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.