The co-founder of the Huffington Post marks its arrival in the UK with a lecture on love, guilt and getting what you want. She talks to Celia Walden.
"You're wearing very high heels," frowns Arianna Huffington.
Panicked, I mentally scan the research I did the day before. Did I miss some crucial phobia or sisterly journalist's advice ("Whatever you do, don't wear high heels in Ms Huffington's presence")?
Fresh off the plane from LA, the Greek American author, businesswoman and co-founder of internet newspaper the Huffington Post - bought by internet provider AOL for $US315 million ($298 million) in February this year and launched in Britain last week - is unrumpled in a white jacket, black trousers and flats, that famous "Greek peasant hair" blow-dried into submission.
She's as forceful and charismatic as you'd expect a woman on every top-10 media list in the US to be, with a humorous glint in her eye. And before we get on to the watershed moment of British journalism she's stumbled in on, she wants to talk about shoes.
"Who are these women who wear heels whenever they leave the house? Do they need the confidence the extra height gives them that much?" Right now, I know I could do with an extra inch or two.
Leaning back - softer, almost maternal, suddenly - Huffington reels off a succession of high-heel morality tales, from the female movie star she recently shared a car with "whose feet were bleeding", to the accident she once had involving a New York grate and a pair of YSL pumps which resulted in her being confined to crutches for two months.
"Actually, we're doing a story in the paper about women having Botox in the soles of their feet to make their heels more bearable."
One suspects that the male editor of a little internet start-up turned global phenomenon might speak of his "paper" with a little more grandiosity. Huffington, however, refers to her six-year-old online title with more than 200 paid editorial staff and 36 million visitors a month with a notable absence of pomposity. There's a steely assurance about her brave new world, however, with the phone-hacking revelations and closure of the News of the World only serving to reinforce her cause.
"This story sums up a lot of central elements of the new media world," she insists. "A greater demand for accountability and transparency, the vital role that trust plays, and the incredible impact social media can have in accelerating change."
Born Arianna Stassinopoulos in Athens to a journalist and management consultant father who survived Nazi concentration camp internment, Huffington, 60, is a tough boss and self-confessed workaholic. She has three Blackberrys - one a hotline to daughters Christina, 21, and Isabella, 19, and two that she puts in the bathroom at night in order to stop herself from replying to emails at 3am. She has been a radio talk-show host, Republican political wife (she married congressman Michael Huffington in 1986, divorcing him 11 years later) and gubernatorial candidate against Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It wasn't until 2005 that Huffington, who divides her time between New York and LA, decided to enlist bloggers to write for what's now known as the HuffPo. Although her writers have always been unpaid (the cause of journalistic ire when the lucrative AOL merger went through), getting people to blog for the paper is not a problem, she says.
"People understand the value of it. We still get hundreds of submissions every day and we've had everyone from Barack Obama to [comedian] Larry David writing for us."
There's a sexist whiff to Huffington's early naysayers (her husband's strategist Ed Rollins described her as "ruthless" and "ambitious" and some male journalists insisted on billing the Huffington Post "a vanity project").
"There are qualities that we admire in men, but not women," she shrugs, "like assertiveness and drive. Back in the 1980s, I was always being called a socialite, and I remember thinking that I'd never been to a dinner party in New York that Henry Kissinger wasn't at and yet you never see 'socialite Henry Kissinger', do you?"
At 23, she wrote a rebuttal of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch called The Female Woman, but ask whether she's ever considered herself a feminist, and the question is dismissed as an irrelevance.
"I've never let anyone stop me from doing anything I want to do, but if a woman wants to be a full-time mother and can afford not to work, then she should be given equal respect for that role."
It's on the contrasting perils of male and female success that she becomes more militant. The recent pile-up of sex scandals to hit high-profile men - be it Schwarzenegger, congressman Anthony Weiner or former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn - can be partially explained, she says, by "the hubris which comes with their success and the fact that many men have reached positions of power without having worked through some of their psychological issues".
She feels that men have defined success in an unhelpful way.
"They work around the clock and brag about getting four hours' sleep - like sleep deprivation is a sign of virility. They consider a heart attack at 50 a sign of success, and it's women's job to change that." Yet if she didn't have children, Huffington concedes that she "would never stop working".
It was because of a desperate desire for children that the young Cambridge graduate and former Union president left the man she still calls "the greatest influence of my life". He was Times columnist and polymath Bernard Levin, whom she met when she was 21 and he 45.
"He was twice my age and half my size," she laughs, "and I fell in love with him as a writer before I met him. I used to cut out his columns and put them in a scrapbook. I would have stayed with him for the rest of my life if only he'd wanted children."
Huffington moved to New York, where she met her ex-husband. Tragically, the euphoria of her first pregnancy was short-lived.
"Our first child was stillborn, and that was one of the saddest moments of my life because I wasn't sure if my body was able to manage it again."
Her two daughters are the biggest joy in her life. "Still, motherhood has been the most daunting role of all. And the guilt. With working mothers, it's like they take the baby out and implant the guilt at the same time."
Would she marry again? "It's not at all on my cards," she says. "Sleep is my priority right now. I'm open to falling in love again but I don't have any great longing for it." She quotes a friend, film director Mike Nichols. "He says that in every relationship there's a gardener and a flower. It's too late for me to be the flower."
Now and again Huffington lapses into great, motivational speeches. Fear of failure is the subject of one. "My mother always used to say that failure should not be seen as the opposite of success but as a stepping stone to success, and it's true," she says. "There is no successful person who hasn't failed along the way."
When her second book was rejected by 36 publishers, Huffington, then living in London, refused to believe that she was not a writer. Depressed and wandering the streets of St James's, she strolled into Barclays Bank and asked the manager for an overdraft. "For some reason, he gave me one on the spot," she smiles. "Like in fairy tales where all these animals help the heroine out along the way."
It remains to be seen whether this heroine's new venture will have a happy ending. Either way, she says that she has found the project she wants to devote all her energies to.
"I'm going to create a media company that covers everything from Afghanistan," she says, glancing beneath the table, "to the importance of flat shoes." Sheepishly, I tell her that I do have a pair in my bag. "Then put them on now," she orders. And I realise why, whether it's the bank manager or her army of bloggers, very few people can say no to Arianna Huffington.
The Daily Telegraph, London