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Queens of the blog age

Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown, the great social networkers

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

What’s the right analogy to describe the parallel careers of Arianna Huffington and Tina Brown? The hare and the tortoise? All About Eve? Alien vs Predator? Nothing quite works, not least because the race isn’t over. But there’s little doubt that with the sale of the Huffington Post to AOL for $315 million, Arianna has momentarily eclipsed Tina Brown as Queen of All Media. Arianna is said to have pocketed $100 million. I don’t envy the person standing next to Tina when she heard that.

The career paths of Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington (b. 1950) and Christina Hambley Brown (b. 1953) are remarkably similar. Both come from relatively modest backgrounds — Arianna’s father was a peripatetic Greek journalist, while Tina’s was a producer of minor British war films — and both had mothers with frustrated ambitions. Arianna applied to Cambridge after seeing a picture of the university in a magazine, and became the first foreign-born president of the Cambridge Union. Tina went to Oxford where, besides interviewing the great and the good for Isis, she wrote a prize-winning play that enjoyed a brief run at the Bush theatre.

After graduating and moving to London, they both hitched their wagons to fortysomething journalists: Bernard Levin in Arianna’s case and Harold Evans in Tina’s. While Arianna made a name for herself as a panellist on Any Questions and Call My Bluff, Tina became the editor of Tatler and attracted the attention of S.I. Newhouse Jr., the billionaire owner of Condé Nast. Tina became briefly mesmerised by the cult of the aristocracy and published a book called Life As A Party, documenting her adventures in stately homes. Arianna became a member of the Church of the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA) in which she was ordained as a minister. (She remains one to this day and is licensed to perform weddings in California.)

Arianna’s involvement with MSIA led to an embarrassing episode in the career of Levin, as recorded by Christopher Hitchens. ‘Let the record show that in October 1979 Bernard Levin achieved the total state of self-absorption towards which he had been moving for so long,’ wrote Hitchens. ‘The venue was the Café Royal: amid incense and vaguely Oriental music, flanked by his companion, Levin rose and told a large invited audience how they could be “changed, by investing £150 in a 50-hour “Insight training”.’

After conquering London, both women began to turn their attentions to New York. Arianna was the first to move, relocating in 1980 after Levin made it clear he had no intention of marrying her. Her day job was writing books — an early work, The Female Woman, was a riposte to Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch — but her vocation was social advancement. ‘Arianna Stassinopoulos has become, in record time, a fixture in East Side social life, and without the advantages of wealth, a title, or conventional beauty,’ declared a writer in New York magazine. Another journalist put it less charitably: ‘The most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus.’

Tina made the jump in 1984, becoming editor of Vanity Fair, which had been launched the previous year and was struggling to find a readership. She, too, was considered bumptious. The literary journalist John Halperin was working for Vanity Fair at the time and recalls feeling quite pleased at having persuaded Isaac Bashevis Singer to write a short story for the Christmas issue. ‘Tina returned the manuscript to me with the words “Beef it up, Singer” scrawled at the bottom,’ he says. ‘I had to gently explain that Beef-it-up Singer was a recipient of the Nobel prize.’


It is at this point that their careers diverge, with Arianna moving to Huston in 1986 to marry the Texas millionaire Michael Huffington and Tina remaining in New York where she transformed Vanity Fair into the glossy style bible it is today. This marked the beginning of the least successful period in Arianna’s life, in which she appeared to live up to her Cambridge nickname: Starryanna Comeacroppalos. Her alliance with Huffington, who inherited his father’s oil fortune but not his personality, was dismissed by some as a marriage of convenience. ‘Michael was searching for himself and Arianna found him,’ said one of her friends.

In 1992, Huffington ran as the Republican candidate for a seat in the House, an election he won, after spending $5.2 million. Members of his Congressional staff at the time maintain he was in thrall to his wife’s intellect. ‘On any big decision, you’d go in and talk to him and leave and then you’d see his phone light go on and he’d call Arianna to ask her,’ said one. The following year, he entered the race for one of California’s two Senate seats, taking on Democratic incumbent Diane Feinstein. In spite of spending $28 million, he lost.

In a notorious Vanity Fair profile entitled ‘Arianna’s Virtual Candidate’, Maureen Orth portrayed Stassinopoulos as an imperious, unfeeling diva: ‘According to former employees in Santa Barbara, Arianna issued orders over a speakerphone from the bathtub, kept a lock on the refrigerator, threw frequent tantrums, and sent the children’s bodyguards to the store for her Tampax.’

At this point, Tina had left Vanity Fair for the New Yorker, where she, too, was ruffling feathers. At the magazine’s 70th anniversary party in 1995, a theatrical revue was staged at which the resignation letter of one old-timer was read out by the actor John Lithgow: ‘For you to kiss the ass of celebrity culture at this moment… is like selling your soul to get close to the Hapsburgs — in 1913.’ Tina’s reaction to such criticisms ranged from laboured insouciance — ‘I’m actually becoming rather attached to my image as an arse-kissing social gorgon’ — to irritation: ‘Get a life!’

Nevertheless, Tina’s six-year reign at the New Yorker was judged a success — she raised the circulation from 659,000 to 830,000 — and in 1998 she left to become the chairman of a multimedia company backed by Harvey and Bob Weinstein. The centrepiece of this empire was to be Talk magazine, a weekly edited by Tina and unveiled with great fanfare in 1999. The launch party on Liberty Island, attended by Madonna, Henry Kissinger and Queen Latifah, was the high point of Tina’s career.

Arianna, meanwhile, was struggling to recover from her husband’s Senate bid. She divorced him in 1998 and launched herself as a rightwing pundit. Her first web venture, Resignation.com, was a site calling for President Clinton to resign and she campaigned for John McCain in 2000. The low point in her fledgling political career was in 2003, when she ran as an independent against Arnold Schwarzenegger for the California governorship 2003, polling 44,000.

Tina was unable to sprinkle her fairy dust on Talk and it folded in 2002, with losses of $54 million. She tried to reinvent herself as a television personality, hosting a talkshow called Topic A With Tina Brown, but it proved short-lived. She also enjoyed a period as a newspaper columnist and published a biography of Princess Diana, but it wasn’t until she took a leaf out of Arianna’s book that her career showed new signs of life.

In 2005, Arianna became a born-again liberal, launching her famous left-of-centre website in Los Angeles. It was ridiculed – ‘Her blog is such a bomb that it’s the movie equivalent of Gigli, Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate rolled into one,’ wrote Nikki Finke in LA Weekly – but it quickly started generating huge traffic. Soon HuffPo, as it’s known, had overtaken the Drudge Report as America’s most popular political website, attracting over
28 million unique visitors a month.

Tina launched her version — the Daily Beast — in 2008 but she has yet to catch up with her old rival. According to the New York Times, the Beast attracts three million unique visitors per month.

So what’s the secret of Arianna’s success and why has she outshone her Oxbridge contemporary? There’s not much to choose between them intellectually and when it comes to ruthless ambition they could both give Becky Sharp a run for their money. Perhaps the answer lies in Arianna’s decision to take up a political cause. She chose the wrong side first time round, at least from a career point of view, but since becoming a cheerleader for the Democrats she’s never looked back. The lesson is, if you want to become a successful media tycoon — and it was ever thus — you cannot remain above the political fray. You have to pick a side and if it turns out to be the wrong one, don’t be afraid to switch teams and carry on as if nothing had happened.


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