HER SPOT­LIGHT

The Sunday Independent - - PEOPLE - Wash­ing­ton Post PETER SLEVIN Be­com­ing, Be­com­ing To­day Show, | Wash­ing­ton Post

TWENTY-one months af­ter she left the White House, Michelle Obama is re­turn­ing to pub­lic life feel­ing pur­pose­ful and in­vig­o­rated. She launched, within weeks, high-pro­file so­cial ini­tia­tives on vot­ing and girls ed­u­ca­tion while pre­par­ing for a mega-book tour un­like any other book tour.

Fans have bought tens of thou­sands of tick­ets to hear Obama share sto­ries from her mem­oir, in bas­ket­ball are­nas in 10 cities. Com­bined with the celebrity-laden roll outs of her lat­est projects, the for­mer first lady is demon­strat­ing a mix of un­com­mon star power and bank­a­bil­ity while ad­vanc­ing themes that mat­ter to her.

Obama, 54, feels lib­er­ated af­ter a decade in the po­lit­i­cal spot­light where she was teth­ered to her hus­band’s ca­reer and a White House role marked by op­por­tu­ni­ties and con­straints, say those who know her well. They say she is rev­el­ling in the chance to de­velop her own mean­ing­ful pur­suits.

“The pos­si­bil­i­ties are in­fi­nite,” said friend and for­mer White House ad­viser Va­lerie Jar­rett, who de­scribes Obama as fired-up and happy.

“She’s able to lead her best life and cre­ate and own it in her own im­age.”

On Thurs­day on a New York tele­vi­sion stage, Obama un­veiled a project in­tended to help ed­u­cate tens of mil­lions of ado­les­cent girls de­nied the chance to fin­ish school. The Global Girls Al­liance, devel­oped qui­etly over the past year, scored an hour of cov­er­age on NBC’s end­ing with a con­cert by Jen­nifer Hud­son, Meghan Trainor and Kelly Clark­son.

The ed­u­ca­tion project is the sec­ond of three pub­lic moves by Obama as she turned to writ­ing her book. Last month, she launched an ini­tia­tive to get more peo­ple to regis­ter and vote, ad­dress­ing thou­sands of cheer­ing fans at ral­lies in Las Ve­gas and Mi­ami.

will be re­leased on Novem­ber 13 with a con­ver­sa­tion in front of more than 20 000 peo­ple at Chicago’s United Cen­tre. The book tour is be­ing man­aged by Live Na­tion, which more typ­i­cally stages events for the likes of Ri­hanna, U2 and Pink. She has sold tens of thou­sands of tick­ets from Los An­ge­les and Dal­las, to Detroit, Bos­ton and Wash­ing­ton, DC.

De­mand was so in­tense she added sec­ond ap­pear­ances in Wash­ing­ton and New York. In Dal­las, just days af­ter tick­ets went on sale for a De­cem­ber 17 ap­pear­ance, all but the most ex­pen­sive seats were gone. A pair of the cheap­est re­main­ing seats at the 20 000-seat Amer­i­can Air­lines arena cost $3 909 (R57 000), be­fore tax. At each event, Live Na­tion pledges 10% of the tick­ets will be given away free.

The Chicago launch rep­re­sents a home­com­ing for Obama, who built a 20-year ca­reer largely in­de­pen­dent of her hus­band. She quit her job as a hospi­tal ex­ec­u­tive in ser­vice to his am­bi­tions and the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of first lady. She made no se­cret of her de­sire to es­cape.

Obama de­scribed the book in a video that went vi­ral – 1.7 mil­lion views and count­ing – as hon­est. She crafted it from the sto­ries of her life, ask­ing friends to help her re­mem­ber anec­dotes and staff to help her write. She de­voted hun­dreds of hours to the man­u­script in her Wash­ing­ton of­fice, her aides said.

Other for­mer first ladies have writ­ten mem­oirs but none have launched them with such strato­spheric ex­pec­ta­tions. David Drake, the ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent of Crown Pub­lish­ing Group, said his team felt re­as­sured in June when Obama drew fre­quent ap­plause and a stand­ing ova­tion from 9 000 li­brar­i­ans in New Or­leans.

At that ses­sion, Obama talked about the in­flu­ence of her par­ents, her some­time frus­tra­tion in Chicago that her ca­reer took a back seat to her hus­band’s, and the tightrope of the cou­ple be­ing the first African-Amer­i­can pres­i­dent and first lady.

“We did not have the lux­ury to make mis­takes,” she said, adding their years in Wash­ing­ton were hardly er­ror­free. Ex­plain­ing that she hoped read­ers would see them­selves in her doubts, mis­steps and tri­umphs, she said the book de­picted “the or­di­nar­i­ness of an ex­tra­or­di­nary story”.

Jar­rett said that might be the first time in Obama’s life when she could wake up each day and do what she wanted to do. Money is not a worry, given the Obamas’ re­ported $65 mil­lion joint book con­tract, a Net­flix deal and six-fig­ure speak­ing en­gage­ments.

“She’s earned this phase in her life where she can make more of her own de­ci­sions,” said Melissa Win­ter, who is Michelle Obama’s chief of staff.

Obama largely stepped out of the pub­lic eye af­ter Jan­uary last year and used to time to think about what is­sues mat­tered to her.

“You have this very large plat­form and at­ten­tion, but there’s no road map to what’s the best use for it. It’s is far more daunt­ing than peo­ple re­alise,” said for­mer East Wing chief of staff Tina Tchen. “What­ever she does has to be au­then­tic to her. You can’t pro­mote some­thing you don’t be­lieve in.”

The prepa­ra­tions mir­rored Obama’s ap­proach in the White House, where her team of­ten in­vested a year in re­search and net­work­ing be­fore rolling out a ma­jor ini­tia­tive.

Tchen de­scribed Obama’s view this way: “You can’t just show up and say, ‘I’m Michelle Obama’. You have to se­ri­ously bring some­thing to the ta­ble of value.”

Obama is play­ing a lead­ing role in the de­vel­op­ment of the Obama Pres­i­den­tial Cen­tre, due to open in Chicago in 2021, in walk­ing dis­tance from her child­hood neigh­bour­hood of South Shore. In ad­di­tion to hous­ing a mu­seum and a pub­lic li­brary, the com­plex will in­clude a gar­den that echoes the veg­etable gar­den she in­stalled on the south lawn of the White House.

The for­mer first lady has weighed in on the foun­da­tion’s val­ues and am­bi­tions as well as “minute de­tails”, in­clud­ing where the coat-check room and lifts will be, said David Si­mas, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Obama Foun­da­tion in Chicago.

She is not “a wing-it per­son”, said Eric Waldo, who di­rects Reach Higher, a project ex­ported from the White House that aims to guide dis­ad­van­taged young peo­ple to higher ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing. Obama is a board mem­ber of Reach Higher.

Be­fore putting her­self for­ward as a spokesper­son for the When We All Vote ef­fort, Obama wanted to know whether she would be seen as a good mes­sen­ger. The Be­nen­son Strat­egy Group con­ducted fo­cus groups with un­reg­is­tered vot­ers younger than 36 in Detroit and Las Ve­gas and found that par­tic­i­pants “trusted her mo­ti­va­tions” and “as­sumed pos­i­tive in­ten­tions”, re­ported Be­nen­son’s Amy Levin.

The vot­ing cru­sade and the girls ed­u­ca­tion ini­tia­tive will be an early test of her abil­ity to mo­bilise au­di­ences without her White House staff and mega­phone. In search of mul­ti­pli­ers, she is us­ing cor­po­rate part­ner­ships and tar­geted mar­ket­ing. When she con­tacted singer Janelle Monáe re­cently and asked her to be­come a co-chair of the vot­ing ini­tia­tive, Monáe read­ily ac­cepted, join­ing Lin-Manuel Mi­randa, Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, Chris Paul and Tom Hanks.

“When she’s pas­sion­ate about some­thing, she’ll fol­low up with it. It’s not an act,” Monáe, 32, said.

The Global Girls Al­liance grew from a 2013 con­ver­sa­tion in the White House with Pak­istani hu­man rights ad­vo­cate Malala Yousafzai, then a teenager, whose work fo­cuses on the es­ti­mated 130 mil­lion girls who are de­nied ed­u­ca­tion for rea­sons rang­ing from war and eco­nomic pres­sure to cul­tural norms and out­right prej­u­dice.

Obama added in­ter­na­tional girls ed­u­ca­tion to her port­fo­lio in 2015 in a project called Let Girls Learn, which re­mained with the White House when the Obamas de­parted. To mea­sure the need, Obama Foun­da­tion staff drew on pre­vi­ous re­search by the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion and asked ex­perts and or­gan­is­ers in the field whether there con­tin­ued to be a valu­able role for Obama to play.

“The over­whelm­ing con­sen­sus was, ab­so­lutely,” said al­liance di­rec­tor Tif­fany Drake.

In May, the foun­da­tion started a Face­book page to con­nect peo­ple across the world work­ing on girls’ ed­u­ca­tion. It quickly grew to 1 300 mem­bers, and now more, who are shar­ing ideas and cheer­ing one an­other on. The foun­da­tion will be pro­vid­ing we­bi­nars, tool kits and other con­tent.

A cen­tral com­po­nent is a fea­ture devel­oped with GoFundMe, the crowd­sourc­ing com­pany, to de­liver money to or­gan­i­sa­tions vet­ted by the foun­da­tion. Six projects at a time will be high­lighted, seek­ing amounts from $5 000 to $50 000.

When one project’s goal is reached, a new or­gan­i­sa­tion will take its place on GoFundMe.

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