As the wife of a public figure, she lived under intense public scrutiny. She spent crucial years trying to raise a family in an environment where her freedom of movement was hugely circumscribed. Before an audience, her outfits were held up for analysis. Every feature of her body was subject to an unrelenting public gaze. She was chastised for speaking out of turn, or too impartially, and was the frequent target of racist hate.
Like Meghan Markle, Michelle Obama made a decision to become a public servant, sublimating her own ambitions to fulfil what she believed to be a greater good. When her husband left office in 2017, after eight years in the White House, she documented much of her life story in the autobiography Becoming, and then kept a relatively low profile for a while.
Lately, though, Michelle Obama has been much about. The former first lady is in the midst of a states-wide tour, promoting her new self-help book The Light We Carry: Overcoming in Uncertain Times. Actually, she doesn’t call it a self-help book — she describes it as a “personal toolbox” for how to navigate hard times. It draws on her experience as the first lady, her fears around the pandemic and the polarisation of society, as well as the more general challenges of being a parent, mother or partner, to offer her advice on how to build better relationships with those we love.
For those in the audience, Obama’s second phase has been a joy to watch. Notwithstanding the power biceps, Obama for so long wore the uniform of spousal devotion that one could mistake her for being somewhat mild. Since leaving the White House “lockdown”, she’s become the breakout star of the new Obama show. Yes, the brand is rich in Christian homily and self-improvement — but the stiff-jawed stoicism has been cast aside. Unencumbered by protocol or political expectation, her brand is joyful, fierce and free.
And then there is The Fashion: rarely has such a high-profile woman who is not a pop star been so bold and experimental with her choice of clothes. With the help of “clothing curator” Meredith Koop, Obama’s book-tour wardrobe has been wild. First there was that fabulous highlighter-yellow pantsuit, by Proenza Schouler, that she wore on the first date of her current tour. She wore it buttoned to the neck (high fashion) and with a side parting, setting the tone for a tour in which each look has owned the room. She wore a sparkly “late-night” gold glitter sweater for Colbert, a Canadian tuxedo by cult Scandi label Ganni and a Bottega Veneta power suit in Pennsylvania. This week she wore her waist-length hair in cornrows, with a wide-legged velvet suit and an asymmetric bodice printed with a picture of Diana Ross.
If clothes are an outward expression of one’s feelings, Obama is living her best life. Her look is huge, epic and unapologetic — no longer on the sidelines of world events, she’s stepped up and filled the space.
I wonder what she makes of the Sussexes, sitting in California bent on retelling their sad tales. Their Netflix series Meghan & Harry is finally rolling out, eclipsing all other news stories and once again fuelling the anti-Windsor fire. But rather than finding the couple happy, we see them occupying an even more peculiar bubble than before: self-exiled in their Montecito mansion, quibbling about who said what to whom. Their brand is a litany of sadness. And they have plausible cause. But unlike Michelle, who counsels against becoming “stuck” in one’s neuroses, the Sussexes have built their brand on their shared fears.
Michelle Obama regularly cites her husband’s decision to run for president as being the most fearful moment of her life. She understood the impact she could make on his decision, and how their campaign could alter history. Of the very few women who might understand Meghan’s position, she is one who has stood in similar shoes. When asked in 2018 if she had any wisdom she would share with Meghan, she offered this: “My biggest piece of advice would be to take some time and don’t be in a hurry to do anything.”
Later, reacting to the fallout over the couple’s decision to leave Britain, she clearly felt some sympathy. “Public service — it’s a bright, sharp, hot spotlight and most people don’t understand it,” she told the Today show. “The thing that I always keep in mind is that none of this is about us. In public service. It’s about the people that we serve.”
Michelle has taken the spotlight of public office to build herself a stunning brand. Not everyone will love her folksy wisdom, but her effervescent energy, her confidence, is dazzling to behold. She seems lighter and unbothered, a woman who is getting what she deserves. By contrast, the Sussexes have used their spotlight to illuminate a history of ills. From their beige palace of discontent they are now bound endlessly to recount the story of their unbecoming on an ever bigger stage. No one would deny their troubles, nor the life events they’ve had to overcome, but their lives are further shrunken with each retelling; they took the “freedom flight” to create themselves an even smaller world.
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