How Michelle Obama has taught so many British women … Yes, you can be good enough

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  • Michelle Obama has sold more than 10million copies sold worldwide of memoir
  • On Sunday she is appearing at 02 in London which is close to a sell out event
  • Michelle has almost eclipsed husband president Barack Obama on world stage 
  • Writer Jenni Murray said honesty and humour leap from the pages of Becoming

A staggering 632,000 copies bought in Britain; 20 weeks in the top ten hardback best-seller list — and counting. 

More than ten million copies sold worldwide — it’s still flying off the shelves — which puts it on track to become the most successful memoir in modern publishing.

Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming, is becoming an international phenomenon. So what, you might shrug. 

Isn’t that what you’d expect of one of the most famous women in the world, the first African-American First Lady who is the beneficiary of a global promotional tour and gushing reviews?

To a point, yes. But there is something else going on — especially here in Britain where you’d expect limited interest in Michelle Obama.

Travel on any bus, train, Tube or plane, and I’ll wager you’ll spot at least one woman immersed in Becoming. And Obama’s appearance this Sunday at London’s O2 Arena is close to a sell-out — just as at every other venue she’s graced across the globe.

It seems women of all ages and all races want to immerse themselves in Michelle Obama’s remarkable story and learn from it. It’s rare for anyone largely known for being ‘just the wife’ to transcend that role. 

But, three years after they left the White House, Michelle has almost eclipsed her husband, America’s 44th president Barack Obama, on the world stage.

She’s certainly wielding far more influence than her formidable predecessor Hillary Clinton.

So what is it about Michelle that has aroused such interest in women — especially young women?

Well, if you’re going to judge a book by its cover, look no further than this one. The portrait captures her wider appeal: a beautiful, mature woman who exudes character and intelligence.

The 55-year-old’s honesty and humour leap from the pages, while few would argue with her over-arching message that every human being is equal, regardless of colour, religion, gender or class.

However, this book’s irresistible draw is its openness about the good and the bad in life.

It’s the story of a 21st-century woman, beset by all the anxieties of being ‘not good enough’, and an inadequate juggler of family and work.

Michelle admits to still suffering from ‘Imposter Syndrome’ and to still being driven by a ‘reflexive’ wish for people’s approval. How many of us recognise those feelings!

It’s about being the wife of a powerful man and risking the loss of her own voice in his shadow. It’s also about resilience and fighting back — in style. Her riposte to critics is: ‘When they go low, we go high.’

It’s about being a daughter, a wife, a mother, about having a career, worrying about the future of the world, about body issues, enjoying fashion . . . all the big and small stuff we all care about.

But mostly, this is a great love story in which a woman finds her perfect partner (although by no means the perfect man), loves and is loved and, despite enormous difficulties, finds a way to make it work.

I first became conscious of the beguiling personality behind the tall, imposing figure when she accompanied President Obama to London in 2009. 

She visited the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in inner-city London, where a fifth of the teenage audience were the daughters of refugees and asylum-seekers. More than 90 per cent were black or from an ethnic minority.

‘I want you to know that we have very much in common,’ Michelle began. ‘For nothing in my life’s path would have predicted that I would be standing here as the First Lady . . . ’ 

She talked about being ‘a little girl from Chicago’s South Side’ who ‘was not raised with wealth or resources or any social standing to speak of’.

At 16, she was told by a high school counsellor: ‘I don’t think you’re Princeton [a leading American university] material.’

This misguided ‘doubter’ only fuelled the young Michelle’s determination to succeed.

‘If you want to know the reason why I’m standing here, it’s because of education,’ she said.

She did get into Princeton and then Harvard Law School.

Being poor and under-privileged, she added, ought never be a barrier to opportunity. ‘We are counting on you, we are counting on every single one of you to be the best that you can be.’

Her young audience was spellbound. And when Michelle returned to the school last year, she discovered that her message had exacted results. Many of the girls she’d met achieved much better grades than expected. 

One of them, Letrishka Anthony, now a senior analyst at a business intelligence company, has said: ‘Mrs Obama talks about things that we can relate to . . . She even spoke about doubt and how sometimes she also doubts herself . . . ’

Her early life, then, was one of determination and diligence that can inspire, but her book makes it clear that it wasn’t all work and duty. The young Michelle Robinson had time for fun, too.

She was 25 and working at one of Chicago’s top law firms when she met Barack Obama in 1989. He was a student on work experience — under her supervision.

The romance blossomed slowly: Michelle found him nerdy and tried to pair him off with friends. Then, one evening as she drove him home after a barbecue, Barack suggested ice cream.

As they sat on the kerb side by side, he asked: ‘Can I kiss you?’ ‘And with that,’ she writes: ‘I leaned in and everything became clear.’ She felt ‘a toppling blast of lust, gratitude, fulfilment, wonder’ that would develop into a ‘visceral, grounding love’.

The couple’s early life together is an object lesson in how a husband and wife can succeed — as long as they share a moral compass and constantly work on their relationship.

‘Even a happy marriage can be a vexation,’ she admits.

In many ways, they were opposites. Michelle was fiendishly tidy and organised, and irritated by his scattered books and newspapers — and his inability ever to think to fill an empty fridge.

Their backgrounds were also different. Michelle grew up in a one-bedroom rented apartment with her parents, Fraser and Marian, and brother Craig. Her dad put up a plywood partition in the living room to make rooms for his children.

Barack was a baby when his parents’ marriage failed. His father was a Kenyan academic and later civil servant, his mother a white American graduate, and he was raised in more privileged surroundings by his maternal grandparents in Hawaii.

Perhaps this experience led Barack to dismiss marriage as a ‘piece of paper’. Michelle, though, influenced by her parents’ happy union, wanted passionately to marry and have children.

The night Barack finished his Bar exams, they went out to celebrate. He raised the subject of marriage — and reiterated it was pointless. Michelle, as usual, fiercely defended the institution.

A waiter placed a plate in front of her, and lifted the lid: there sat a box containing a ring. Barack went down on one knee.

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘Well, that should shut you up!’ he replied. A humorous romantic hero . . . what more could any woman want!

‘I didn’t want them to believe that life began when the man of the house arrived home. We didn’t wait for Dad. It was his job to catch up with us,’ she says.

Her life in the White House between 2009 and 2017 is perhaps less interesting than the journey there. 

She set out to be more than ‘some well-dressed ornament who showed up at parties and ribbon cuttings’ and in an understated way achieved that with her focus on family health and education.

Lest Barack Obama seem a bystander in all of this, there is no question that Michelle takes huge pride in his achievements.

While some critics have pointed to a lacklustre presidency that failed to deliver on its bright promise — indirectly leading to the rise of Donald Trump — she is fierce in her defence of his legacy. 

Her tribute to him is as impassioned as her reaction to Trump’s election. She had to go public, she says, with her abhorrence of the latter’s misogyny.

All of this distracts from what Becoming has become: Michelle Obama is now far bigger than any politician’s wife — even, some might say, than any politician.

Despite the rumours, Michelle says she has no intention — ‘ever’ — of running for office. Which is a pity. Few are better equipped to be the first U.S. woman president. 

But even without that stellar achievement, Michelle Obama on current form might prove to be her husband’s greatest legacy. 


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