The air was electric for miles around. Like Christmas Eve, only without the anti-climax. Pavements crammed with schoolgirls, mainly black, nearly all of colour, chattering excitedly, mobiles in constant motion. Queues of women and girls, plenty of men, too, stretched back in every direction, although it was almost two hours until the big moment. Friends shrieked and hugged and selfied, as if to prove they were really there. I hadn’t felt this excited since, well, ever.
A premiere? A gig? A big match? The premiere of Magic Mike? No. We were all here to see a 54-year-old woman sit on a stage and chat for 90 minutes. (Incidentally, to another woman north of 40. Both massive achievers, both black and – I’m a feminist, but – neither of them twigs, both of them looking en pointe.)
Three thousand thronged the South Bank to see Michelle Obama last night, but it could have been so many more. Tens of thousands of people tried and failed to get tickets. (I begged, pleaded and would have traded my cat for the privilege – sorry, Sausage. And then pulled rank in a manner I‘m pretty sure Obama would not have approved of.) On Instagram yesterday, someone told me they were 42,000th in the queue when the London tickets were released. They were exaggerating – I think! – but only a little. Another was so desperate to see her she booked tickets in Brooklyn – yes, Brooklyn, America – where the venue capacity was 17,000. She was still buzzing two days later. I don’t doubt I will be, too.
These are just two of the legs on Michelle Obama’s barnstorming sell-out American and European book tour.
Think about it. A woman in her fifties has written a book. And she’s selling out stadiums. Not just any woman, admittedly: “An ordinary woman on an extraordinary journey.” Even so, just writing that sentence gives me hope for the future.
The crowd in the Royal Festival Hall was on its feet, cheering and applauding, before the second syllable of her name even left Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s mouth. Michelle Robinson Obama. From then on, it hardly let up.
Obama was whip-smart, super sharp and brutally funny and frank, whatever the subject. “Ask me what I’m thinking,” she said. “And I’m almost always thinking, ‘Am I going to fall?’ When I came out then, that’s what I was thinking. I don’t want to become a meme.”
Also – and I’m sorry to do this, because it’s such a woman journalist thing to do and she finds it really irritating, because she has bigger fish to fry – but she looked really hot in a white wide-leg jumpsuit. But, as Adichie (no stranger to a hot look herself) put it: “It doesn’t matter but it matters: she’s a gorgeous, confident, dark woman who slays every look. And that means a lot to black women everywhere.”
It’s unsurprising, however, that the obsession with her appearance hacks her off. During her eight years as First Lady, “optics” ruled their lives. Right down to her people asking Barack’s people if she could get her bangs cut. (“Fringe,” the audience yelled. “We say fringe!”) “It’s none of their business what I do with my hair!” She laughed, but her exasperation was clear. “Don’t look too expensive, don’t look too cheap, don’t look too dull but don’t stand out.” She rolled her eyes. “Whether there were too many holidays, whether there was too much golf.” She rolled her eyes. “Go figure.”
Why “Becoming”, Adichie asked. Surely Michelle Obama has already become? Nu-huh, she was emphatic. “Growing up isn’t finite. How sad would that be. I am 54 and I am still becoming. I hope I always will be. I am nowhere near here.”
Obama was brought up on the South Side of Chicago, in an upstairs apartment, by parents who understood the power of education and gave everything they had – and more – to ensure Obama and her brother had it. They never once silenced their children’s voices, allowing them to be heard. From the moment four-year-old Obama debated her mother into letting her eat peanut butter and jelly for breakfast every day (“protein!”), she grew up knowing her opinions were valid and not being afraid to voice them. Living proof of self-worth, instilled from an early age, despite that fact that, earlier yesterday, she’d told the pupils of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in east London that she still occasionally suffers from imposter syndrome.
By her own admission, she’s had to “learn to grasp the art of reinvention”. A lawyer, assistant to the mayor, director of a non-profit, all long before she was First Lady, she reels them off. “But people forgot that. Once you become the ‘spouse of’ you lose yourself in the title ‘spouse of’. I’ve had to remind people, ‘I went to Princeton’,” she said.
The room hollered its approval.
“The White House is only a little bit of who I am,” she said. “Now, I need to understand what the next phase is, what power I’ll have and how best to use it. I have to make sure I’m not going to be redundant. It’s scary, but overcoming fear – or learning how to live with it – is essential.”
She has a moral compass, a conviction that the world can be a better place, and she’s going to use it
Obama talked frankly about her willingness to tackle problems head on, shrugging in disbelief that people would happily admit to having careers counselling but not relationships counselling. “You’re trying to meld two lives forEVER. People say it’s love. It’s not love y’all. You need some of that in there but it’s not all hashtag relationshipgoals. There are gonna be huge chunks of time then you wanna push him out the window!”
Paying it forward to the next generation of young black girls is a priority for Obama – her Let Girls Learn campaign is never not front and centre – and the audience was full of young black women, including 300 girls from south London schools. How would she advise them to manage being female, young and black? Adichie asked.
“Hmph, that’s a long one!” She laughed, before conceding. “It’s still tough out there. We are constantly told we’re ‘too everything’ to silence us. People can literally take our words and coopt them for their own,” she said, with a knowing look to the audience. “Am I good enough? It affects working-class people, it affects women, but it’s profound for women of colour. Here’s the secret: I’ve been at probably ever powerful table you can think of... [she listed them, there were a lot, they were indeed powerful] they’re not that smart!”
Preparedness, she said, is the key. She’s basically a swot and proud. “My attitude has always been, ‘I will show you’. I let my work speak for itself, but you don’t get to do that without being ready.”
When Adichie asked her about the current “situation” she decided to be “hopeful”. “Change is not a straight line,” she said. “We’re trying to change a culture. What’s happening now just shows how hard it is. The voting-rights act isn’t even as old as I am... to think Barack could change hundreds of years of history in eight years – that’s ridiculous, to think that could happen. So going backwards now doesn’t mean the progress wasn’t real.”
The jokes and the self-deprecation and the gentle mocking of Barack (and his “fangirling” of the Queen) don’t belie the steely determination beneath it all.
She has a moral compass, a conviction that the world can be a better place, and she’s going to use it. She might, for instance, claim not to know much about fashion, but she knows what she likes – things that make her feel good, made by good people, she won’t tolerate anything else – “If I hear that somebody treats their staff badly,” she says decisively, “I don’t put on another shoe.”
Michelle Obama don’t take no shit from anyone and nor, says her message, should you. As she signed off, the room erupted. Young, old, black, white, female, male. We would have cheered and whooped and hollered all night if she’d let us. Because you don’t see black women stealing the show and running away with it every day of the week and you don’t see women over 50 doing it either. If you see them at all.
Michelle Obama is the living embodiment of “you can’t be what you can’t see” – in so many ways. She’s clever and not about to pretend she isn’t to make you feel more comfortable, she’s funny, she’s human, she’s black, she’s from a working-class family, she’s 54 (“55 in January”) and she’s not afraid to speak truth to power. (Yes, Mr Trump, the optics look pretty bad on that golf. Among other things.)
She joked about the old black ladies on Chicago’s South Side who have portraits of Jesus, Martin Luther King and, now, Barack Obama, on their sitting-room walls. Seems to me that wall is missing a portrait of Michelle Obama, don’t you think? #michelleforpresident #justsaying
Michelle Obama was speaking to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Southbank Centre. Her memoir, Becoming, is published by Penguin