Michelle Obama Keeps It Real

The chic, shoot-from-the-hip newcomer talks about her critics, her life in the media whirl, and Wal-Mart vs. Target.

Michelle Obama wore a gown designed by Jason Wu to the Inaugural Ball SEE OTHER GOWNS BY JASON WU HERE

She's been called everything from Barack's better half to his bitter half. Critics tsk-tsk her for being too blunt and, more recently, for seeming too soft. Feminists say she shouldn't sideline her career to focus on her husband's job, while fans call her the strength behind the historic president. So how does Michelle Obama cope? With a little help from Beyoncé, natch....

Marie Claire: You've said that when Barack is elected, you'll become "mom-in-chief" in the White House. What does that mean, exactly?

Michelle Obama:

What I meant is that my first priority would be my two girls — making sure they're happy and comfortable during what would be a major transition for them. Throughout this campaign, I've built my schedule around the girls and their activities, so I'm there when they wake up in the morning and home in time to have dinner and tuck them into bed at night.

MC: How have your girls been affected already by life in the public eye?


Well, there's all the consideration that their search for the perfect dog has gotten from the public. We're getting lots of mail with suggestions! The girls think this is just great — they're excited that so many people want them to get the best dog ever. Also, one thing that has helped keep their lives normal is that we've kept the same friends since the girls were born. And today the girls attend the same school and play on the same teams as they did 19 months ago. Their teachers and coaches know that this is a huge change for our family, and they know the girls well enough to treat them the same today as when this all started.

MC: Barack said that you and he regretted going on Access Hollywood with your daughters. Why did you do it?


You know, it was a onetime thing; it was Malia's birthday, and we were out on the road having a fun weekend together as a family. We don't foresee it happening again in the near future ... I think we're all figuring this out. I'm so grateful to have had the opportunity to talk to people who've done this before. I've had great conversations with Hillary Clinton, Tipper Gore, and Caroline Kennedy, and they've all given me advice on how to make sure your kids are whole and grounded. I think a part of that is keeping them, keeping their worlds, very much their own.

MC: How do you handle massive stress? Do you ever have meltdowns?


Exercise is really important to me — it's therapeutic. So if I'm ever feeling tense or stressed or like I'm about to have a meltdown, I'll put on my iPod and head to the gym or out on a bike ride along Lake Michigan with the girls.

MC: So, what's on your iPod?


I have a pretty eclectic mix of everything, from Beyoncé to Stevie Wonder. He's my favorite artist of all time, so I probably have every song he's ever recorded. But if I hear something I like somewhere, I'll add it. I just heard this CD by Anthony David, who's an R&B guy — I put him on there. That's brand new, so I'm kind of enjoying that a lot now. I also have some old Mariah Carey; the girls have reintroduced me to some of her older stuff. So I have a good mix: some pop, some R&B, some jazz.

MC: How do you deal with all the women swooning over your husband? Obama Girl, Scarlett Johansson — even New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd compares him to Jane Austen's hero Mr. Darcy.


I can't blame them — he's cute!

MC: Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen has advised Barack to head to Wal-Mart to connect with the "Wal-Mart women" who supported Hillary. What do you say to people who think your husband is too slick or elite for working-class voters?


I find it funny that people have tried to label Barack as an elitist. This is the man who grew up not knowing his father, with a young, single mother who he watched struggle to make ends meet — even going on food stamps at one point. And despite the economic struggles that his family went through, Barack turned down lucrative careers on Wall Street and went to work in communities to help folks in need on the South Side of Chicago, helping families who'd been devastated when the local steel plants shut down.

MC: Do you shop at Wal-Mart?


I'm more of a Target shopper.

MC: How does it feel to be a media target? Do you feel picked on?


One of the lessons that I grew up with was to always stay true to yourself and never let what somebody else says distract you from your goals. And so when I hear about negative and false attacks, I really don't invest any energy in them, because I know who I am.

MC: What do you think of John McCain's claim that Barack is a celebrity like Britney and Paris?


You know, I haven't seen the ad, but I think the comparison is pretty silly!

MC: You've complained about the cost of summer camp, when your household income was $4.2 million last year. Do you think you can relate to moms who can't pay their mortgage?


Barack and I were paying off our student loans until a very short time ago. We're lucky that he's had a couple of best-selling books ... but we didn't come from privileged backgrounds. We both know what it's like to struggle and work hard, and we're not very far removed from families who are doing everything they can to keep up with rising costs.

MC: What do you think of Sarah Palin?


I think Governor Palin has a compelling life story, and she's certainly accomplished a great deal while also balancing raising a family. She's a working mom, so we have that in common. The benefit of being your party's nominee for president is that you — and you alone — get to select a running mate who shares your vision for the country and is the strongest partner for you.

MC: You've said your best accessory is Barack on your arm. What's second best?


If I have Barack on one arm and the girls on the other, then I'm all set!

MC: Are you much of a heels gal?


I'm 5'11", so typically, I'm in flats. They're much better for keeping up with the girls and the pace of the campaign trail.

MC: Has your style had to change as you've taken on the role of president's wife? More pearls and Jackie O. dresses?


You know, Barack has been in politics for a long time, and my style really hasn't changed since he started running for president. I don't have a stylist, but for special events, I work with designer Maria Pinto here in Chicago, who's not only a great designer but also a good friend.

MC: What's your guilty pleasure?


French fries and barbecue!

MC: Tell me about your roundtables with wives of soldiers overseas.


I'll never forget a moment when a young mother started pouring out how overwhelmed she felt. And when she finished, another woman stood up and said, "I don't know you, but when you leave here, you will have my phone number. And you will be able to call me anytime. You've got the support of this friend right here." Another story that touched me was when one woman said that every day, she gets up, puts on her pretty face, puts on nice clothes, holds her head high, and keeps her spirits up. But then she goes home every night, climbs into bed by herself, and cries. The thing about these women is that they are doing everything that's asked of them and more. And really, the only thing they're asking for in return is compassion and understanding from their country.

MC: What sparked your interest in wives of soldiers?


The issues facing working women and their families are closest to my heart. I decided to focus intently on the challenges military wives face because they juggle the same pressures as their nonmilitary peers, all while coping as single parents while their loved ones are overseas. I wanted to help make their voices heard.

MC: Your mom has said you've never phoned her in tears. What does make you cry?


My girls. Thinking about them, how much I love them, wondering what they're doing, how they're feeling ... it moves me.

MC: Anything in particular they've said or done recently that really got to you?


After my speech at the Democratic convention, we surprised the girls with an appearance by Barack, via satellite, on a huge screen. Well, when he came up on the big screen, Malia instinctively walked up to it — and then stopped. She knew that he wasn't actually there with us; she just wanted to be closer to her father. And when we got backstage, she cried, because she really misses him and worries about him when he's away from home for such long periods of time. Moments like that one are the most difficult for me when it comes to the girls.

MC: What have you learned from other moms in the White House?


Hillary Clinton has been a great source of inspiration ... she and President Clinton did an incredible job raising their daughter, Chelsea, who has grown up to be a beautiful, intelligent, caring, successful woman. Laura Bush has also handled herself and her girls so elegantly during their years in the White House.

MC: You grew up in a humble family in Chicago and later wrote a college thesis about black women at Princeton. How do you raise your daughters to prepare them for innate racial or gender prejudices?


Growing up, my parents worked to instill a sense of pride and self-confidence in me and my brother. They taught us to work hard, pursue our dreams, and not worry about things that are beyond our control. Barack and I pass those same lessons along to our daughters. And I think this campaign has illustrated how far we've come as a country to overcome prejudices. It was empowering and remarkable to see Barack and Hillary Clinton — an African-American and a woman — achieve as much as they have.

MC: You're used to speaking your mind. Do you have to self-censor now so it doesn't look like you're telling your husband what to do?


It would be hard for me to edit myself and still be me. And I think that in the end, that's what the voters deserve and it's what they want: They want to know who I am, and it's my responsibility to make sure they know who I am and who Barack is; then they can make a clear, informed decision based on authenticity.

MC: Workplace romance is fraught with peril, but you and Barack met on the job at a law firm. How'd you make that work?


Well, I initially resisted Barack because I was his summer adviser and he was a first-year summer associate, and I thought it would be tacky for us to go out. But then I got to know him and learn about his family, his strong values — and he was persistent and cute — so here we are!

MC: When you become first lady, are you going to go clubbing with France's first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy?


Malia and Sasha will be the first to tell you that I go to bed much too early to go clubbing!

Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.