The atmosphere was more like a rock concert than a literary event; the 2,700-strong crowd, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan and model Adwoa Aboah laughing, cheering and taking selfies as former First Lady Michelle Obama took to the stage to discuss her memoir, Becoming, with author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
She covered everything from dating Barack Obama – who, we learned, turned up late for their first date and a little soggy after forgetting his umbrella – to her frustrations with the White House’s obsession with optics, even admitting she had to tell the President’s team when she dared to get her fringe cut. ‘Don’t look too expensive, don’t look too cheap, don’t look too dull but don’t stand out,’ she said she was told during her time in administration. She revealed how she honed her powers of persuasion early on – convincing her parents that peanut butter had the same protein content as the eggs she hated, so they let her eat it daily for breakfast.
And admitted that in public she was more likely to be thinking about the mundane than anything highbrow. ‘If you’re thinking about my thoughts when I come out on stage, it’s “don’t fall”,’ she said. ‘One of my primary goals for the eight years [as First Lady] was to never become a meme.’
It was everything we’ve come to expect from Michelle Obama, since she first came to public consciousness nine years ago: frank, funny and relatable. But for all the fun and light-hearted anecdotes, there was a serious message behind her visit to London – an attempt to use her book tour to focus on the issue she’s dedicated her post-White House life to: girls’ education.
Earlier in the day, Obama had returned to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school, the comprehensive in North London she first visited in 2009 and with which she has since built a relationship. In 2011 she took a group of 37 pupils from the school to Oxford University, and in 2012 she invited a dozen of them to the White House. It’s a partnership the school’s staff believe has had a profound impact. It’s certainly true that in the hour leading up to Obama’s visit last week, the school hall was alive with the kind of noise only 300 schoolgirls can make. Laughing and linking arms, gushing, ‘Oh my god, I literally can’t wait,’ the excitement was palpable. Once settled, a teacher asked whether anyone would like to make a pledge and hundreds of arms
shot into the air. Each girl was desperate to state her support for one another. ‘I pledge to look out for other people,’ said one. The vows were met with encouraging whoops and applause from their peers.
The reaction was similar when Obama took to the stage, to give an hour-long talk on self-doubt and aspiration. ‘You remind me of me in all the fears and challenges you face,’ she beamed. She went on to reveal that she had to fight against those who wrote her off in her own school to get to Princeton University. Her school counsellor ‘told me that my dreams were too high’, she said, encouraging the audience to back themselves – and each other. ‘We as women don’t have the luxury of tearing each other down; there are enough barriers out there.’
The girls hung on her every word – the only sound the intake of breath as she revealed that even she still gets imposter syndrome. ‘It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously,’ she said. ‘What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.’
Once her hour at the school was up, she made her way through the crowd, gently resisting as security guards tried to steer her away, so she could spend longer speaking to the schoolgirls clamouring to get close. She hugged and waved and posed for selfies until she was hurried ‘backstage’ to an out-of- bounds classroom. But even then, the buzz in the hall took an hour to die down.
Afterwards, Winnie Mac, 22, who visited Oxford with Obama in 2011 and was one of three students invited on stage to ask questions, said the former First Lady’s visits had changed her life ‘by instilling in me that to get where you want to be you have to have a good education’.
She now has a chemistry degree. Letrishka Anthony, 25, who was in year 11 when she gave a presentation to Obama in 2009, and is now a senior analyst on a clinical trial database, added, ‘I feel now I am in a position where I can go and inspire young girls. Sometimes, you don’t see yourself as that, you just see yourself as a normal person.’
The Michelle Obama effect may have been felt most among young girls, but her message of believing in yourself is one she wants all women to hear. ‘My advice to young women is that you have to start by getting those demons out of your head,’ she said later that night at the Southbank Centre. ‘The question I ask myself – “Am I good enough?” – that haunts us, because the message that is sent from the time we are little is: maybe you are not, don’t reach too high, don’t talk too loud.’
‘Here is the secret,’ she added. ‘I have been at probably every powerful table that you can think of, I have worked at non-profits, I have been at foundations, I have worked in corporations, served on corporate boards, I have been at G-summits, I have sat in at the UN; they are not that smart.’
As a message, it was – to use an overused but in this context entirely appropriate word – inspirational. And, judging by the fact Obama’s memoir has now sold more than three million copies in less than two weeks, it’s a message that – even now, two years after the end of Barack Obama’s presidency – we need more than ever