Picking up ELLE's December issue is like holding a bit of #BlackGirlMagic. Just in time for Michelle Obama’s highly anticipated memoir, Becoming, Oprah Winfrey chatted with our forever FLOTUS for the magazine, and we are in awe.
From details about her relationship with her husband (and our forever POTUS), Barack Obama, to living outside the White House, the 54-year-old opened up about things in her life because she doesn’t, “want young people to look at me here and now and think, 'Well, she never had it rough. She never had challenges, she never had fears.'"
Keep scrolling to read the highlights of the eye-opening interview.
On being a role model.
“I hate when people who are in the public eye—and even seek the public eye—want to step back and say, 'Well, I’m not a role model. I don’t want that responsibility.' Too late. You are. Young people are looking at you. And I don’t want young people to look at me here and now and think, Well, she never had it rough. She never had challenges, she never had fears.”
On finding happiness with the simple things in life, like cooking, after transiting from the White House to a regular house.
“So here I am in my new home, just me and Bo and Sunny, and I do a simple thing. I go downstairs and open the cabinet in my own kitchen—which you don’t do in the White House because there’s always somebody there going, 'Let me get that. What do you want? What do you need?'—and I made myself toast. Cheese toast. Then I took my toast and I walked out into my backyard. I sat on the stoop, and there were dogs barking in the distance, and I realised Bo and Sunny had really never heard neighbour dogs. They’re like, What’s that? And I’m like, 'Yep, we’re in the real world now, fellas.'
"It’s that quiet moment of me settling into this new life. Having time to think about what had just happened over the last eight years. Because what I came to realise is that there was absolutely no time to reflect in the White House.”
On her parent’s humble sacrifices to ensure she had a good education.
“We lived a humble life, but it was a full life. We didn’t require much, you know? If you did well, you did well because you wanted to. A reward was maybe pizza night or some ice cream. But the neighborhood was predominantly white when we moved in, and by the time I went to high school, it was predominantly African American. And you started to feel the effects in the community and the school. This notion that kids don’t know when they’re not being invested in—I’m here to tell you that as a first grader, I felt it.
"[…] They [parents] invested everything in us. My mom didn’t go to the hairdresser. She didn’t buy herself new clothes. My father was a shift worker. I could see my parents sacrificing for us.”
On hating being a lawyer, telling her mom about wanting a career change, and meeting Barack Obama.
“I was scared to death. You know, my mother didn’t comment on the choices that we made. She was live-and-let-live. So one day she’s driving me from the airport after I was doing document production in Washington, D.C., and I was like, 'I can’t do this for the rest of my life. I can’t sit in a room and look at documents.' It’s deadly. So I shared with her in the car: I’m just not happy. I don’t feel my passion.
"And my mother—my uninvolved, live-and-let-live mother—said, 'Make the money, worry about being happy later.' I was like [gulps], Oh. Okay. Because how indulgent that must have felt to my mother. When she said that, I thought, Wow, where did I come from, with all my luxury and wanting my passion? The luxury to even be able to decide—when she didn’t get to go back to work and start finding herself until after she got us into high school. So, yes. It was hard. And then I met this guy Barack Obama. He was the opposite of a box checker. He was swerving all over the place.”
On the strains politics caused her marriage.
“I was mad. When you get married and have kids, your whole plan, once again, gets upended. Especially if you get married to somebody who has a career that swallows up everything, which is what politics is. Barack Obama taught me how to swerve. But his swerving sort of—you know, I’m flailing in the wind. And now I’ve got two kids, and I’m trying to hold everything down while he’s traveling back and forth from Washington or Springfield.”
On their marital differences and going to counseling.
“He had this wonderful optimism about time. [Laughs] He thought there was way more of it than there really was. And he would fill it up constantly. He’s a plate spinner—plates on sticks, and it’s not exciting unless one’s about to fall. So there was work we had to do as a couple. Counseling we had to do to work through this stuff.
"[…] It was about me exploring my sense of happiness. What clicked in me was that I need support and I need some from him. But I needed to figure out how to build my life in a way that works for me.”
On feeling "vulnerable" when Barack was not around, and why they are not complete #RelationshipGoals.
“I feel vulnerable all the time. And I had to learn how to express that to my husband, to tap into those parts of me that missed him—and the sadness that came from that—so that he could understand. He didn’t understand distance in the same way. You know, he grew up without his mother in his life for most of his years, and he knew his mother loved him dearly, right? I always thought love was up close. Love is the dinner table, love is consistency, it is presence. So I had to share my vulnerability and also learn to love differently. It was an important part of my journey of becoming. Understanding how to become us.
"[…] I share this because I know that people look to me and Barack as the ideal relationship. I know there’s #RelationshipGoals out there. But whoa, people, slow down—marriage is hard!”
On how they argue differently.
“Oh God, yes. I am like a lit match. It’s like, poof! And he wants to rationalize everything. So he had to learn how to give me, like, a couple minutes—or an hour—before he should even come in the room when he’s made me mad. And he has to understand that he can’t convince me out of my anger. That he can’t logic me into some other feeling.”
On being willing to share her husband with the world as the president of the United States.
“Imagine having that burden. Could he, should he, would he? That happened when he wanted to run for state Senate, then Congress, then the U.S. Senate. I knew Barack was a decent man. Smart as all get-out. But politics was ugly and nasty. I didn’t know that my husband’s temperament would mesh with that. And I didn’t want to see him in that environment. But then on the flip side, you see the challenges that the world is facing.
"The longer you live and read the paper, you know that the problems are big and complicated. I thought, Well, what person do I know who has the gifts that this man has? The gifts of decency, first and foremost, of empathy second, of high intellectual ability. This man reads and remembers everything, you know? Is articulate. Had worked in the community. And really passionately feels like 'This is my responsibility.' How do you say no to that? So I had to take off my wife hat and put on my citizen hat.”
On managing to be Barack's backbone to help him balance his family life with being the nation’s leader.
“Trying to be the calm in his swerve. You know, when the leaves are blowing and the wind is rough, being a steady trunk in his life. Family dinners. That was one of the things I brought into the White House—that strict code of, You gotta catch up with us, dude. This is when we’re having dinner. Yes, you’re president, but you can bring your butt from the Oval Office and sit down and talk to your children. Because children bring solace.
"They let you turn your sights off the issues of the day and focus on saving the tigers. That was one of Malia’s primary goals; she advocated throughout his presidency to make sure the tigers were saved. And hearing about what happened with what school friend. Immersing yourself in the reality and the beauty of your children and your family. Plus, on the East Wing side, our motto was, we have to do everything excellently. If we do something—because the First Lady doesn’t have to do anything—
"[…] We were clear that what we were going to do was going to have impact and was going to be positive. The West Wing had enough going on; we wanted to be the happy side of the house. And we were.”
On why she could "never forgive" Donald Trump for putting her family in danger.
“I don’t think he knew what he was doing. For him it was a game. But the threats that you face as the commander in chief are real. And your children are at risk. In order for my children to have a normal life, even though they had security, they were in the world in a way that we weren’t.
"To think that some crazed person might be ginned up to think my husband was a threat to the country’s security; and to know that my children, every day, had to go to a school, and soccer games, parties, and travel; to think that this person would not take into account that this was not a game—that’s something that I want the country to understand. I want the country to take this in, in a way I didn’t say out loud, but I am saying now. It was reckless, it put my family in danger, and it wasn’t true. And he knew it wasn’t true.
"[…] We had a bullet shot at the Yellow Oval Room during our tenure in the White House. A lunatic came and shot from Constitution Avenue. The bullet hit the upper-left corner of a window. I see it to this day: the window of the Truman Balcony, where my family would sit. That was really the only place we could get outdoor space. Fortunately, nobody was out there at the time. The shooter was caught. But I had to look at that bullet hole, as a reminder of what we were living with every day.”
On being optimistic about our country.
“Yes. We have to feel that optimism. For the kids. We’re setting the table for them, and we can’t hand them crap. We have to hand them hope. Progress isn’t made through fear. We’re experiencing that right now. Fear is the coward’s way of leadership. But kids are born into this world with a sense of hope and optimism. No matter where they’re from. Or how tough their stories are. They think they can be anything because we tell them that. So we have a responsibility to be optimistic. And to operate in the world in that way.
[Tears up] "We have to be.”