A true woman of substance

2011-06-18 16:49

From the moment Michelle Obama waltzed around the room to the tune of Etta James’ At Last, a new kind of first lady took over in America.

Smiling happily in her husband’s arms, she wore a one-shoulder gown made of white chiffon, covered in appliqué and beading. She was the first lady of style.

And it was then that the world exhaled and realised that the first black family had finally moved into the White House, with a strong woman heading the household.

“Nothing in my life’s path ever would have predicted that I would be standing here as the first African-American first lady,” Obama told a group of inner-city students she was hosting at the White House.

“I wasn’t raised with wealth or resources or any social standing to speak of,” she said.

Physically, she is the perfect clothes horse. An athletic body, toned arms, a powerful man at her side and a great dress sense.

And with every garment she wore, market shares of those companies soared. According to Time magazine, “every time Obama wore a J Crew outfit, the company’s stock enjoyed a boost and the items she had chosen sold out”.

Her fashion trends have graced thousands of magazines internationally and numerous book covers – ­Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style by Kate Betts, Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion by ­Mandy Norwood and another by Susan Swimmer – Michelle Obama: First Lady of Fashion and Style.

But it is her decision to run the White House and her private life as she feels fit that changed the perception of her from a fashion rock star to a new kind of first lady.

Gone was the traditional role of rubbing shoulders with congressional wives or hosting tea parties.

Instead she turned her attention and power to issues that made a difference.

Michelle remade one of the lawns of the White House into a giant vegetable patch and toured the country to promote healthy eating and living habits. She made military families and their needs a top priority, given that her husband inherited two overseas wars.

But she also made sure her family and her two daughters came first.

Mrs O regularly puts on a baseball cap and goes bargain hunting with her friends in malls around Washington DC. She and Barack still have a date night every week to keep the romance fresh.

When Mrs O first hit the campaign trail, she was portrayed as unpatriotic, snobby and a caricature of an angry black woman.

The first lady attracted more criticism when she hired close friends and some politically inexperienced people from the campaign and her Chicago life as her staff. But there was always more to Michelle than met the eye.

Born Michelle LaVaughn Robinson in Chicago, Mrs O is an alumnus of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, where she graduated as a lawyer before returning to Chicago to work at the law firm Sidley Austin.

Michelle was one of few African- Americans who worked at the firm at the time, and was assigned to mentor Barack Obama as a summer associate – which was how their fairytale romance began.

Obama apparently first wooed her by taking her to lunch, then it was a community meeting and soon the couple went on a date where they watched a Spike Lee movie, Do the Right Thing.

In 1991, Michelle worked as the assistant to the mayor of Chicago Richard M Dalye, before she wed Barack in October 1992.

In 1993, she became executive director for the non-profit organisation in the Chicago office of Public Allies, where she worked for almost four years, before taking up the job as associate dean of the University of Chicago in 1996.

Two years later she welcomed their first daughter Malia into the world, and in 2001 had Natasha, who is known by her nickname ­Sasha.

In 2002 Michelle started working at the University of Chicago Hospital, starting as executive director for community affairs and then vice-president for community and external affairs. She continued working with the hospital until the early stages of Barack’s campaign for president in 2007.

According to 2006 tax returns the first lady earned almost double what Barack was earning.

In a recent interview Swimmer described Mrs O as a “modern first lady”, comparing her to Jackie Kennedy while calling her “highly educated, very successful . . .  a corporate executive for years and a modern representation of what women are today”.

As she heads to South Africa and Botswana this week, Mrs O’s clothes might be in the spotlight, but she really is here to work on the issues close to her heart.

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