Europe melts for Michelle
4/4/09 10:30 PM EDT

He was cool and understated, the slightest bit aloof. She choked up as she told young minority girls to follow their dreams.

He gave speeches. She gave hugs. And while Barack Obama came to Europe as the American president, Michelle Obama came as something entirely different – almost an American tourist, but the kind even jaded Europeans could love, big-hearted, curious, sophisticated yet accessible.

They simply melted for Michelle.

Of course, the Europeans were eager to gush over a First Couple not named Bush. In fact, if one of the White House’s goals for this trip is repair the U.S. reputation abroad after the Bush era, Michelle was an equal partner in the effort, in ways different from her husband.

Barack Obama wins them over with a personal style and an embrace of internationalism that seems almost European. Michelle Obama is the approachable one, fashionable yet down-to-earth, and effusive (rubbing the Queen’s back!) in an endearing way.

“She still seems to be wide eyed in the job and pinching herself as if she can’t believe it, because who would have predicted this?” said Joanna Coles, who is British and is editor-in-chief of Marie Claire.

“And that’s what’s exciting about her, and that’s what exciting about America, and that’s what she represents,” Coles said.

Whatever it was, the Europeans fell hard. Dubbed Mighty Michelle by one British tab—because of her sculpted arms, her Ivy League pedigree, fashion sense and her power as a cultural symbol—Obama’s star power grew with every day of her European tour. Her fashion choices were front-page news.

Coverage of her every move kept pace with coverage of the president.


“They appreciate the fact that she is so authentically herself. That she is very comfortable in her own skin and that her spirit comes through when she meets people,” Camille Johnston, Obama’s director of communications said. “People who have come to know her in the U.S. have seen that and now
it’s become apparent to people around the world.”

While her meetings with the Queen, Sarah Brown and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy were the most anticipated, the most-remembered image of Michelle Obama might well be her meeting with a group of minority girls at a London school.

She gave the same up-from-the-South-Side speech she often gives at home, yet her aides said she recognized what a moment it was in history, for her to be on the world stage as the first African-American first lady.

Her voice broke with emotion, and her aides said that she saw herself in the faces of the students. Afterward, she practically dove into the crowd, kneeling at the edge of the stage to dole out hugs. “People identify with her, even here, she is seen as a woman of the people,” said Crystal Fleming, who is affiliated with the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris. “The French magazine Le Point dubbed her ‘the princess of the people,’ which is pretty impressive when you think about it. She’s an African American woman.”

Fleming said that for non-Americans, Michelle Obama, even more so than her husband, “incarnates how far African-Americans have come, she’s the descendant of slaves, Barack is not, and that is really a source of inspiration that she is in the White House. She is seen as a symbol of progress and source of pride.”


The second article is from The London Telegraph:

Michelle Obama: The birth of a very modern superstar
Over the past week Michelle Obama has eclipsed everyone, including her husband. A fellow Chicagoan celebrates the emergence of an icon
By Bonnie Greer
Last Updated: 10:44AM BST 04 Apr 2009

It is well known in the environs of my native Southside of Chicago, the same area in which Michelle Obama was born and raised, that it is she who is the Power and her husband who is the Glory. For it was Michelle who took the rather exotically, for Americans, Kenyan bred and reared Barack Obama and made him into the genuine article – complete with the proper accent, choice of sport, and correct approach to the problems of the day.

To say that he would not be where he is today without her may be overstating the case, but imagine him with a typical American politico’s wife: iron-hair, rigid expression, cookie-cutting tendencies, and you can see what I mean.

Michelle is from a different world and there is simply no chance of that. Southsiders are largely descended from the great migration after the First World War, when the children of slaves made the move away from the peonage of sharecropping into industrial powerhouses like Chicago.

Too often people fled from lynchings and house-burnings, and the evil spell of one neighbour towards another. The railroad was their chariot of fire and a decent day’s work was the main goal in life.

These people – my ancestors and Michelle’s – existed in a city which Martin Luther King once called the most segregated in America. Even as recently as the late 1960s, black kids were being bussed amid murderous hostility to school – schools which they were constitutionally entitled to attend, but could not by local law and tradition. The very act of stepping out of your front door in the wrong neighbourhood could get you killed.

Everyone knows this to be true and you live accordingly. Almost every family has a brother or father or uncle or male cousin who has been involved with the criminal justice system, whether guilty or not.

Michelle once said in response to whether she was afraid that her husband would be assassinated: “Barack is a black man. He could get killed going to the gas station.”

That is the ordinary – and extraordinary, in the case of Barack Obama – black man’s lot. But Michelle, while quietly determined to be as ordinary a wife and mother as she can be in her new incarnation, is no ordinary woman.

We saw that this week when she met the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh; clearly, they found her presence electrifying. The Duke of Edinburgh was reduced to nervous giggles. The Queen, clearly magnetised by this woman who has metamorphosed before our very eyes into a global phenomenon, put her arm around Michelle. Michelle, so natural and charming and warm, was quick to reciprocate. Here is a woman not afraid of touch, a woman whose easy physicality we have already seen with her children and her husband. Here is a woman who knows how to communicate, not just with words but with her body language. The last time we saw these qualities so dazzlingly embodied was in the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

We were reminded of them again when Michelle visited the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in Islington, north London. “I do hugs,” she said, after she had thrilled 100 schoolgirls with her motivational speech and effortlessly embraced them. The girls erupted in squeals, high-fives and tears. She told them that “being smart is cooler than anything in the world”. What are the chances of those children getting that message? High. That’s because she spoke from the heart, not from a script.

But it is her silence that has also amplified her star status. The moment she stepped off Air Force One is preserved in our collective memory: it was like a clip from a movie. She and the husband she has supported and nurtured and expected the best of looked like movie stars, but of a singularly fresh model. They are stars with substance. They have both emerged triumphant from a script that once would have written them out.


The black Southside of Chicago in Michelle’s time was about stay-at-home moms who could bring up daughters whose eyes were set on Harvard and a career, and working-class fathers who took the time after work to read from encyclopaedias to their girls because, in the fight for equality, it was all hands on deck.

This has given Michelle a no-nonsense detector which I suspect the Queen picked up on immediately and endeared the new First Lady to her. No surprises, then, that they took to one another; the Queen, no doubt having been in the presence of myriads of phoneys during her reign, is herself armed with a radar detector second to none.

For dark-skinned women, especially black women, the fact that Michelle Obama will become one of the most photographed women in the world is a gift beyond measure. She erases in an instant the notion of blondeness as supreme beauty icon, a notion which plagues all women, blonde and non-blonde.

She is neither supermodel, nor librarian, trophy wife nor co-partner in her husband’s presidency. She is a mother who has taught her daughters to eat healthier food than she does. She is an executive who asked her husband when he was going to start to earn some decent money because she was tired of being the chief breadwinner. She is a daughter who brought her mother, a descendant of slaves, too, into the great White House that slaves had built.

Dressing her girls like proper Southside little black girls, she has brought innocence and demureness back to a world in which eight-year-old girls wear T-shirts that read: “Too Many Boys, So Little Time”.

But it was at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school, where she spoke on Thursday, that gave us the measure of the woman. As she squatted and kissed and shook hands with the screaming hordes of young women who came rushing to greet her to show their love and admiration, there was no doubt in my mind that any one of them could be a future prime minister. Put aside the lachrymose sentimentality that follows the Obamas like the plague and listen to what she said that day: “Nothing in my background would lead me to believe that I would be standing before you today.”

Take that as read because it is true.

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