Arianna Huffington’s metamorphosis from start-up diva to media mogul is only the latest in a series of audacious transformations, all of which rest on a crucial, if overlooked, constant: she is a sex symbol.
Yes, you read that right. Sex symbol.
Legendarily coiffed, she’s as fond of girlish ruffles and racy black lace as she is of pantsuits—and is not above flaunting her yoga-toned limbs. All this at 60. But more interesting is the vintage of her wiles, which call to mind a courtesan’s techniques. Her allure resides in her effusiveness and intense focus. It’s present in her insatiable appetite for self-promotion—a hunger that includes lending her voice (and name) to a hot-to-trot cartoon bear on The Cleveland Show. Above all, it flows from her ability to make anyone feel fascinating.
These are the tricks of old media, best showcased over a long lunch. It’s notable, then, that it’s in the tech-driven world of new media—defined by its youth, its maleness, and its terminal lack of sexiness—that it achieves its most striking results.
Askmen.com describes her as “gloriously seductive.” She’s called herself “a regular cyberslut.” YouTube yields a smitten Time journalist asking whether she’d rather date Al Franken or Bill Maher. “This either or thing is so old media,” she coos at her interviewer, who giggles like a Belieber.
That geeky world is not unlike Cambridge in the late ’60s, where Arianna Stassinopoulos’ story really begins. The men of the Union, its debating club, didn’t stand a chance when the tall, glam Greek pulled up in her Alfa Romeo. Her nickname: “Staryanna Comeacroppalos.” If not yet aware of her power, she would have felt it keenly when elected the club’s president.
In her final year there, Huffington was the token young thing on a pointy-headed BBC quiz show where she met her intellectual crush, Bernard Levin, a writer more than 20 years her senior. She already had a ring binder stuffed with his articles, and prepped for their first date by studying topical talking points—a classic courtesan touch.
While together almost a decade, Levin refused to marry her. She moved to the U.S., exchanging her part as ingénue lover for Republican wife.
This is a picaresque tale: the adventuress who acquires powerful lovers and enchants male colleagues, altering beliefs to mirror theirs. Refuting our Anglo-Saxon insistence on steamrolling gender differences, Huffington exudes a Mediterranean femininity. The title of her first book, published three years after The Female Eunuch, says it all: The Female Woman: An Argument Against Women’s Liberation for Female Emancipation.
But it’s in going it alone that Huffington has succeeded. A U.K. TV career and a foray into politics flopped, but she has found her way in a blogosphere made for her cut-and-paste intellect and relentless networking.
That world also plays to the limitations of her sex appeal. “It took me many years before I would find myself as a woman,” she confided in her 2006 primer, On Becoming Fearless.
It might be part of the act, but her appeal seems studied. She uses innuendo like business buzzwords. Physically, she has a lingering clunkiness. And privately her conquests are a great love who refused to wed her and an ex-husband who turned out to be bisexual. All of which might well endear—even reassure—in the virginal world of new media.
And while many say she makes you feel compelling, others note it’s a performance—another possible plus in tech circles. After all, a performance can be copied and programmed, which chimes with the Web’s egalitarian ideals.
Sex in the digital world (think porn) tends to be voyeuristic. She makes nerds feel they’re part of some sexy seduction. It makes them giddy, like schoolboys given a saucy wave by the MILF they’ve been spying on.
Oddly enough, that also makes Huffington refreshing from a female perspective. Recently, feminist site Jezebel discussed CNBC anchor Erin Burnett, whose hotness, they noted, her colleagues can’t get past—a typical strand that casts younger women as victims of their own sex appeal. That’s not something you could accuse Huffington of. She harnesses hers, inhabits it, makes it fully her own. And like a true courtesan, those charms are ultimately self-serving. — Hephzibah_Anderson@hotmail.com. Twitter: @HephzibahA.