Five things we learned from Michelle Obama's intimate O2 Arena chat

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Meena Alexander
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Everyone’s favourite former First Lady dropped some nuggets of wisdom as her Becoming tour returned to London for a sell-out event. Stylist’s Meena Alexander reveals her five take-away points from the chat. 

Oh Michelle – light of our lives, queen of our hearts, patron saint of toned arms – how we miss you every day. 

There’s no denying that Michelle Obama is one of the world’s most beloved and inspirational leaders, so it’s unsurprising that demand for her Becoming book tour went through the roof. But for her to sell out London’s O2 Arena, drawing a 15,000-strong crowd that rose to their feet as she walked out to Beyonce’s Halo (appropriate), is nothing short of incredible. 

There were no laser light shows, no song and dance routines, no dramatic clouds of smoke – just Obama and The Late Show host Stephen Colbert in big comfy chairs, having a chat. And yet it was the most joyful experience I’ve had over the past few Brexit-tinged, Trump-enraged months. 

As ever, she dropped some gems – here’s what I learned:

Humility is always a good look

Unlike so many people in a position of power, Obama is humble to a fault. Her achievements as a lawyer, activist and former First Lady are awe-inspiring, yet she constantly deflects praise onto others. 

She credited the White House staff for helping to raise her daughters. She thanked her parents – particularly her father, who “always respected her as an equal and relevant voice in the household” – for raising her to be confident and independent. 

Even the roaring crowds at the O2 Arena didn’t go to her head – she simply attributed the success of her book to the unified experience of people all over the world, encouraging us to realise how much we all have in common. 

It turns out the most impressive people don’t need to waste time telling you how impressive they are…

Rise above negativity

“When they go low, we go high,” is Obama’s most famous quote, and it’s one she lives by. Of course, during her talk there were plenty of references to the “current occupant of the White House”, but ever the class act, Obama was never tempted to take a cheap shot. 

She encouraged the audience to remain hopeful and “take a long-term view”, but refused to be drawn into mud-slinging. 

When asked how she felt about the dismantling of her husband’s legacy, she simply said: “America is like a teenager that comes from a broken family. We’re a little unsettled. Sometimes you spend the weekends with divorced dad and that feels like it’s fun, but then you get sick of it. 

“That’s what America’s going through. We’re living with divorced dad right now.” Indeed…

Stay engaged so you can shape the future

Although Obama recognised social media as a tool that has opened up the diversity of the world to young people, she also warned against allowing it to define our views. 

“We have got to get off the phone and start talking to each other face to face,” she said. “We can’t rely solely on this little intermediary to tell us about the world.” 

She encouraged the audience to be sceptical about the information we take in, measuring it against our own interactions with people rather than taking it as read. 

When asked how an individual can effect positive change in these tumultuous times, she said: “My advice is: get to work. Don’t be complacent and don’t become so cynical that you just turn off. It’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and if we are not happy with the state of things then, in democracies, we have votes. If we don’t vote, somebody will.” 

Yeah, I was practically whooping at this point. 

Know it’s okay to take a step back

Phew, she is human. When asked by a fan how she dealt with the steady onslaught of bad news coming from our TVs and smartphones, Obama admitted that sometimes she has to take a break if she isn’t feeling “emotionally able” to deal with it – something many of us have felt in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. 

“I only let some of that stuff enter into my world when I am ready and solid – that’s what I would recommend,” she said. 

“You can’t have a steady diet of fear and frustration coming in.” 

Change isn’t linear

The Obamas’ message has always been one of hope, and Michelle is still very much ‘on brand’. 

Though she’s taken harder knocks than most, enduring racist, misogynistic attacks throughout her husband’s campaign, she never loses sight of what she wants: a better, fairer future for everyone. “We’re experiencing bumps in the road, but change is hard, nobody said it was going to be easy,” she said. 

She reminded would-be activists that fighting for change wasn’t about glory, but about “planting seeds you may never see the fruits of”. 

She left the audience on a hopeful high, reminding us that dips and backward slides were a natural part of progress. “We have an obligation not to lose faith in the possibility of being better,” she said. 

Her words rung in my ears as the crowds slowly trickled out. 

Her over-arching message had finally hit home: if she, a black woman from humble beginnings on the South Side of Chicago, can achieve great things, then so can everybody else.