Forget Madonna — Huffington is the master of reinvention

SHE’S probably the most successful neophiliac ever.

She has no serious competition, either in history or in the present. Neophiliacs being people who have an affinity for novelty, who are turned on by anything that’s new and who spot emerging trends before they trend. They ride one wave and then leap to the next without a backward glance.

Arianna Huffington has no equal in this department. Madonna has a reputation for personal reinvention, but anxiously hanging on to celeb status is not the same as neophilism.

Madonna is still an A-list celeb, whereas Paris Hilton has slid down the alphabetical slippery slope. But neither was ever a neophiliac. Madonna’s has always mainly been a singer. Paris Hilton’s always been yer wan with the smirky blank face, famous for something mercifully lost in the mists of time.

Huffington, in contrast, has changed country, continent, name, political party, and theme throughout her career. Just as a chameleon takes on the colour of any fabric it’s set upon, Huffington adapts to fit the hue of the day. Except that where a chameleon might get a bit panicky at the scale of the challenge if you put it down on tartan, the game Greek would probably react effectively to that challenge, too.

Right now, most people to whom the Huffington name means anything tend to associate it with a big “H” inside a box; the icon on the iPhone or iPad bringing them to the site she founded, where the news of the day is sliced, diced, recycled into bite-sized provocation, and where the permanently opinionated write blogs on whatever topics are current at a given time.

But that’s just the latest rendition of Huffington, and even though she is now in her early 60s, it’s unlikely to be the last. She was born in Athens, moving to Britain to study at 16.

In university, she distinguished herself at academic and organisational levels, and began to appear on TV. It was at a TV programme she met Bernard Levin. She was 21. He was old enough to be her father. She became his lover.

“He was not just the big love of my life,” she has said. “He was a mentor as a writer and a role model as a thinker.”

Whenever a younger woman who becomes involved with an older writer subsequently publishes a book, the rumour mill always attributes some, if not all, of the merits of the book to the older partner. It happened to Edna O’Brien when she was married to Ernest Gebler. It happened with Huffington, although to reread collections of Levin columns at this distance is to doubt the extent of his influence on her. Those columns are crisp, testy, and ultimately tedious in their too-evident aspiration to be the definitive statement on whatever issue was being addressed. Huffington, on the other hand, even in her early 20s, broke away from the merely reactive. At a time when feminism had become the new orthodoxy for intellectual women, when Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was riding high in the bestseller lists, the young Greek produced a hefty counter-intuitive tome suggesting women derive most power from making men happy and effacing their assertiveness. This was a Danny Healy-Rae move, calculated to drive liberal media mad and therefore deliver unto Arianna, (as his recent proposal to give do-not-go-to-jail cards to drunk drivers on Kerry roads delivered unto Healy-Rae) enormous publicity and opportunities to appear on every TV programme.

She also produced a substantial biography of opera singer Maria Callas and another about Pablo Picasso.

Before she was 30, she had established herself as a substantial and controversial figure in British life.

But Stassinopoulos (as she was called) wanted children and Levin wasn’t having any. Not then. Not ever. So she left him and Britain, heading to another continent and life as the wife of Republican politician Michael Huffington, mother of his two children and manager of his electoral campaign to win a senate seat in 1994. Working to her was Ed Rollins, a tough political adviser who had run campaigns for Bobby Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Ross Perot.

“I’ve never met anyone more cunning than Arianna Huffington,” he said later.

“She’s utterly unstoppable. Her motto, she once told me, is ‘Strike first, strike fast, and strike hard’ — the same rules any good streetfighter would use. Maybe that’s why I liked her.”

The affection didn’t last. Within weeks, Rollins wanted Arianna to travel with her husband as a way of visually contradicting rumours he was gay, but met resistance, because “she bored easily when she wasn’t the centre of attention”. She employed an illegal alien as a nanny and was exposed as an ordained minister of a cult called Movement for Inner Spiritual Awareness.

“In a few short months,” said Rollins, “I’d come to realise that she was the most ruthless, unscrupulous, and ambitious person I’d met in 30 years in national politics — not to mention that she sometimes seemed truly pathological.”

That very public branding didn’t hold her back in the mid-1990s as a conservative commentator. When Michael Huffington, post-election, came out as bisexual and was duly divorced by her, this did her no harm, either. Instead, it delivered a bit of sympathy to her doorstep and allowed her to move seamlessly from conservatism into liberal politics, sailing into the embrace of those she had recently excoriated.

This reinvention of self is significant in that it was not (as are the much lesser self-reinventions of other celeb-survivors) mediated to the public by spin doctors. Huffington did it all by herself, thereby establishing that, love her or hate her, this woman has a formidable brain and an even more formidable capacity to promulgate — in her second language — the changing viewpoints of her mindset.

A FEW years ago, sites began to spring up offering a kind of Reader’s Digest of the daily news.

Arianna Huffington decided this offered her next circuit on the roundabout and set up the Huffington Post, which speedily knocked Slate magazine, one of the earliest e-magazines, off its perch and became a reference point for newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.

She and her site weathered early accusations that they “aggregated” news stories so energetically as to verge on plagiarism. Nowadays, she’s a warm, benign figure campaigning to ensure nobody suffers from sleep deprivation. This came about because — like Hillary Clinton — she had a fall attributed to tiredness and immediately discovered a new theme.

Today, she is campaigning for the installation of “nap rooms” in office buildings, leading the way by ensuring the HuffPost folk can lay them down to sleep at the mere threat of a yawn.

It’s not easy to find a businesswoman or public figure, worldwide, who has managed to notch up 40 years of money-making, wonderfully inconsistent career-building.

The definitive neophiliac, Arianna Huffington makes Vlad the Impaler look like an unimaginative inflexible single career bloke.

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