The XX Factor

Michelle Obama’s Edgier Self-Presentation

First lady Michelle Obama speaks as Inglewood Mayor James Butts (L) looks on at the future site of Northgate Market to discuss the California FreshWorks Fund on February 1, 2012 in Inglewood, California.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Michelle Obama has been making the rounds on talk show couches this week. Here she is encouraging Jay Leno to eat his veggies. Here she is deflecting questions about daughter Malia’s dating life from Rachael Ray. And here she is challenging Ellen DeGeneres to a push-up competition. This is all part of a California swing the first lady is making to raise funds for her husband’s reelection campaign, and what’s remarkable about Michelle’s consecutive appearances is how comfortable she seems with her public self.

This wasn’t always the case. When Barack was first elected, it seemed like Michelle was tamping down her personality to fit into some cookie cutter role. She was desperately trying to be as inoffensive as possible, and it washed her out. While her main preoccupations remain wholesome (healthier eating; more benefits for military families), her presentation has become edgier, more authentic.

The latest wave of genuine-seeming public appearances started in early January when Michelle went on CBS’s morning show to combat the portrayal of herself in Jodi Kantor’s book about the Obama marriage. In that appearance, Michelle calmly fights back against the notion of herself as an “angry black woman.” Though many readers found the portrayal of Michelle in Kantor’s book eminently relatable, it was still a savvy, strong move for Obama to make.

In the latest round of press, Michelle Obama seems relaxed in her own skin in a way she hasn’t previously. On Leno, she was easily joking with Jay about how he should be eating more vegetables. The bit, which could have been extremely awkward, ended up working because of Michelle’s charm. On Rachael Ray, she wisely avoids answering the question about Malia’s dating life while still making it seem like she’s revealing something about her family–that her kids want their parents to be quiet. That’s the oldest celebrity trick in the book.

But the Ellen appearance is the most impressive, in a way. You could frame Michelle’s pet platforms as ways to bolster the image of her as homemaking mom-in-chief. But she negates that kind of framing by showing off her remarkable physical prowess. Back when pearl-wearing, perfect Barbara Bush was First Lady, could you have imagined that the First Lady would be engaging in a televised push-up competition with an out-and-proud lesbian on national TV? It’s an impressive show of strength and originality. Clip of Michelle vs. Ellen below.