Michelle Obama Gets Personal

What dreams are left for the woman who grew up working class in Chicago, graduated from Princeton and Harvard law and became the first African-American first lady of the United StatesHere’s one of them: “To open a secret door for others that hadn’t been opened for me,” by pairing disadvantaged girls with some of the powerful women in the land. Join us for an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look

by Tamara Jones
michelle obama photo
Photograph: Peggy Sirota

Michelle Obama is one of those people you sense before you see, her confidence somehow arriving on the scene a few  seconds before she does. Even a roomful of antsy teenagers can feel it, leading them to fall silent moments before the first lady strides into the State Dining Room and greets them with a friendly “Hey! What’s happening?” A few starstruck girls gasp, which is exactly the reaction Obama later explains she doesn’t want. These high schoolers are the newest inductees into an elite White House mentoring program created by the first lady herself, and they’re going to be seeing a lot of her. The program is designed to be as intimate as it is intense, so job one is to get the girls past the gasping stage. To that end, Obama launches into a stand-up routine about the double life she’s lived since her husband was elected.

“They call me FLOTUS, for first lady of the United States,” she explains, noting that the president’s internal White House acronym is POTUS. “And there are many times when FLOTUS and POTUS feel like characters.” There have even been times, she says, when she’s craned her own neck to see which celebrity might be causing all the excitement. “And it’s me. Oh, man, it’s FLOTUS. FLOTUS is here. No one told me FLOTUS was coming.”

But for all her diffidence, FLOTUS has game. She can wave her invisible wand and make things happen. Like this innovative program, which taps White House staffers to mentor local high school girls, teaching them how to network by providing them cozy access to the administration’s vast brain trust. One call from FLOTUS, and a handful of 17-year-olds can be over at the Supreme Court chatting up a couple of justices or at the Department of Labor seeking advice from Secretary Hilda Solis about getting jobs in a tough market. Cosmetics mogul Bobbi Brown will be talking to them about beauty inside and out, and the president’s executive chef will bake them chocolate-chip cookies sweetened with organic honey from the hive in the first lady’s garden.

FLOTUS doesn’t just make an entrance; she opens doors that are normally closed.

“But sometimes,” Obama tells her class of mentees, “I just want to be Michelle. So you guys have to start slowly seeing me as Michelle, all right?”

Obama's unabashed hunger to connect at ground level is just as evident when she arrives, a few minutes early, for an interview in her East Wing office. Classically chic in barely-there makeup and a curve-hugging black sheath, she settles into a plump armchair with a grin. “Whew. That commute is murder,” she declares.

Oh, where was she coming from? She jerks her head toward the hallway and the staircase leading up to the family’s private quarters on the third floor. “Over there!”

Deadpan humor is Obama’s default mode—Michelle from the South Side keeping FLOTUS in check—and while her statuesque bearing suggests otherwise, it’s quickly apparent that three years in the White House have not increased her tolerance for formality. She leans forward while speaking, locking eyes while she passionately describes the pet program she has managed to keep out of the spotlight: “I wanted [the students] to experience this notion that if you can walk [through] the doors of the White House once a month and sit down with the first lady and her chief of staff and some other senior officials, and they’re talking to you and you get used to hearing your voice in the space, then it becomes not a big deal.”

And so her program pairs teenage girls with “this wonderful array of women who come from different backgrounds,” she says. “They’re senior leaders in President Obama’s administration, and they all have a story, right? They all have a set of challenges and struggles.” Those stories, Obama believes, are best told in person, over time, creating the kind of enduring bond the social media generation sorely lacks. “Even though our children are connecting in ways we never imagined,” she told a national summit on mentoring not long ago, “you’ve got an entire generation of young people truly in desperate need of a friend. Someone they can trust, an example they can follow.”

First Published January 31, 2012

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