Michelle Obama, former first lady of the USA, was greeted by more than 15,000 people from across Britain when she appeared at the O2 Arena in Greenwich, London on her global book tour on Sunday, April 14.
When she walked onto the stage there was spontaneous applause, screams and a standing ovation from the audience of youths and adults – mainly female. Some were doing the Mexican wave, others waving hand-made placards, some cheered enthusiastically. “Wow! London has shown up,” she responded.
Obama was at the Arena to promote her memoir, Becoming, which chronicles her amazing journey from the south side of Chicago to the White House. A previous book tour four months earlier at the Royal Festival Hall, London South Bank in December, was sold out within minutes. More than 50,000 people queued online for a ticket leaving thousands disappointed. So, by popular demand she returned.
Asked by the US television host Stephen Colbert how she liked the reception from the audience, she said it gave her hope in difficult political times.
The discussion was a wide-ranging one, delving into her childhood, with her growing up as part of a working class family in Chicago, all the way up to becoming the First Lady of the United States. She also spoke about her husband and revealing the joys and challenges of being the wife of a president.
More than 10 million copies of Becoming have already been sold worldwide in the five months since it was published back in November and it is on course to becoming a record breaking best seller. So far the tour has taken Obama to several European cities including Paris, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Oslo and Copenhagen. She has also toured parts of Canada and some States across America.
Responding to Stephen Colbert’s question about the rise to prominence she said, “We were a normal family, a couple who had dreams of trying to impact the world. When we came into the White House we were coming from the south side of Chicago from a house with neighbours. Then the whole thing was just getting bigger and bigger and bigger and we had to live our lives through all this weirdness during my husband’s rise. But we were always ourselves. As a helpful reminder to all the voters and political hopefuls in the US, the presidency does not change who you are, it reveals who you are.”
When Barack Obama became President of the United States, his wife was travelling with him meeting world leaders, monarchs and global power brokers. Each experience is very different from the next and of the engagements she seemed awe-struck by was a royal one. Clearly, she was keeping the story relevant to the country in which she is promoting her memoir. She shared with the audience a meeting she and the former President had with the Queen and it came across how awestruck she was.
“While we were standing in line I looked and she had on these beautiful diamonds and you look at the crown of diamonds and in your mind you go, ‘All of that is real? That looks so nice. And it is all real and you admire the gloriousness of the outfit that she had on. Then we got to the front of the line and I looked closely and saw she had put on the beanie little broach we gave her previously.” Obama asked the Queen in amazement, “You wore the pin!” And The Queen replied, “Mmm mmm, yes.” Obama paused for a second…. “So that has been my experience, that warmth and graciousness and intelligence and wit. I like her.”
Michelle Obama also observed the harmonious co-existence of different ethnicities she depicted on her visit to Britain. “I was thinking about my tour during the drive from the hotel to the Arena and one of the things I really like about here is the true international diversity, which you don’t see in cities even in the US so that’s a gift.”
“I think it’s a testament to how much we all have in common,” she said. “The fact that people are finding themselves in the story of this little girl, Michelle Robinson, from the south side of Chicago, is not a testament to me and my story, but it’s a reminder that we’re OK, folks. We’re going to be OK.”
Asked for her views on the state of politics in the US, she said: “It’s time for us to roll up our sleeves and if we are not happy with the state of things then, in democracies, we have votes. We have to pay attention and we have to be engaged and we can’t take our rights and liberties for granted. Because if we don’t vote, somebody will.
“I have to remind people that Barack Obama was elected twice in the United States. That really did happen,” she said. “That wasn’t make-believe. The country actually did accomplish it and half the people who voted in the last election, if they could have, they would have voted for him for a third term. Let’s just stop and think about it. For anybody who had problems with Barack Obama. There were never any indictments.”
“He wore a tan suit once,” joked Colbert.
In the wide-ranging interview, Michelle Obama talked about how her family’s lives changed beyond recognition as soon as her husband was named president-elect in November 2008.
“Your whole life changes in that moment. You get a presidential motorcade and it is a 20-car motorcade,” she said. “There’s an ambulance carrying pints of your husband’s blood type because you realise the threat that he is under.”
Obama said that the US was living through “one of many chapters”.
“It may feel like a dark chapter but any story has its highs and lows, but it continues. Yeah, we’re in a low, but we’ve been lower,” she said. “We’ve had tougher times with more to fear. We’ve lived through slavery and the Holocaust and segregation and we’ve always come out on the other end, better and stronger.”
Ionie is an author, journalist, radio producer and presenter, video producer and editor, media historian and community initiatives collaborator