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12 things we learnt from Michelle Obama last night

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Susan Riley
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Ninety minutes in a room with our favourite former First Lady and what did we walk away with? Stylist editor Susan Riley reveals her top 12 learnings from one of the most anticipated conversations of the year.

When I logged on just before 9am on Thursday 8 November to book me and my friends a ticket, I was informed I was in a queue.

Unsurprising.

After all, this was a ticket to see Michelle Obama (heroine #1) in conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (heroine #2) at London’s Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, not a scrum to get the last emergency doctors appointment (you too?).

However… said queue was slightly longer than anticipated; I was 25,000th in line. Forget the Spice Girls; Obama and Ngozi Adichie were this year’s hottest ticket.

The allure of Obama is one that sends grown women – myself included – into a homage-ridden frenzy. The always classy ‘When they go low, we go high’ orator, former First Lady, global defender of girls and now-author of biography BECOMING, is an inspirational tour de force. Throw in Ngozi Adichie – acclaimed author of novels (Purple Hibiscus; Americanah), widely cited feminist manifestos (We Should All be Feminists), and owner of an Instagram account where she wears only Nigerian designs (such is her desire to boost the business credentials of her home country) – as her interviewer, and you’ve got a power couple on your hands. I seriously cannot even describe how much I love them both.

And so last night I found myself in total pinch-me bliss cannot – surrounded by the likes of Sadiq Khan, Denise Lewis, Michaela Coel, Adwoa Aboah, 300 schoolchildren and over 2000 other lucky members of the public who were 24,999 places in front of me in the queue – in an auditorium fizzing with anticipation and admiration as I made copious notes in the dark. And so here are my hastily scribbled highlights of a night full of wonderful nuggets.

1. Michelle Obama and peanut butter are firm friends

An unexpected opening question yes, but a crucial theme of BECOMING argued Ngozi Adichie. “Peanut butter and I have had a close relationship for the last 50 years,” confessed Obama who said that growing up, she argued that it had protein and therefore should suffice as nutritious food – having had it every morning for breakfast with jelly (jam) until she was around 20. She’s now replaced it with granola, just in case you were wondering.

2. She’s not this amazing by chance

Obama spoke lovingly and respectfully about her upbringing in Chicago, describing how she “grew up with the sound of striving” and that her mother told them that she was raising adults, not babies and so encouraged them to let their voices be heard. “My parents believed my voice was relevant… that my anger and frustration was real”. She continued that her mother and father put thought and pro-activity into their parenting, which she says is more important than any financial legacy could ever be.

3. Her dad’s illness has had a lasting impact

On discussing the illness of her father [Fraser C Robinson had Multiple Sclerosis and died in 1991], Obama said that his death “was sudden but always looming” and admitted that she “grew up watching my father in decline”.

“How does it affect you when your parent is in a weakened state? There is an element of caution in you… I always have to have a plan to this day”. She also admitted that not a day goes by when she doesn’t think how her father might hear her words and whether she is making him proud.

4. She’s been driven by the queen

“After all those protocol lessons, I was human,” Obama joked as Ngozi Adichie reminded her of the time she made the faux pas of ‘touching’ Queen Elizabeth II. Then she launched into a wonderful anecdote proving the Queen isn’t quite so formal herself. 

Describing the Obamas’ last visit to Windsor Castle, she revealed that after numerous protocol briefings about where to sit and what to do when the Queen picked them up (a sight too joyous to imagine), the behind-the-wheel queen insisted it’s all rubbish and to ‘just get in!’ “Barack is so incredibly fond of her,” Obama continued. “I won’t go into his fangirling - Toots he calls her - but he’s a huge fan.”

5. She refuses to be a meme girl

Far from thinking about something deep and meaningful whenever she steps onto a stage or into a crowd, Obama very humanly admitted her chief concern has been not to fall or trip.

“One of my primary goals for 8 years was not to become a meme,” she laughed.

Start by getting those demons out of your head. ‘Am I good enough?’ haunts us all.

6. Girls of the world: she’ll forever have your back

Insistent that we don’t “douse the flame of girls,” Obama confirmed she will continue to work on girls’ education for the rest of her life. She admitted that she finds it painful to think about girls who have intellect and no outlet for it, and that she is moved when she sees girls pushing beyond their circumstances or against people who’ve set the bar too low for them. Obama says it is her mission to “change the minds of parents or men who think it’s not a good investment to send their girls to school.”

7. She’s not done – and neither are you

When Ngozi Adichie suggested to Obama that, with her success, she had arguably already ‘Become’, so why call the book BECOMING? Obama replied: “One of the questions I hate that we ask children is: what do you want to be when you grow up?” Growing up is not finite; we don’t just have one or two chapters. I went to Harvard to study law… turns out I hated law! Then before [being] First Lady I did so many things… the White House thing is only a bit of what defines me as a person. I am still ‘Becoming’.”

8. Jerry Maguire was wrong; no one else can complete you

Good-naturedly referring to Barack as “Mr save the world”, Obama described realising she needed her own plan. “Meeting Barack pushed me to think more broadly about my life and my journey… I didn’t just want to follow his jet stream. I wanted my own sense of self. I knew I hadn’t spent enough time developing me.

“A partnership takes two whole people. You have to choose someone who’s pretty well formed and I too had to be formed, so I could stake my claim in this relationship.”

To this end, Obama admitted she started journaling, questioning whether she was changing because of him or for herself, and confronting the difficult fact she wasn’t in a career (law) that gave her any joy after investing a lot in it.

9. “Am I good enough?” haunts us all

When Ngozi Adichie asked Obama how to navigate being female, young and black, Obama replied: “It’s still hard out there.”

“Chapter 17 [of BECOMING, in which Obama talks about the racism and criticism she encountered shortly after entering the White House] was the hardest to write because black women become a caricature. We are demonised; we are too loud, too everything. [It’s] how dare I have a voice and use it.

“My advice? Start by getting those demons out of your head. ‘Am I good enough?’ haunts us all, and is profound for women of colour in a way that most people don’t understand.

“You have to have an education. When I faced those negative images, all I could do was put my head down and do the work. [So] your task is to get yourself ready for it, because it is a battle and it will crush you if you’re not ready for it. That means we have to support each other.”

10. She still feels hope

While no time was given in the chat to Trump or current affairs, Obama did offer this: “Change is not a straight line. We mistakenly thought Barack Obama was going to ease hundreds of years of history in eight years. That’s ridiculous. We are putting down markers… we’re all laying the foundation for the next generation. That’s how we make progress.”

11. Even their marriage needs work

Obama was perplexed at Ngozi Adichie’s surprise at how honestly she had written about her relationship and the fact she’d had marriage counselling. “Why?! People have career counselling,” she exclaimed. “You’re trying to meld two lives together forever. It’s hard. Many people look at our marriage as #relationshipgoals… Well, let me tell you about Barack and Michelle! There’s going to be huge amounts of time when you’ll want to push him out the window.”

12. You’ll like yourself – eventually

Liking yourself takes time according to Obama. “It’s a process. In your twenties and thirties, you may not like you yet as you haven’t explored yourself yet. That is the process of becoming… it takes time and experiences.” 

But about one thing Obama was clear: “Eliminate people who don’t add value to your life”. For me, and for some many more than 25,000 people, neither her or Ngozi Adichie will ever be in that category.   

BECOMING by Michelle Obama is available now.

Images: Southbank Centre