AN OPEN BOOK
Former first lady Michelle Obama reflects on her marriage and time in the White House.
Michelle Obama knows firsthand that life can be difficult. “When you’re a woman and you’re a minority, you hear the ‘can’t s.’ The ‘No, I don’t think you should do that,’ or ‘No, you’re reaching too high.’ It happens way too often,” says the 54-year-old, who admits the constant doubts took a toll on her self-esteem. But Michelle — who went on to graduate from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and eventually became the first African American first lady of the United States — proved the naysayers wrong. “If we can be brave enough, we can get outside of the familiar [and] break down these crazy barriers of fear that were built up because of the color of our skin or who we love. [These people] don’t know what they’re doing, they’re just trying to keep you from doing it.” As she celebrates the success of her memoir Becoming, which was the bestselling book of 2018, Michelle opens up about finding herself, her marriage to former President Barack Obama and her message to young women.
When did you find your confidence?
Going to Princeton helped me go, “Ah, I see how it works!” You get there and then you look around and go, “Huh — are you kidding me?” There are kids there who may be smart but they don’t know how to set their alarm, they can’t get up on time, they don’t know how to do their laundry, they fall apart when they get a C and they flip. There’s a lot of flaming out that happens.
Your high school counselor told you that you weren’t Princeton material. What does she think now?
I went back to my high school recently and the principal was like, “She doesn’t work here anymore.” [laughs] But it’s OK. I’m good.
After college you met Barack. Was it love at first sight?
I don’t personally believe in love at first sight. I fell in love with him as a person first and foremost, because he was smart and funny and self-deprecating. So I always tell my daughters [Malia, 20, and Sasha, 17] to take time to get to know a man, let him unpeel himself for you. You’re going to see some chips. I looked for the chips in Barack and there weren’t any that concerned me.
What was your first impression of him?
[Before we met] I saw his name and I started picturing what I think a black guy named Barack Obama — who grew up in Hawaii and ended up at Harvard — would look like. And that image was nerdy, geeky, flavorless. [When I met him I was] like, “Oh! You’re not what I expected.” He was cute!
Barack was the first African American president. How did you both approach taking office?
Like we’ve got to be better, smarter, faster, we have to work harder — because the bar is different for us. On the plane ride after [Donald] Trump’s inauguration, I cried for 30 minutes. It was the culmination of eight years of feeling like we had to be perfect. The margin of error is small, and we felt that.
Is there anything you wish you could tell your younger self?
Don’t be driven by fear. Learn to live in that fear a little bit because it keeps us from growing. Leaving one thing and moving to the next thing isn’t terrifying, it’s enlightening. I want more young people to get used to that.
What’s next for you?
I have no idea what the next chapter will hold, and that’s exciting. OK!