Maria Shriver: Reinventing the First Lady

With her husband busy in the governor’s office and her job at NBC News no longer an option, Maria Shriver had only one choice: to reinvent the role of California’s first lady (and have some fun along the way).

By Karen Breslau

Going BarefootMaria Shriver is in her stocking feet. This in and of itself might not be newsworthy, but for the fact that the first lady of California is standing on the floor of the state senate. Every eye in the ornate, red velvet-draped chamber is on her, reporters jostling and television cameras rolling, as she congratulates recipients of the senate’s annual Women of the Year awards. According to the official historian who tracks these things, this is the first time since 1879 that a first lady has appeared before the legislature unchaperoned by her husband (the last time was when Mrs. William Irwin poured tea here for the wife of Ulysses S. Grant). From the waist up, Shriver looks suitably first-lady-like in an elegant black Valentino skirt suit, her lustrous auburn hair styled into loose, youthful curls. She addresses the lawmakers while standing at one of the antique oak desks arrayed in a semicircle around the chamber; unless you are behind her, you’d never know that her Manolo Blahniks are lying askew at a senator’s feet. In fact, the breach of podiatric protocol may well have gone unnoticed, had Shriver, reverting perhaps to her instincts as a former television reporter, not announced the news herself: "I’m nursing a bad back," she explains. "So take off your heels, because I’m going to do the same."It’s not entirely clear whether this is a moment of statecraft or standup comedy. After praising the honorees, Shriver wastes no time having a little partisan fun at her Republican husband’s expense: "We all have something in common," she tells the senators, most of whom, like her, are staunch Democrats. "We’re all trying to get my husband to do what we want." Noting that the legislators have grown increasingly critical of Arnold Schwarzenegger during his second year in office, she cracks, "Either you have a great sense of humor [to invite me here], or, like me, you’ve given up resentment for Lent."Amid the appreciative laughter, Clint Eastwood ambles into the back of the chamber with his wife, Dina, who is one of the senate’s honorees. He’s carrying what one assumes is her pink rhinestone-studded handbag. The first lady has no shoes and the craggy tough guy is clutching a purse. If ever there was a snapshot that captures how Sacramento — not to mention Shriver’s life — has been turned upside-down since her husband became governor a year and a half ago, this has to be it. Reinventing the RoleAs she alludes mischievously to controversy without wading into it, it’s clear that every strand of Shriver’s impressive political DNA — as a Kennedy, a media star, and Democratic wife of the nation’s most famous Republican governor — is being put to good use. Despite her ambivalence over leaving her job at NBC News in order to serve her husband’s administration — a tradeoff she at first resisted — she is now determined to have a good time in her new role. Shriver turns 50 later this year, and while her teenage daughters have already started teasing her about "passing the torch," she says more helpful advice came from her good friend Oprah Winfrey. "She tells me, ‘Your job is to kick it up this year, turn it up a notch — how you dress, how you handle yourself, how you have fun.’"At least for this chapter of her life, that’s meant giving in to an existence that seems almost genetically predetermined. But forget about hairspray and tea parties — and don’t expect Shriver to evolve into a left-coast Hillary, tinkering with public policy. Instead, she is transforming the quaint office she inherited into an entrepreneurial, public-service startup. "This is a job people like to make fun of," Shriver says. "Like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re planning parties.’ I’ve tried to turn this into a creative, idea-based job." She launched a phone-card program to supply the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with free calls home. She’s marketing a jewelry line to help fund the California State Alliance (which supports the enhancement of public schools and parks). Last year, Shriver remade the once-staid annual Governor’s Conference on Women and Families into a profitable, multimedia extravaganza, featuring appearances by famous friends like Oprah, Queen Noor of Jordan, and Sheryl Crow — and 10,000 ticket-buying attendees.

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