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Michelle Obama on dating, exercise and keeping it real

Verashni Pillay

"How do you get Barack to believe he's in charge?" You had to forgive the cheeky question.

“How do you get Barack to believe he’s in charge?”

You had to forgive the cheeky question. The person asking it, popular radio personality Anele Mdoda, had been waiting in ridiculously high heels in one spot for over an hour for the world’s favourite first lady to arrive for a photo opportunity, along with 74 other young African women chosen by their US embassies.

Michelle Obama, glowing with enthusiasm, immediately burst into laughter.

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“A good man is happy with a strong woman,” she said, before launching into a girly chat about the type of men we should let into our lives.

“That’s why I fell in love with Barack. I met him way before he was president and he was just so comfortable with himself and he accepted me with all my ... stuff.”

Angry black women
I thought of all the unkind caricatures of Michelle Obama as an “angry black woman” on the campaign trail by those who didn’t want to see her husband take the highest office in the US. I thought of the battles she must have fought to become an incredible career woman against formidable odds, long before the world knew her name. And then I looked at this beautiful, warm and charismatic person before me.

Suddenly, the hours of waiting and being herded about, subject to the paranoia of US security officials, all seemed worth it.

My heels weren’t as high as Mdoda’s but by 5pm on Tuesday, the novelty of being chosen alongside what were clearly 74 über-inspiring women from across the continent was beginning to wear off. HIV/Aids workers from Ethiopia, farmers from Mali, engineers from Uganda and more, had all gathered at a hotel in Sandton for a morning of robust discussion on all things girl power that morning.

After, we had arrived at the Apartheid Museum near Soweto to meet Obama promptly at 1.30pm, but the security officials weren’t quite ready for us. Ninety minutes later we were allowed into the venue and then it was time for a sombre, if abbreviated, tour of the amazing museum. Emotionally exhausted after the violent images of apartheid brutality, we were shepherded into a lecture hall where embassy officials began the tiring task of trying to get 75 African women of varying height into some sort of workable formation. Thirty minutes later we were finally done—and then began the long wait.

“If she doesn’t come soon, we’re going to strike ... and then we’ll strike a pose,” said Mdoda, the comedian of the group.

Soon, a small selection of very lucky media announced the arrival of the first lady of fashion and first African American woman in the White House.

Hugs
She breezed in, took the obligatory photographs and then turned to face us, beaming. This was unexpected—we were told she would have to leave immediately but clearly she was in the mood for a chat. “I want to hug you all!” she announced. “I would hug each one of you but then we’d be here all day.”

“She has amazing skin,” was the only thing I could think. Clearly the others were equally dumbstruck because as we gazed at her, the first thing someone burst out with was: “How do you look so good?”

It was as good an opening as any. Before long, Obama, decked out in navy pants, a subtle animal print blouse and a navy waistcoat—which had apparently received the thumbs-up from her daughter Sasha—was chatting up a storm in the precious 10 minutes or so allocated by her staff.

“Exercise! And that’s the one thing I want to encourage you all to do: look after yourself. So often women put everyone else first and ourselves fourth or fifth on the list. Like our men—we always put them at number one,” she laughed at the notion.

There was an awkward moment when she struggled to understand the deep-toned accent of one of the Nigerian women, but once she got the question she was off again.

Normal life?
“They have to walk the dog and make their beds,” she said firmly of her two daughters, who were accompanying her on this trip, along with her mother Marian Robinson.

Any other star-struck comments were met with: “I’m so normal. My husband teases me all the time, ‘Stop being so normal,’ he says.”

The trip and the selection of young leaders was all part of a larger project by the Obamas to target Africans at a grassroots level and foster a spirit of democracy. A senior US aide explained at our morning discussions that President Obama could have chosen to meet with “old leaders and strongmen” from across the continent last year, but instead a selection of young African men and women, many in their twenties, were flown to the US to engage the most powerful leader in the free world.

This time round, Michelle Obama, on her first official state visit to Africa, made a point of visiting countries with healthy democracies: Botswana and South Africa. And she chose to make the trip about young African women.

“I want my daughters to be like you: strong, beautiful and hard-working,” she said, before she was whisked away by her staff.

And, just like that, it was all very worth it.

    Verashni Pillay is one of 75 young African women chosen to engage with the US first lady on her Southern African tour. Read her follow-up retrospective on the two days spent with Obama here. You can read her weekly column here

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