Is Arianna Huffington a role model or a sellout? A post-ideological free spirit or a political opportunist? A fearless woman who speaks her mind or, as one critic once dismissed her, "an intellectual lap dancer?"
The author, activist and commentator with the unforgettable accent and cocktail-party hair who just sold her blog site The Huffington Post to AOL for $315-million (U.S.) is an unqualified success, that's what she is.
In fact, this week's eye-popping news of her megadeal with AOL - she will also be editor-in-chief of all the network's editorial content - may have finally authenticated the once hyperbolic claim that Ms. Huffington is "the fastest-rising Greek since Icarus."
She has turned a modest, amusing website she co-founded in 2004 into a darling of the liberal left (such as it is in the United States) and a megabucks monster. But as she soars ever closer to the corporate sun, there will certainly be enemies hoping she singes her wings.
Already there is skepticism and grousing over whether HuffPo, with its stable of mostly unpaid bloggers that includes the likes of David Mamet, Deepak Chopra and Nora Ephron, will stay on the left side of the political ledger. Already there's a Social Network-style lawsuit (launched just before the AOL deal) by two former colleagues claiming she has not given them credit for being part of the startup of Huffington Post, a claim she calls "ridiculous."
And already publications such as The New York Times are struggling to pinpoint Ms. Huffington's exact role in her own success - they settled on "big personality" with a "fully weaponized" list of powerful contacts, while her co-founder Kenneth Lerer, a former AOL executive, got the nod as the more serious "consummate East Coast executive" who in effect built the business around her dreams.
Hmm. Does this signal a bit of discomfort about celebrating a now 60-year-old woman who had the guts to do what no newspaper - most of them run by men - did, which was take news into the Internet age and package it in a totally seductive way?
Ms. Huffington will no doubt be called many things in the coming months, but guess what? It won't be anything she hasn't batted back before.
The improbable rise of this once-shy immigrant daughter of a single mother included stints as head of the Cambridge University debating society, author of a book lambasting Picasso's misogyny, fame as a conservative commentator, then more fame as a liberal commentator, marriage to a wealthy closeted politician, her own failed campaign to be California governor, and finally, the role she was clearly born for, head of the Huffington Post and synthesizer of the political and social zeitgeist.
Along the way, she has disarmed any insult directed not only her way, but at ambitious women in general.
In her 2006 book On Becoming Fearless: In Love, Work, and Life, a slight but infectious read, she quotes comic Marlo Thomas saying: "A man has to be Joe McCarthy to be called ruthless. All a woman has to do is put you on hold."
Now that's funny. The recent New York Times piece goes on to say that "the same thing that made Ms. Huffington a little daunting in person - relentlessness, endless networking and promoting - were remarkably adaptive to Web endeavours."
I had my own taste of Ms. Huffington's relentless focus when I scheduled a phone interview with her during her Fearless book tour. As she sped in her limo toward another book signing, her telephone kept cutting out. Not only did she call me back at least five times, but even after I told her I was going to bed, the phone rang again.
During our brief exchange, she clearly had no fear of seeming over the top. Yet she insisted, "I have an easier time telling a roomful of people what I think than telling one man I'm in a relationship with what's on my mind."
Fearless offered the discouraging and even old-fashioned opinion that women today, despite their big jobs and their equal marriages, are still hobbled by fear.
This became clear to Ms. Huffington, she said, when her daughters reached their teen years and she saw them burdened "with all the same fears that I had struggled with when I was their age: 'Am I attractive enough? Do people like me? Will they stop liking me if I dare to speak my mind?' "
We are giving our daughters a powerful mixed message, she argued - "telling them they can do anything" while at the same time bombarding them "with images of airbrushed perfection that they can never achieve." And then sending them into a work force where ambitious women are "still treated very differently from their ambitious male counterparts."
For one thing, ambitious successful women get pitted against each other, as with the supposed catfight between Ms. Huffington and another female media superwoman Tina Brown, the former editor of both Vanity Fair and the New Yorker who started her own aggregate news site, The Daily Beast.
In an interview in the current Harper's Bazaar, the two women recently joked about their so-called feud, with Ms. Huffington musing about "certain stereotypes" and Ms. Brown agreeing, "There is such delicious lip-smacking at the notion of any girl-on-girl action, if you know what I mean. It's so retro."
But the best line came when the two women were asked, "Did you ever think you would both end up being media powerhouses?"
Ms. Huffington deadpanned in response: "Oh, it was completely planned."
I want what she's having.
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