Newsmaker: Arianna Huffington

Ever since she first took flight, critics have expected a fall. But unlike the mythical Greek, Arianna has kept soaring. Now she’s invading our airspace and observers again expect a planewreck.

Arianna Huffington. Illustration by Kagan Mcleod
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During the course of her spectacular flight from the obscurity of her middle-class upbringing in Greece to the stratospheric heights of international fame and fortune, she has been ­described as “the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus” and been accused of shameless social climbing, self-promotion and – normally a fatal charge for a writer – even plagiarism.

But unlike the hubristic high-flyer of Greek mythology, Arianna Huffington has only thrived in the sun, going from strength to strength in a career that owes as much to the brilliance of her own intellect as to the impressive connections she has assiduously nurtured.

Sometimes portrayed as the opportunistic heroine of a rags-to-riches story, in truth life has never been tough for Huffington, who this week announced that her creation, online newspaper and blogging platform The Huffington Post, was expanding into the Arab world.

Born Ariadne-Anna Stasinopoúlou in Athens in 1950, her father, Konstantinos, was a successful management consultant, wealthy enough to send his daughter to study at Cambridge.

After that considerable leg-up, however, it was all her.

Studying economics at Girton College, in 1971 Huffington became president of the Cambridge Union Society, the oldest debating society in the world. She was only the third woman to occupy the prestigious post.

"I went to every debate," she told The New Yorker in 2008. "I was so spellbound by the spectacle of great speakers and people being moved or angered by their words."

It is traditional for students to begin their intellectual odyssey on the left, shifting to the right as they grow older and wealthier, but the future Mrs Huffington reversed that trend.

Her first book, The Female Woman, written in 1974 when she was just 24 years old as a rebuttal to Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, was attacked as anti-feminist, a charge she later rejected as "a distortion".

Undeterred, in 1978 she published The Other Revolution, a book described by The Economist as "a spiritual banner for the forces of the right to muster beneath".

While still at Cambridge, Huffington was invited as a panellist on Face the Music, a long-running BBC quiz show. "I was there as a curiosity," she would later recall, "a woman with a foreign accent, elected president of the Cambridge Union."

A fellow panellist was the man she would later describe as "the big love of my life … a mentor as a writer and a role model as a thinker". Bernard Levin, a formidable intellectual, was a famous columnist on The Times in London, a broadcaster and, aged 42 when they met, 21 years her senior.

Huffington had had "a major intellectual crush on him since I discovered his writings while at Girton", she wrote in The Sunday Times in 2004, on the occasion of Levin's death.

They remained together for a decade, during which she wrote the book that would make her name, and her first fortune. Huffington’s biography of the opera singer Maria Callas was published in 1980, after they separated, but was dedicated to Levin and his “unfailing support”.

The end of the affair in 1980 was the beginning of the next stage of her ascent. At 30, and by her own account “longing to have children”, Huffington made the “tough and painful” decision to leave Levin, who had no such ambition. She left London, moving to New York with her mother.

Arianna – somewhere along the line she had dropped ­Ariadne-Anna – was on her way.

The Callas biography earned her more than US$1 million (Dh3.67m) – and the first of a ­series of brickbats. In 1981, allegations emerged in The New York Times that she had "lifted" some sentences from a previous biography of the singer, co-written by a music critic, John Ardoin.

“What was not included in the report,” she wrote in a riposte published by the newspaper, “was that all three drafts of the manuscript were … vetted and approved by John Ardoin.’’

Another controversial book would follow. Picasso: Creator And Destroyer, was panned by critics, dismissed by one as "both voyeuristic, and blind … Most of the time the book is merely ridiculous but towards the end it reaches some abominable conclusions that deserve refutation".

The artist’s daughter, Paloma Picasso, later said Huffington had tried to consult her, but she had demurred, so “imagine my irritation when I read a headline: ‘Paloma Picasso gives green light on new biography’ … This girl goes a little fast … she is too pushy by half”.

The “pushy” Huffington quickly conquered New York society. In 1985, on a blind date organised by Manhattan socialite and philanthropist Ann Getty, she met Michael Huffington, the 37-year-old heir to a Texas oil fortune. They were married within six months.

The hundreds of guests at St Bartholomew’s on Park ­Avenue the following April ­included legendary broadcaster (and Arianna’s bridesmaid) ­Barbara Walters, the actress Shirley MacLaine, Princess ­Michael of Kent and a generous helping of Gettys.

"It must be love," smirked The Guardian, seemingly irked that Huffington had turned her back on the UK. "It is one thing to meet the heir to a Texas oil fortune in September and become engaged in January, but quite another to go ahead and marry him in a month when US petrol prices have fallen 21.9 per cent at the pumps."

Marriage to Michael Huffington fulfilled her longing for children – their daughters, Christina and Isabella, were born in 1989 and 1991. At one stage, it also seemed to have put her on course for the White House.

In 1992, Michael Huffington announced his intention to become the Republican Congressman for California’s Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo County. The successful campaign cost him a small fortune and four years later he invested an even larger one in a narrowly thwarted attempt to win a seat in the Senate.

Accused of being the ambition behind her husband’s presumed attempt at the top office, Huffington also tilted at political office on her own account. In 2003, she ran as an independent in the California gubernatorial election eventually won by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Mr and Mrs Huffington ­divorced in 1997 and when, the following year, she launched a political blog called, she had created the vehicle that would propel her to her true vocation.

On May 10, 2005, when it was relaunched as The Huffington Post, critics sniggered. The blog was "such a bomb", opined LA Weekly, it was the online equivalent of box-office turkeys "Gigli, Ishtar, and Heaven's Gate rolled into one".

But what had started out as an unpromising aggregator of other people's news, lightly garnished with unpaid guest blogspots, quickly gained momentum and credibility. Hiring its own reporters in 2008, HuffPost blossomed into a newspaper in its own right, covering everything from world events and gossip to the usual panoply of Sunday supplement journalism.

And, somehow, the former Republican wife had morphed into the creator of what The New Yorker described as "a kind of liberal foil to the [right wing] Drudge Report".

By 2011 HuffPost was attracting 20 million unique visitors a month – enough to attract a bid of $315m (Dh1.15 billion) from mass-media corporation AOL. The merger, said Huffington, who stayed on as chair, president and editor-in-chief for a rumoured salary of $4m (Dh14.7m), felt "as though we are getting off a fast-moving train and getting into a supersonic jet".

As HuffPost's success also went supersonic – today it has more than 100 million visitors a month – so its founder continued on her own trajectory as a renaissance superwoman, churning out books on an eclectic range of subjects and serving on the boards of several worthy organisations, including the Center for Public Integrity and The Committee to Protect Journalists.

This month it emerged that Huffington had committed to remaining at the helm of her creation for at least another four years – and, following the launch this week of the 14th international iteration of the Huffington brand, HuffPost Arabi, those years could prove the most tumultuous in its short history.

With HuffPost Arabi, Huffington's ambition is to "span the entire Arab world … 377 million people living in 22 countries", aiming chiefly for the mobile-­devoted youth of the Middle East.

This week she said the site would put into context the “devastating rise of Isis, extremism, and sectarian and ethnic tensions” and pledged that its blogging platform would be open to “anyone with something to say – from politicians and business leaders to activists and students”.

It would, she pledged, protect writers who fell foul of censorship laws in their own countries, though it isn’t clear how.

The New Yorker once concluded that "the pursuit of influence – the ability to command attention and to change minds – not money, seems to be Huffington's driving quest".

This week she has certainly commanded attention in the Arab world. But whether she will go on to change many minds with a product that pairs lightweight celebrity tittle-tattle with what many will see as a multimillionaire outsider’s take on age-old political and religious tensions remains to be seen.