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‘The Meaning of Michelle,' reflections on the iconic First Lady




First lady Michelle Obama acknowledges the crowd before delivering her speech during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
First lady Michelle Obama acknowledges the crowd before delivering her speech during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
First lady Michelle Obama acknowledges the crowd before delivering her speech during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
Veronica Chambers, editor of "The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How her Journey Inspires Our Own"
Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press


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Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama is the first African-American to serve as first lady in U.S. history. She's also a lawyer, a mother, a fashionista, and an inspiration to many. 

The depth of what Michelle Obama has represented is explored in the new book, "The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires our Own." 

"The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own"
Courtesy of St. Martin’s Press

Take Two's Alex Cohen spoke with the book's editor, Veronica Chambers and with one of the book's contributors— best selling novelist Cathi Hanauer. Hanauer is also co-founder of the New York Times column Modern Love.

Interivew Highlights

First impressions

Veronica Chambers: I just remember seeing her and seeing her as a mom of young kids and I had a newborn baby. And she just looked like somebody that I would know and that was exciting.  That has never happened to me before in American politics. 

Cathi Hanauer: I was more focused on Barack at the time and so thrilled that he was taking office that when Michelle came along, it was sort of like, whoa, look at her. This is not your average First Lady. She was gorgeous and stylish and young. I wrote an essay in this book about how she was not unlike me in a lot of ways because she's about my age and her kids are about my kids' ages. And it was fascinating to have somebody our age, in or situation, and at our stage of life in the White House. 

Through a child's eyes

Veronica Chambers: My mother-in-law still talks about having my daughter in her jumpy, little bouncy pen on inauguration day and how she literally stared at the screen. I don't know what it was— it was just a love affair at first sight for her. 

From the lunch table to the editor's desk 

Veronica Chambers: I have a really good friend who's a book editor. Her name is Elisabeth Dyssegaard. And every 6 months or so we would go out to lunch and there would always be this part of the lunch where we would just talk about Michelle.... It was like, coffee, tea, Michelle, and us. And about a year ago she said, don't you want to do a book? And I thought, there's been so many, what would we do? And she said, how about a collection of essays that look at the last 8 years and what she's meant to us. And it would be a thank you and an appreciation but it could be really fun. And it just stayed in my mind. And we jumped into it and we did it together. 

Becoming the wife

Cathi Hanauer: I'm a novelist and also an anthologist. And I did a book at one point called ‘The Bitch in the House’ that got a lot of attention. And then my husband, Dan Jones did ‘The Bastard on the Couch.’ Those two led us to be asked to start a column in the New York Times called ‘Modern Love.’ And I didn't really want to do that at the time and he did. So we decided that we would launch it together and then he would take it over, which is what happened. Modern Love went on to be somewhat of a phenomenon.... He sort of became Mr. Modern Love and so I thought, I could write about becoming the wife in the same way that Michelle who really had a high powered job and was a high powered person when she and Barack first met and before they had kids. How she had to learn to become the wife also. And sort of take a back seat and keep the family going so that he could be who he is. 

Michelle was a lawyer, she went to Harvard, I mean, she was not a schlub. When they met, she was already at the law firm and she was asked to take him out to lunch and show him the ropes.... The more I learned about her, the more I couldn't believe the parallels. She was dealing with what every working mother with kids in this country are dealing with which is, how do I juggle? How do I do it all, and make a living but also, be a good parent and be there for my kids, and support my husband without getting angry and not feel resentful all the time, and all those things?

The significance of living out loud  

Veronica Chambers: We have never really seen a Black woman who wasn't a celebrity live life out loud in that public of a forum. I was telling someone the other day, it was family movie night and my daughter picked up the phone and she said ‘Siri, tell me names of movies with strong, brave girls.’ And it was almost like, I feel like if I had sat down 8 years ago and said, ‘Siri, show me a movie about a beautiful, Black woman with her own career and life who does incredible things, and has a great family, and gives back to the community, and puts forward all these ideas, and is this role model,’ there couldn't have been a movie like what I got to watch for the last 8 years. 

Something deeper in those famous arms 

Veronica Chambers: I think the amazing thing for me, especially as someone who had a newborn daughter, is it said, she goes to the gym. She takes time for herself. I love the quotes from her where she says, ‘at 50, I've never felt better.’ That she wants to be a really fly 80-year-old. Among many of the things we deal with as women, is that we don't have a really great sense of how to age. And how to be grown up women. One of the things that I liked, and she said this in the Oprah interview, is that none of this would have gone down this way if she had been younger. She came in a grown up and then she continued to grow up in the space. I think that's a very powerful message for women because I think we are constantly being told, you kind of have this shot to be the young, hot thing. And then, what happens...? She really modeled something powerfully there.  

Quotes edited for clarity 

To hear the full interview, click on the blue Media Player above.