk in any detail about her intimate life. This has led even her friends to say things like "What's beneath the public persona? More public persona." And yet the revelations that outsiders seem to yearn for most — about her eleven-year-long, must-have-been-really-weird marriage to then-closeted Michael Huffington and her even longer association with John-Roger — are likely to only provide more self-negating details for the endless pro-and-con debates about Huffington currently ongoing. One would think that there has to be more, and better, than that.
Oh, great luck: a few bits of fresh Huffingtonalia have recently been unearthed — so recently, though, that only with further study can they be contextualized. Nonetheless, the raw data seems worth sharing.
Her favorite cuss word is "fuck" ("What else is there?"), although in fact very few people have ever heard her use it.
She is very much into "detoxification" and has had all her old dental fillings replaced, fearing possible mercury poisoning. As to any possible interest in colonics. she is mum.
She is "totally a lingerie person," though the lingerie she wears is the same lingerie she wore during her "Strange Bedfellows" bits on Politically Incorrect. She is, it further develops, a great fan of sleep. "My greatest hobby is sleep," she can sometimes be heard to exclaim. "I am such an incredible believer in sleep. Actually, one problem with our culture is that we are entirely sleep-deprived. Especially you guys, though I'm sure you are wiser than that."
Her position on female orgasms is that she wrote about them on her Web site only in response to a New York Times review of a book on the same subject; as to her own most memorable orgasm, she would happily talk about it if not for the feelings of her daughters. Suggest to her that female orgasms exist only to make the men who cause them feel good about themselves for having done so, however, and she is likely to shift topics, slightly, and say, with a knowing frown, "Not all men are like that. Only some men. Smart men."
She once smoked cigarettes and would again if suddenly they were deemed risk-free. Pot? "No, never."
While late British journalist Bernard Levin wasn't her first lover, he was her first love. He was forty-two and she was twenty-one, a student at Cambridge and the third female president of its debating society, the Cambridge Union. The couple didn't kiss until their second date, after Levin took her to Covent Garden, where she discovered that "the master singer at Covent Garden is a great aphrodisiac." Just an FYI for any future Huffington daters out there.
A few days after the book signing — it went very well, by the way: They love her in Palm Springs Huffington is at CBS studios in L.A., to appear on tribe member Maher's HBO show Real Time. She's dressed in black, very sleek. Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman is there, too, with her curly blond suburban hair and cheap-looking too-blue jacket. Hotsie-tot-sie-wise, she can't hold a candle to Huffing-ton, but who can? Then Huffington is on the air, Maher gladly allowing her a few moments to puff herbook. From there, it's on to politics, with another discussion of fear.
"You know what?" Huffington starts off. "A great leader is there to inspire fearlessness to the public. I mean, look at FDR. That phrase of his that has become a cliche. — The only thing we have to fear is fear it self- is actually incredibly profound. I mean, we dealt with the Great Depression. We dealt with the Second World War. But he spread fearlessness. The opposite of what this administration and this president have done. Fear-mongering all the way."
"But they would not have succeeded," she goes on. "had it not been for the fear gripping the other side, the spineless Democratic leaders who are willing to go along with the fear-mongering."
Maher interrupts. "Don't you think what Republicans really fear, and I hate to generalize, is sex? I mean, you knew about closeted gay Republicans before it was cool."
Laughter from the audience. Laughter from Huffington.
"I don't think Republicans fear sex." she continues, absolutely unfazed. "I think they fear losing power. They're going to use sex and race and everything in order to cling to power. That's their worst fear."
Afterward, she jumps in a limo headed for LAX and the Delta red-eye to Tampa for a book signing in St. Petersburg. She gets out her ticket and her driver's license and stuffs them into her bra. "So I don't have to look for them later," she explains. Then she's silent for a while.
Right now. she's between boyfriends. Amid her Web site and her book tour and her kids, she hardly has time for them. And even when she does, ever since her marriage ended, they've tended to last only six or seven months. It's all great in the beginning. "I am a very good listener, and when I'm in love, I have an infinite capacity to be engaged with everything about the man, however insignificant," she says. Plus, she definitely enjoys sleeping with another person "in the spoon position, yes. I'm incredibly tactile." But then comes the day, usually just when things seem to be going swimmingly well, often right in the middle of the discovery part of the fling, the thrill zone, when she suddenly realizes that she's sleep-deprived and walking around like a zombie. And she doesn't like walking around like a zombie. "So. I've gotten to be a good breaker-upper," she says, nearing the airport. "I mean, I believe there's no point in delaying the inevitable. I'm very nice and want to be friends, and what I think is, it's easier to be friends if you kind of end the relationship on a high note, when things are still good, as opposed to when things are on the way down."
Well, at least she's up front about it. Those men in her life, like so many things, are just a few more sparrows flying by.