Michelle Obama’s famous makeup artist, Carl Ray, is heading into the newly renovated Harold S Vanderbilt suite at the top of the Intercontinental Barclay Hotel between Park and Lexington Avenue. He wears black jeans and chews absentmindedly on a red apple. Two women follow carrying clothes on hangers hidden in black covers.
Outside the rain is hanging in the, for the season, unusually hot air. It’s October in New York and Donald Trump has been president for almost two years.
Michelle Obama is late. 45 minutes that will soon become an hour. A representative from her publishing company announces that the stylists “are putting the last hand to her”. As if she was a piece of art. A national monument.
Which, in a way, she is.
It takes time to look like Michelle Obama. The maintenance of a living woman’s position as an international icon, especially in the era of Instagram, is a labour-intensive industry.
Michelle Obama didn’t want to give any interviews at all to foreign media. The publishing house representative says she prefers to talk to journalists she knows. But eventually they persuaded her. Penguin Random House reportedly paid $60 million for a contract that includes a book written by Michelle Obama and a book written by her husband.
This morning four foreign journalists, one of them from Dagens Nyheter, are in the lobby of the Intercontinental Barclay Hotel. They look around and realise they are alone. There is, however, a rumour that The Guardian has already been here for an interview.
“Bloody Brits!” someone mumbles.
Michelle Obama has specifically asked for female journalists, therefore the four reporters are all women. They have received strict orders that, whatever happens, they will not ask any questions of a political nature. Not even why Michelle Obama, as she writes several times in Becoming, doesn’t like politics.
“Doing so will result in the interview coming to an immediate conclusion.”
The first time Michelle Obama visited New York she was a student. She sat in the passenger seat of her older, chain-smoking, friend’s car and saw Manhattan emerge through the window. She no longer remembers much of the day. Apart from the fact that they had pizza and that New York overwhelmed her:
Its noise, its smell, its impatience.
Michelle Obama, or rather Michelle Robinson as she was then, had already managed to climb the significant distance from Chicago's poor Southside to the Ivy League University of Princeton. She had spent years on inner city buses in Chicago never daring to fall asleep out of fear that her bag would be stolen then, at the age of seventeen she had found herself in an environment where students left their rooms unlocked.
Their confidence in the world seemed endless.
If there’s anything I want to leave behind from my childhood it’s the fear
She was used to walking home with her keys hidden in her fist.
The sharp side turned outwards.
– If there’s anything I want to leave behind from my childhood it’s the fear, she says, sitting in the Harold S Vanderbilt suite with its six rooms, golden bathroom taps, and a rooftop terrace facing the Chrysler Building. Three bodyguards stand outside in the corridor.
Michelle Obama is 54 years old and her makeup is done.
She looks amazing, because she has to look amazing.
Her husband happened to be president during an era in which every public moment was turned into an image that could be shared, commented on, discussed and judged posted on social media across the world.
Since her years at Princeton, she knows what it’s like to be constantly stared at: on campus only 9 percent of students were black.
The one who walks first will always have everyone’s eyes upon them.
Michelle Obama’s appearance and her clothes were a prioritised national affair for eight years. In her memoir she describes how she wanted to cut her fringe. Her staff then had to discuss this matter with Barack Obama’s political advisors (individuals who themselves have never been hindered in their careers by balding heads, bulging stomachs or bushy moustaches).
But that is, of course, a parenthesis.
I was lucky to have a mom and a dad who did not let their own fears restrict us kids too much
Right now Michelle Obama is talking about fear.
– When you grow up working-class and black, living with segregation, and racism. What I saw happen to my parents was that their world got smaller. It’s like they say to you ‘stay close’ because they don't know what's going to happen to you if you go too far away from the safe, nurturing community around you… I was lucky to have a mom and a dad who did not let their own fears restrict us kids too much. That’s a very difficult thing to do as a parent.
When Michelle Robinson was a teenager she discovered that all black families were not like her own. Her father was a city water-plant employee and her mother was, for many years, a homemaker. Her big brother played basketball. Every day, the family gathered around the kitchen table. They stuck together. They were loyal. And they were in many ways happy. But they did not have much money. When dad got sick with MS he refused to see the doctor. He had been taught not to trust anyone. It was only when Michelle Robinson started high school that she realized there was also something else: a black American elite.
And that there was not just one but several black American experiences.
At the new and better school where she took the bus every day she made new friends. Their parents were doctors and lawyers, they knew how to ski and had been on holiday abroad. At this school people didn’t look down on her for being clever. Nobody would say that she ”talked like a white girl” just because she did well in class. Everybody wanted to move forwards.
It wasn’t until Princeton that she started to feel like an outsider. College was like “being dropped in a strange terrarium that wasn’t built for me” she writes in Becoming.
She had never been part of a primarily white environment before. She navigated towards the other black students and avoided making white friends. It wasn’t pronounced, but there was something in the air that was not difficult to sense: something that told her to ”stick to her own people”, lay low and work hard.
Since then the world has partly changed.
– I could never have imagined this life, Michelle Obama says looking out over the Harold S Vanderbilt suite.
– But I believe my daughters can. My kids think anything is possible for them, and that’s one of the things I always hoped for.
It wasn’t until afterwards that Michelle Obama realised just how much uphill her journey to Princeton had been. She writes that it was like playing the piano on a keyboard with broken keys: after a while you come to understand that you are competing against people who have always been able to practice on fully-functioning instruments. Many of the other students had private tutors or were, in other ways, getting help from their parents.
This insight however only seemed to strengthen her own decisiveness.
Behind the surface of a typical relaxed college student, the young Michelle Robinson was a strict executive director of her own life project. Everything was about performing. She set goals, analysed her successes and evaluated improvement opportunities.
All the while she was driven by a constant fear of insufficiency: the harrowing question if she was “good enough”. Her brother who also went to Princeton and her early boyfriends did not seem to suffer from the same insecurities. Young women’s self-esteem is a big topic in Becoming.
– I want young women to understand that it is something we all feel. That feeling ’Am I good enough?’ is something that even their biggest idols have experienced, Michelle Obama says.
– When you ask yourself that question you assume that you are alone in those feelings. But you are not. That’s why I think it's so important to talk about it.
Partly, she says, she has written her book for young women, but she hopes that many men will read it as well
– One of the reasons I am so honest, is that I think men need to understand how we really feel, what our challenges are, what our doubts are… I think as women often we don’t share those stories. We don’t tell those truths, because we think ’No, we don't talk about that’, ’We don't talk about our challenges’. And if we don’t talk about them, how do we expect men to understand them? How men treat women, how they treat the women in their life, their daughters, what messages they are sending, that plays a massive role in building confidence. Slowly I began to think I was good enough because my father thought I was good enough, he had always thought I was good enough. So I had something to sustain me when I had those doubts.
Many years later Michelle Obama finds herself in the White House married to a man who is the president of the United States of America.
– When I grew up we did not have much money, but I could always get my parents’ undivided attention. I knew I was the most important person in their lives ... but how do you give your own children the same assurance when their dad is the president of the United States? How could we make our girls feel that they were the most important thing in the world?
Even to daddy.
Michelle Obama created strict routines
– When the kids came home from school, everything else went by the wayside. Barack put down his work, and with kids, it only takes a moment. They don’t want your time for very long. They think they do but they actually don't. An hour feels like way more time to talk to their parents, but we carved out that time, and we made sure that we didn’t miss important things in their lives.
President Barack Obama attended every parent-teacher conference and even helped coach his youngest daughter’s basketball team.
– I’m convinced it helps to see your dad, the world’s most powerful man, stand there on the side-lines, helping you achieve some of your goals.
But to implement all of this in the White House required planning at the highest level. The security aspects and the logistics were complicated. For Michelle Obama it became almost a fulltime job.
When she, as first lady, described her role in the White House as “mom in chief” she was criticized. Was it not time for powerful American women to stop reassuring the public that they were first and foremost mothers?
Powerful men never had to do this!
But Michelle Obama meant it literally. Mom in chief. She was the one in charge. She wanted her daughters to develop their self-esteem. They must somehow learn that they were the most important.
So Michelle Obama took command and almost everything else had to give.
When Michelle Robinson was a girl, adults often asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she always answered ”paediatrician”. Not because she wanted to be a paediatrician, but because the word ”paediatrician”, she had noticed, made an impression on the adult world.
Michelle Robinson liked the affirmative looks she got.
She liked them so much that she became addicted to them. She went from Princeton to Harvard Law almost without thinking about it. She assumed that Harvard was what was expected of her. Did the study of law even interest her?
She barely thought about that aspect.
When she was 25 years old she was a corporate lawyer and had moved back to Chicago.
She had an assistant and earned more money than her parents had ever earned. She drove a SAAB, bought an Armani suit and signed up for a subscription wine service. Her friends were other black yuppies. After work they met up at martini bars and talked about their condos.
This was it. This was the dream.
Until someone at the office mentioned the new intern: the young man that Michelle Robinson was going to supervise at the law firm during the summer.
Barack Obama was his name and they said he was some kind of genius.
Michelle Robinson was not convinced. In her experience it was enough to ”put a suit on any half intelligent black man for white people to go bonkers”. She read his resumé and concluded that he was a geek. At least he was from Hawaii.
”A comparatively exotic geek.”
And this is when Barack Obama steps into Michelle Robinson’s life without making much of an impression at first. She notes that he has a ”sexy voice” but also that he smokes.
She could never date anyone who smokes.
They become friends and Barack Obama turns out to be different from her other friends. He doesn’t talk about condos – not at all. He spends most of his money on books and analyses the latest Polish election as if it had something to do with him. In general, he seems ”fixated on abstract issues and driven by a mad feeling that he can do something about them”.
She brings him to a martini bar and tries to set him up with a friend.
The friend talks about her latest skiing trip.
Barack Obama looks like he wants to die.
Michelle draws the conclusion that Barack ”isn’t a Happy-hour guy”.
He is also not from the black working class with which she herself identifies. Barack Obama is something else: a product of an absent black father from Kenya and a white mother from the USA who during large parts of his childhood left him alone with his grandparents in Honolulu.
Barack Obama is black. And Barack Obama is white. He is American. And he is African. He has grown up in Hawaii. And in Indonesia. When he was younger he was called Barry and. “smoked pot on the lush volcanic foothills”. To Michelle Robinson and her black working class Chicago he is indeed mysterious. He picks her up in his rundown car (it has a literal hole in the floor) and she finds herself thinking that “this guy might possibly never make any money”.
At some point when Michelle Robinson questioned if corporate law felt meaningful her mother gave her the following advice: “Make money first, think about meaning later”.
Barack Obama doesn’t seem to think like this.
They talk and they talk. Summer is coming to an end and they are forced to sit through a performance of the musical Les Misérables together. They agree that it is truly awful and leave at the interval. When Michelle Robinson finally allows herself to feel things for Barack Obama everything comes at once. She is filled by ”a rushing toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfilment and wonder”.
”Nice guy. Too bad he won’t last” her father says.
Barack Obama does not believe in marriage. He thinks that getting married is an overrated and outdated convention: Why isn’t it enough to just love someone?
And he does love Michelle Robinson, they have been together for two years now and if it was up to him they would be together forever. What does a ring have to do with anything?
He simply can’t understand.
Michelle Robinson doesn’t agree. Her whole sense of safety as a child was built around her parents’ marriage. She wants to get married.
She can’t imagine anything else.
Many years later her mother tells her that every year when spring arrived in Chicago, she entertained thoughts about leaving Michelle’s father. Her mother didn’t make it clear if these thoughts were serious, they were however some kind of ritual fantasy for her.
Over the years, Michelle Obama herself has come to understand that a happy marriage is a contract best renewed again and again.
You have to decide if this relationship is what you want.
Not just once. But over and over.
When circumstances change and life moves forward.
In the end Barack Obama proposed. The wedding was magnificent. But then he went off to Indonesia for five weeks to work on his book. That was just the way he was.
They were different.
Since Michelle Robinson met Barack Obama, she had started questioning her career for real. Did corporate law feel meaningful? Was this what she wanted to spend her life doing? Eventually she took the big leap away from law and towards a career in public service. She eventually ended up working for the University of Chicago Hospitals.
In 1996, the unavoidable happened: her husband became a politician. Michelle Obama was not enthusiastic but she did not want to stand in the way of Barack Obama’s optimism.
When Michelle Robinson grew up in Chicago, politics was something that was ”used against black people”. It was one of the ways in which the black working class was held isolated, excluded and unemployed, she writes in Becoming. Her father worked for the city of Chicago and he was therefore more or less forced to join the Democratic party, otherwise he would never be promoted. The political world was corrupt, boring and simply not an environment that appealed to Michelle Robinson.
Her husband was elected to the Illinois state senate and she tried not to think too much about it.
During these years, the couple’s life was largely taken up by the struggle to get pregnant. Michelle Obama had achieved everything she had ever set out to achieve in life, but now she was failing to achieve a pregnancy. This was at least how she saw it: that her uterus refused to perform.
– Why are we not talking about how a miscarriage feels? she says.
She answers the question herself.
– It’s probably because we are ashamed. Because we feel it’s our own fault… They raise us women to be these perfect little creatures: never too loud, never too angry, never too messy. And all of this becomes a burden that affects how we react when we stumble on something in life. Instead of accepting the miscarriage, we hide it and see it as a personal failure.
There is so much about girls and women’s bodies that we do not even discuss. And I hope we can start talking about it.
Michelle Obama believes we simply need to be more honest.
– There is so much about girls and women’s bodies that we do not even discuss. And I hope we can start talking about it… I want mothers and fathers to start talking to their daughters about this so their girls do not grow up completely confused about their own bodies.
After what felt like countless medical examinations, the young Michelle Obama found herself alone in the bathroom armed with a set of syringes. Some were for shutting down her production of eggs, some were for stimulating it, they were are all however for pushing into her thigh. Barack Obama was off at work and everything felt unfair. All he had to do was produce a test tube full of sperm. It was her, the woman, who was stuck month after month with ultrasounds, blood samples and people poking her ovaries with tools made from metal.
Yes, Barack Obama had read a lot of books on IVF, but that’s because he always read a lot of books. She was the one having to go through the whole process.
This was the inescapable reality of the female body.
She pushed the needle into her thigh.
Ten months later Malia Obama was born. Three years after that Natasha, or Sasha, arrived, also through IVF. Michelle Obama writes that none of this would have been possible if her employer had not offered her a health insurance that also covered fertility treatments.
That is one of the more political sentences of Becoming.
The years of having small children is now starting to take their toll on the Obama marriage. He is advancing in his political career. She thinks he should get a normal job. He is messy. She craves order. He throws his dirty socks on the floor and doesn’t seem to understand the concept of clothes having to be folded and put away. They fight about who has the right to go to the gym. (He just goes! Without asking!). And he seems almost completely incapable of being on time. He calls and says he is on his way home, she keeps the children up but then he doesn’t show for several hours.
He forgot to mention that he was going to the gym!
In the end she convinces him to try couples therapy. Why don’t they just buy some relationship books and read them together? he thinks. She says no. She wants to talk. She imagines that the therapist will help her change Barack Obama, or at least confirm that Barack Obama is acting like a real shit.
That is not what happens.
Instead, the therapist helps the couple find new routines. Michelle Obama stops adapting her own and her daughters’ schedule after Barack Obama’s unpredictable working hours. From now on, dinner is served at half past seven, whether or not daddy is home. At seven it’s bath time and lights are out at eight. Suddenly the responsibility for getting home on time lies with him. This changes the balance of power in the family. Michelle Obama writes that she did not want her daughters to believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. ”We didn’t wait for Dad. It was his job now to catch up with us.”
This principle accompanies them to the White House.
It's easy to forget how fast Barack Obama's political career developed. How junior he really was when he became president. For Michelle Obama, it all happened gradually. She does however seem to be aware that her fate was definitely sealed on July 27, 2004.
John Kerry, who was standing against President George W. Bush, had asked Barack Obama to give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston that year. Barack Obama was a newly elected senator from Illinois and a bit of a rising star. Michelle Obama left the children at home, bought a white suit, and flew to Massachusetts.
For seventeen minutes, her husband stood on stage.
Then everything changed.
She could hear the cheering from where she stood behind the scenes. She walked up on stage. She hugged him, just as they had planned, but she knew, that from that moment he did not belong solely to her. Or to their daughters.
She could hear it in the applause.
This was a kind of ovation that demanded more.
Applause that wouldn’t take no for an answer.
History, if there is such a thing, was calling.
”I have just seen the first black president of the United States”, Chris Matthews, political commentator for NBC, declared.
During his 17 minutes on stage Barack Obama had talked about America coming together. That the United States was so much more than conservative states against liberal states: a black America against a white America. Barack Obama seemed to personify the story he was telling. He was an embodiment of the vision he was laying out in front of the country and a new dawn seemed to be approaching
”Hope” is what they came to call it.
Michelle Obama’s life changed forever.
She could no longer say no. No longer stop what soon started to feel inevitable. Barack Obama was running for president. Not in 2020 which to Michelle Obama seemed like a good year, if he had to run at all.
No, in 2008.
Sasha Obama was only seven. Michelle Obama quit her job to start traveling the country with the campaign. She learned how to give political speeches, how to handle the media and how to use her voice in a way that prevented people from perceiving her as an "angry black woman". She started receiving supportive text messages from Oprah Winfrey and Stevie Wonder, her childhood idol, called her by her first name at campaign events.
Michelle! Michelle! Michelle!
Upon further reflection, almost everyone started calling her by her first name.
She describes political campaigning as ”the ability to stay upright in the midst of a hurricane”. The hands that were constantly reaching out for her: people who tried to touch her arms or her hair: "push cameras, babies or pens" into her hands. How she smiled and listened and finally came to the surface again on the other side of the crowd.
Covered by its lipstick, its smells and its sweat.
Barack Obama became president. He was carried to Washington on a message of America being more than its conflicts, its hatred and its antagonism. But after eight years in The White House he handed over power in a country maybe more divided than ever.
Yes, history might call you.
It might make you the first black president of The United States of America, just as it has promised.
Just as it has whispered in your ear.
But it doesn’t tell you what will happen next.
Or what, or who, will come after.
It was in The White House that Michelle Obama started cultivating her garden. She decided to grow vegetables: to take on the complicated process of applying for permission to dig up a part of the south lawn outside of the White House and create a vegetable plot.
Michelle Obama had met with Hillary Clinton and Hillary Clinton had told her about her experience as first lady in the 1990s. Michelle Obama drew the conclusion that as first lady it was best to leave politics to the president.
Also: she was no Hillary Clinton.
Michelle Obama was a very successful professional woman but she simply wasn’t interested in politics.
She found her own causes. Things that she cared for. She visited military families, she fought for the rights of young girls and against childhood obesity. She planted lettuce, spinach and onions. She told people that you burn 182 calories an hour pulling weeds. She put her spade into the White House lawn wearing black leather boots and every spring, she planted her seeds surrounded by a group of photogenic multicultural children.
Michelle Obama wanted to change how America ate. She knew how easy it was to revert to burgers and soda: one of her daughters had been at risk of obesity a couple of years earlier. This had gotten Michelle Obama interested in the issue.
She changed her own family’s eating habits.
Now she wanted to change America’s.
But America couldn’t, like the Obama’s, simply solve the problem by hiring a private chef.
She planted blooming sage, peanuts and papaya. Raised beds where you create little ditches and put your seeds down in rows. Lemongrass, fig and squash.
Barack Obama does not like beets.
She saw her husband more than before. He came down every evening at half past six for dinner with the family. Sometimes they ate homegrown vegetables. They barely spoke about politics. When the Republicans in Congress sabotaged the president’s initiatives it made Michelle Obama furious. She could get angry in a way that Barack Obama never got angry. Maybe she ”allowed herself to feel things he couldn’t” or maybe these were just the aspects of politics that she loathed the most: the partisan and often cynical game of Congress.
But Barack Obama put his wife’s lack of interest in politics to good use. As president, he was a geek, surrounded by other geeks trying to rule a country populated by people who, like his wife, would rather watch home-renovation shows on TV and read People Magazine.
This became an asset. Michelle Obama describes how she was asked to weigh in on everything from campaign slogans to media strategies. Eventually she became one of the best public speakers in America.
Social media is here to stay. If I could ignore it, I would.
She remembers when her husband had Osama bin Laden killed. How people gathered outside the White House gates cheering. She remembers the school shootings: how emotionally difficult they were for the president. But in her memoir she writes in more detail about the musical Hamilton than about the global financial crisis. She creates a pollinator garden for the White House bees: aster, sunflower, lavender, yarrow, borage and fennel. She shows off her dance moves on TV and sings karaoke on YouTube. When large parts of the country start hating her husband, her popularity figures are still high. She understands that she can ”put on an interesting outfit” and thus direct the gaze of America to something she wants it to pay attention to: like the struggles of its veterans. She instinctively understands the new era of clicks, images and shares. This is a way to get one’s message across without having to go through journalists.
It is largely Michelle who makes the Obamas into the first couple of popular culture. She understands the power of social media: the new universe emerging around them.
Barack Obama poses with a selfie stick. Barack Obama sings on TV. Barack Obama gets hundreds of thousands of young people to sign up for health care by cracking jokes on You Tube. Previous American presidents have brought aspects of celebrity into office, but Barack Obama, ”the social media president” takes it to a completely different level.
Politics and entertainment merge. They become almost indistinguishable.
Eventually Barack Obama will be succeeded by a reality TV star.
– Social media is here to stay. If I could ignore it, I would, says Michelle Obama sitting in the Harold S Vanderbilt suite in Manhattan.
The TV-screen covers a whole wall. But it is turned off: a black hole in the luxurious décor.
– We are able to reach across the world because of social media. We are able to build networks across huge sections of the American population and transfer and leverage all those resources and energy on behalf of girls around the world. For example. That is pretty powerful. I don't know if I would trade that benefit just because a few people misuse it.
Before Barack Obama leaves the White House, Michelle Obama renovates the vegetable garden. Large blocks of natural stone are put down. The skeleton of the garden is made hard and permanent. A steel structure is created and the future financing of the garden is secured through private funds
The sage will flower. The lemongrass grow.
And the figs ripen.
She almost doesn’t write about Donald at all Trump in her book. She mentions his name four times. And only at onte point she go into detail: she writes about the lies that Donald Trump started to spread before he became president. The rumors that Barack Obama wasn’t American. That he had lied about his birth certificate.
Michelle Obama notes, almost in passing, how these lies when they started coming from Donald Trump’s mouth seemed to take hold in a new way. She doesn’t quite know how. But she can feel a hatred starting to grow.
Somewhere in America.
When you are in the White House, you don’t have time to reflect.
She starts to worry that a maniac who takes what Donald Trump says seriously could harm her children. Or kill her husband. She hasn’t worried very much about this before, after all Barack Obama has always been a black man in the USA: he could have “gotten shot at the gas station” she notes dryly. That risk is something black women learn to live with. But now she is worried. Donald Trump threatens her family’s safety and for this she will ”never forgive him”.
– When you are in the White House, you don’t have time to reflect, she says. Our days were far too packed. There was never time to lean back and think about how I really felt about everything… And what you feel right after you leave and what you feel one or two years later are very different things.
She will never run for president.
”I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that she writes”.
What she really thinks, or feels about the legacy from the political era she partially came to define, we will never know.
The book tour that Michelle Obama is heading out on is managed by Live Nation: a company that usually works with artists like Rihanna and U2. She will be interviewed on stage by Hollywood celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Politics is entertainment. And entertainment is politics.
But do not blame Michelle Obama for this.
She never wanted a life in politics.
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