Michelle Obama: how the former first lady soared to 'rock star' status

Her memoir, Becoming, sold 1.4m copies in its first week and paves the way for a sparkling post-White House career

No one could accuse Michelle Obama of lingering in her husband’s shadow. But few expected her to emerge as America’s queen of non-fiction.

Far from being a mere postscript to her White House years, the former US first lady’s memoir, Becoming, has proved a literary phenomenon and turning point in her career, dominating bestseller lists and filling stadiums during a promotional tour. And such is Michelle Mania that last month, she stole the show from the biggest stars in music by making a surprise appearance at the Grammy awards.

“She’s a rock star at this point. She’s now a political celebrity, ” said Lissa Muscatine, a co-owner of the Politics and Prose bookshop in Washington and former speechwriter for Hillary Clinton.

It is true that, after the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, the former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt served as chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights, while John F Kennedy’s widow spent two decades as a book editor. Hillary Clinton, of course, became a dominant political figure in the Democratic party, a senator, a secretary of state and a two-time presidential candidate.

But Michelle Obama is also now carving a niche as a hyper-prominent former first lady and her post-White House career is probably only beginning.

Becoming, published in November, sold more than 1.4m copies in its first week and is now one of the bestselling books of the decade. According to CNN, it was the most-sold book on Amazon across all formats for 47 consecutive days, the longest streak of any book since the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey in 2012. Recently, challengers have briefly knocked it off top spot, but this week it was back at No 1 on the non-fiction list.

Unlike many autobiographies, Becoming, 426 pages long and published by Penguin Random House, is politically frank and personally revealing. Obama made news by writing that she and Barack Obama sought marriage counselling and struggled to get pregnant after she had a miscarriage, eventually undergoing in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to conceive their two daughters.

The first African American first lady also wrote that she will “never forgive” Donald Trump for pushing conspiracy theories about her husband’s birthplace which, she says, put her family’s life in danger from “wingnuts and kooks”. But the book also strikes a fine balance, managing not to turn into an anti-Trump rant.

It was the top-selling title last year at Politics and Prose, a Washington institution. Muscatine said: “Political memoirs are typically not that interesting because they’re often written to correct a record or cement a legacy. But she was able to tell her own story, she’s a smart woman and she knew what she wanted to say. She does enough to make it enjoyable and compelling and entertaining.”

Obama may also have inadvertently benefited from the current political climate. Muscatine added: “People living through Trump have shown a yearning, a nostalgia for the Obamas even though it’s only been a few years. They miss a husband and wife in the White House who took the jobs seriously. So when there’s anything Obama, people want more of it.”

Obama has embarked on a long book tour that has drawn huge crowds and arrives at The O2 in London on 14 April, where she will be interviewed by leading late night TV host Stephen Colbert. Such is her popularity, people have flocked to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington to view a painting of her by artist Amy Sherald. The gallery, which also gained a portrait of Barack Obama, had around a million more visitors in 2018 than 2017.

Obama’s star power is guaranteed to lift any TV show or awards ceremony. At the Grammys in Los Angeles she walked on stage hand-in-hand with Lady Gaga, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jennifer Lopez. Later she showed a humorous side, posting on social media an image of a text exchange between herself and her mother, Marian Robinson. Robinson asked: “Did you meet any of the real stars or did you run right after you were done.”

Obama has 12.2m followers on Twitter, compared with her predecessor Laura Bush’s 278,000 and successor Melania Trump’s 11.6m.

Her facial expression on the day of Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 spoke more eloquently than her book ever could, but Obama seems to have embraced her post-White House existence. Late last year she coordinated a star-studded effort to get more Americans to vote and a global education initiative to keep girls in school longer.

She and Barack Obama – who is penning a memoir and returned to political campaigning for the 2018 midterm elections – have also signed up to produce shows for Netflix.

Still just 55, Obama, a former lawyer and hospital administrator, is breaking the mould of her predecessors. Betty Caroli, a historian and biographer of first ladies, said: “Her book is certainly different from previous first ladies’ books, if you compare the past six or seven. Their pattern has generally been 70% life in the White House and 30% growing up. Hers is the opposite.

“As a historian I’m disappointed because I would have liked to know more about what decisions she influenced. But the 70% about growing up, her parents and education really set her up as a separate person. If something tragic happened to Barack Obama, she would be a successful personage on her own. We wouldn’t have said that about Laura Bush.”

Opinion polls suggest that Obama would beat Trump if she ran for president next year, but she has consistently ruled out a foray into politics. Caroli added: “She has indicated she will try to make a difference; she won’t retire to a California spa. She said she wanted to be an inspiration to young women and she has been.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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