Michelle Obama Interview: How FLOTUS Used Pop Culture Stardom to Make an Impact

Michelle Obama Variety Cover Story by Art Streiber
Art Streiber for Variety

Ten days before delivering the best-received speech at the Democratic National Convention, first lady Michelle Obama was in her East Wing office describing an entirely different appearance she was about to make that was poised to have an equally notable impact.

That was Carpool Karaoke, the insanely popular segment on CBS’ “Late Late Show,” in which she sat in the passenger seat with host James Corden and belted out renditions of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” as they circled the driveway on the South Lawn.

“First of all, I was riding in a car with somebody else, without the Secret Service,” she says, with more than a hint of glee. “So right there, [I said], ‘Let’s keep driving!’ I think we drove around the South Lawn about 100 times.”

Art Streiber for Variety

In her telling, the joy she got from that feeling of momentary freedom in the car with Corden is secondary to why she filmed it in the first place: the power of pop culture. As entertaining and unusual as the segment was, and as far as it spread virally on social media, it was a part of a carefully planned strategy executed by the first lady to leverage the power of Hollywood to advocate for issues near and dear to her heart.

Obama has done potato-sack races in the East Wing with Jimmy Fallon; she made a recent cameo on “NCIS,” and her office cleared the way for the show to shoot on the White House grounds; she did “random dancing” on Nickelodeon’s “iCarly.” And those are just a few of the several dozen appearances that she has made outside of traditional news venues.

Obama, 52, calls herself “a product of pop culture.” She is convinced of its influence on the public consciousness — in her case to build awareness of her signature policy initiatives, specifically ones tied to healthy eating and exercise, girls’ education, support for military families, and college advancement.

She’s not the first first lady to tap the entertainment industry to deliver a message. Nancy Reagan famously appeared on “Diff’rent Strokes” to promote her anti-drug campaign, Just Say No. Laura Bush appeared on shows like “Rachael Ray,” promoting heart-disease awareness, and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” promoting Katrina relief.

Obama, however, has taken things a step further — not just in magnitude, but with a certain degree of mirth.

“What I have never been afraid of is to be a little silly, and you can engage people that way,” Obama says in an interview with Variety in her upstairs White House office, decorated in an eclectic mix of abstract art and framed mementos from her tenure. “My view is, first you get them to laugh, then you get them to listen. So I’m always game for a good joke, and I’m not so formal in this role. There’s very little that we can’t do that people wouldn’t appreciate.”

Has it worked?

The first lady is convinced that it has.

A case in point: The Carpool Karaoke segment highlighted one of Obama’s key initiatives, Let Girls Learn, a worldwide plan of action to promote girls’ access to education. She and Corden also sang “This Is for My Girls,” which songwriter Diane Warren wrote several years ago but was recorded as an anthem for the initiative, with Elliott, Kelly Clarkson, Janelle Monae, and others participating, and AOL Makers producing.

FRIENDS OF MICHELLE: From left – Getting her freak on with Missy Elliott and James Corden; busting a move with Ellen Degeneres; making the scene on “The Voice” with Jill Biden and Carson Daly

Obama says that Warren urged them to do a segment. “What better way?” the first lady says. “The hottest way that music is being heard is in the car
with James.”

The results proved them right.

According to Nielsen, digital sales of “This Is for My Girls” climbed a whopping 1,562% in the week after the segment aired. And it generated almost 40 million views on YouTube.

Obama explains that as she launched the initiatives, she knew it would take “reaching people where they lived on a day-to-day basis, and the next step was, ‘How do you do that? Where are the people?’ Well, they’re not reading the op-ed pieces in the major newspapers. They’re not watching Sunday morning news talk shows. They’re doing what most people are doing: They are watching TV.”

She adds: “A lot of our audiences are kids and teens, and they want to be in on the joke. And they’ll listen again. We’re just a little looser with this stuff than most traditional first ladies.”

Obama doesn’t see much of a downside to diverging from tradition, even if it has been met at times with some criticism. She accepted an invitation in 2013 to present the Academy Award for best picture (to “Argo”) live via remote from the White House, with members of the military standing behind her. It was a first for the ceremony, and it drew disapproval from some conservative commentators who felt that the surprise appearance was elitist.

Even the first lady acknowledges, with a bit of humor, that there have been some segments she can’t quite believe she did.

“I think it was probably ‘Billy on the Street,’ when I was literally pushing [Billy Eichner] in a grocery cart in a grocery store,” she says. “You know, that’s when I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ But again, it resonated. It was something that was successful. Maybe if I’d done that in my first year, it might have been too much. But I think by the time we did this in the second term, people knew me. They understood the approach. It allows me to take a few more risks than in the first term, when people were just getting to know who I was.”

“I have never been afraid to be a little silly, and you can engage people that way. My view is, first you get them to laugh, then you get them to listen. So I’m always game for a good joke.”
Michelle Obama

In Obama’s view, taking risks has been worthwhile.

“It has been wonderful having the platform of the first lady’s office. But if you sort of look at who we are, we don’t have a budget. We don’t have congressional authority. But I still believe we managed to have impact on these issues, which sort of sets the foundation to think, ‘Gosh, we can do a lot, even when we’re not here, just with the power of public awareness.’ ”

As soon as her husband took office in 2009, one thing that Michelle Obama did not do was bind herself to tradition. She has said that she purposely didn’t read books on past first ladies, as much as she has admired many of them. She also has been conscious that she, as the first African-American first lady, would be a role model, and that the expectations were enormous.

“Michelle showed how to shape the role to her own interests and needs, combining a meaningful policy agenda and political role with her determination to keep her family whole and sane,” says Peter Slevin, the author of “Michelle Obama: A Life” and associate professor at Northwestern University. “It’s easy to forget that she considers her most important task to be raising her daughters, Malia and Sasha.”

The Obamas have no shortage of Hollywood connections. During her husband’s first campaign, she headlined fundraisers at the home of CAA partner Bryan Lourd and actor Samuel L. Jackson. But their closest friends remain those from their hometown of Chicago.

Her first major push to engage the entertainment community came in June 2011, when she appeared at the Writers Guild of America, West to talk about her initiative to support military families, called Joining Forces, and to encourage content creators to incorporate stories about military families in their shows and movies.

Seven months earlier, Obama had hired an entertainment-savvy communications director, Kristina Schake, who had been partnered in a Los Angeles firm that represented Maria Shriver and the proponents of efforts to overturn California’s ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8. Shortly after moving to D.C. for the new job, Schake contacted producer Bruce Cohen, who was among those seeking to overturn Prop. 8, to serve as the Hollywood liaison for Joining Forces, and to plan and produce the WGAW event.

The approach is nothing new — writers, producers, and directors are routinely lobbied by a host of nonprofits and other organizations to adopt storylines that highlight a certain issue. The idea is that in today’s cluttered media universe, the biggest challenge is to get people to listen — and that something more organic to entertainment, like a character in a TV show, would have a better chance of breaking through than a traditional PSA. What was different was that Obama chose to attend the event.

“There was a huge interest in the event when people heard that she was going to be part of it,” Cohen says.

“Army Wives” creator Katherine Fugate says that shows like “Glee” and “Grey’s Anatomy” followed suit by featuring episodes with military characters. She credits the first lady’s ability to connect with audiences — and with people individually. When Fugate first met Obama outside of a large group, the producer says that she reached for a handshake. Obama batted her hand away and said: “I don’t do that. Give me a hug.”

FAST START: The first lady launched Let’s Move, her first initiative, to promote healthy diet and exercise. Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

J.J. Abrams, who moderated the event, was also taken by the first lady’s relatability. “She’s something of a force of nature — one of the rare few who are truly present with whomever she’s talking to. Whether it’s a veteran, a child, a working mother, or movie star, she treats everyone the same, with respect and full attention.”

Her approach has also won praise from veterans’ groups like Blue Star Families for promoting the hiring of veterans and their spouses. Others say that there are limits to the initiative. Veterans’ issues are “tricky and more political and upredictable than most people think,” says Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

He notes that he appreciates the first lady’s dedication, adding, “It’s rare to see someone who really cares as much as she does.” Yet, he says, it’s impossible to separate the needs of veterans and their families from the problems that have plagued the Veterans Administration, which is overseen by the executive branch. “Public awareness is important,” he says. “But we also need a VA that works.”

Obama can be disarming — an ease that came across in a recent appearance with Oprah Winfrey in which she said that after her husband’s term ends, her first desire is to go shopping at Target. She has a certain gift for answering questions as if she’s never been asked them before, or offering a candid aside when, in fact, she is actually incredibly disciplined about what she says.

Making it Pop
First ladies know how to promote their initiatives.
Eleanor Roosevelt
Wrote, in Variety, that filmmakers “can teach ideals and standards through the medium where all the school precepts and readings of books will fail.” (1939)
Jacqueline Kennedy
Her “A Tour of the White House” won an Emmy award. (1962)
Betty Ford
Cameo’d on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” (1976)
Rosalynn Carter
Bette Davis interviewed her for daytime talk show “Dinah!,” in an episode taped at the White House. (1978)
Nancy Reagan
Promoted her “Just Say No!” campaign on an episode of “Diff’rent Strokes.” (1983)
Barbara Bush
The first first lady to visit “Sesame Street.” (1990)
Hillary Clinton
Guested on the “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” (1997)
Laura Bush
Appeared on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” to promote Hurricane Katrina relief. (2005)

That was certainly the case at the Democratic convention, when she talked of seeing her daughters off for their first day at school in D.C. — a wistful memory many parents can relate to, save for the fact that the girls were leaving with Secret Service agents. That ability to relate, even against all of the trappings (or being trapped) in the White House, has helped make the first lady one of the most popular political figures of the moment. According to a Gallup Poll, she was rated the top speaker of the party gathering, in line with other polls that show her popularity in the upper 60% range.

Obama is also an unabashed fan of entertainment.

“I view myself as being the average woman,” she says. “While I am first lady, I wasn’t first lady my whole life. I’m a product of pop culture. I’m a consumer of pop culture, and I know what resonates with people. I know what they’ll get a chuckle out of and what they think is kind of silly. And whenever my team approaches me with ideas and concepts, we’re usually like, ‘Is this really funny? Are people going to understand it?’”

Her staff is especially vigilant about her likes and dislikes, and about staying on message. At the photo shoot for this story in the East Reception Room, one of the editors brought a playlist of Beyoncé and Rihanna music, but the first lady’s assistant had her own playlist — one that featured some of those artists’ more recent songs.

Obama says that she and her husband enjoy screening new movie releases in the White House family theater, which was converted from a cloakroom in 1942.

When it comes to her TV viewing habits, the first lady cites some of her favorites, like “Orange Is the New Black” and “The Americans.”

“On a good flight to China? Having the fifth season of ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is a lifesaver,” she says. “The only way I get through the next season of ‘The Americans’ is on a long flight. And it helps, because you look up and say, ‘We’re here. We’re landing.’ ”

Her love of entertainment aside, Obama finds fault with the industry for a lack of diversity, noting that it’s crucial that TV shows and movies represent the differences in the population.

“For so many people, TV and movies may be the only way they understand people who aren’t like them. It becomes important for the world to see different images of each other, so that we can develop empathy and understanding.”
Michelle Obama

“For so many people, television and movies may be the only way they understand people who aren’t like them,” she says. “And when I come across many little black girls who come up to me over the course of this 7½ years with tears in their eyes, and they say: ‘Thank you for being a role model for me. I don’t see educated black women on TV, and the fact that you’re first lady validates who I am….’”

She adds, “My mom says it all the time: ‘People are so enamored of Michelle and Barack Obama.’ And she says, ‘There are millions of Michelle and Barack Obamas.’ We’re not new. We’re not special. People who come from intact families who are educated, who have values, who care for their kids, who raise their kids — if you don’t see that on TV, and you don’t live in communities with people like me, you never know who we are, and you can make and be susceptible to all sorts of assumptions and stereotypes and biases, based on nothing but what you see and hear on TV. So it becomes very important for the world to see different images of each other, so that, again, we can develop empathy and understanding.”

She calls diversity in entertainment “critical,” because she sees the industry as being able to influence perceptions, in the way that viewers in the ’70s “developed a love for Archie Bunker and empathy for George Jefferson.”

“There are folks who now know black families — like the Johnsons on ‘Black-ish’ or the folks on ‘Modern Family.’ They become part of who you are. You share their pains. You understand their fears. They make you laugh, and they change how you see the world. And that is particularly true in a country where there are still millions of people who live in communities where they can live their whole lives not having contact or exposure with people who aren’t like them, whether that is race or religion or simply lifestyle. The only way that millions of people get to know other folks and the way they live … is through the power of television and movies.”

A show that significantly influenced her, Obama says, was “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” She recalls watching it with her family over dessert when she was 10 years old, along with a Saturday night lineup that also included “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” and “The Carol Burnett Show.”

“She was one of the few single working women depicted on television at the time,” Obama says. “She wasn’t married. She wasn’t looking to get married. At no point did the series end in a happy ending with her finding a husband — which seemed to be the course you had to take as a woman. But she sort of bucked that. She worked in a newsroom, she had a tough boss, and she stood up to him. She had close friends, never bemoaning the fact that she was a single. She was very proud and comfortable in that role.

“I was probably 10 or 11 when I saw that, and sort of started thinking, ‘You know what? Marriage is an option. Having a family is an option. And going to school and getting your education and building your career is another really viable option that can lead to happiness and fulfillment.”

Perhaps the initiative the first lady will be most identified with is Let’s Move, which promotes healthy eating and exercise. It also was the first initiative she launched, in 2010, with the most visible symbol of the effort being a garden that she and other White House staff and volunteers planted on the grounds.

The need was certainly apparent. Health experts had been warning about rising obesity rates among children for years. Yet as much as Obama set out to pursue initiatives that were apolitical, food brings with it a certain level of friction. Just as the Tea Party was rising in power and influence, the first lady’s call for healthier eating was met with cries from the far right that it was another effort by government to exert influence over American lives.

Art Streiber for Variety

The criticism could be dismissed as part of the tenor of the time. After all, the charge of government influence could be leveled against past first-lady initiatives, like Laura Bush and her campaign to promote reading and literacy.

The bigger challenge when it came to food was that it was so personal.

“We knew when we came in that most people in this country didn’t view childhood obesity as a public health issue,” Obama says. “People just weren’t able to be critical of their own children. It’s hard to look inside on that issue and say, ‘There’s a problem.’ I experienced it as a mom. I saw it in my friends and family. So we knew if we were going to tackle this issue, we would have to change the cultural perspective on the issue as a whole.”

An early victory was the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which set funding and new nutrition standards for schools. On the wall of her office is a copy of the bill with her husband’s signature.

A thornier challenge has been to move industry. Public interest groups for years had been pressing food manufacturers and media companies to reform not only the foods they produce, but the way they market them to kids.

In 2012, the first lady and Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger made headlines with a joint announcement that the media conglomerate would reject junk-food advertising on its children’s networks and programming.

Iger says that he and his wife, Willow Bay, first met the first lady briefly at an inaugural ball on the night of Jan. 20, 2009, but have gotten to know her better as Disney has unveiled healthy food policies.

At the time that Let’s Move was launched, he says, the company already was in the midst of a multiyear plan, starting in 2006, to provide healthier foods at its theme parks, and to restrict the use of its characters in marketing junk-food products. Disney got in touch with Susan Sher, who was then the first lady’s chief of staff, to inform the White House of their interest.

“In our case, our interests synced up perfectly,” Iger says. “There was no need for the power of persuasion. We had common interests and common goals.” He says that Disney’s “brand affinity has gone up significantly” since it launched its initiatives.

“I think when you can get an occupant of the White House behind you, particularly one as formidable and effective and passionate as Mrs. Obama, that can’t hurt,” Iger says. Disney has worked with the first lady’s office on other issues, including an initiative to hire veterans.

“I think when you can get an occupant of the White House behind you, particularly one as formidable and effective and passionate as Mrs. Obama, that can’t hurt”
Bob Iger

Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, credits the first lady with using “the bully pulpit and policy in a very effective way. She has a very supportive tone,” Wootan say. “She is not wagging her finger.”

But Wootan notes that other major media companies did not follow suit in restricting junk-food ads, and the entertainment industry as a whole actively lobbied to scuttle a set of proposed Federal Trade Commission guidelines on food advertising to children, even though the measures were voluntary. An industry argument was that the guidelines threatened First Amendment rights.

Perhaps the true measure of Obama’s effectiveness is in obesity rates. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study from November showed obesity rates continuing to increase among adults, but leveling off over the past decade among youth.

“You can’t attribute the decline in obesity to the first lady,” Wootan says, “but she certainly played a role.”

A burning question in Washington is where the Obamas will end up next. The first lady doesn’t reveal much about what she plans to do after the president’s term is up, other than to say that she’ll continue to work on many of her initiatives. The Obamas plan to stay in D.C. until their younger daughter, Sasha, finishes high school.

The strong reception to the first lady’s speech at the DNC prompted speculation (or wishful thinking) that she would pursue a political career — an idea her friends say is unlikely. She herself has said she won’t run for president or public office, and has instead said that there may be more she can do outside of the White House, free of cameras and constraints, to impact people in an “unbiased way.” As this interview was being arranged, for instance, her press team warned that questions about partisan politics were off limits, as they would run afoul of the Hatch Act, which restricts the use of executive branch resources for political activity.

As much as the first lady may joke about the freedom that will come from being out of the White House, or of getting a Carpool Karaoke spin around the South Lawn, Bruce Cohen says that her interests as a public figure are genuine. “You can only fake it so far,” he explains. “I think with her, she truly has an interest in hearing from so many people from many walks of life at as many events as possible. It will be incredible to see what she does next. It will be a hard act to follow, but if anyone can figure things out, it is her.”

Obama says that she has no control over what her successor does, but expresses confidence that groups are out there continuing the conversation. “Which was why,” she says, “it was sort of important for us not to deal with a specific policy change, or a specific sort of approach, but to deal with cultural change.”

She adds: “It’s not who’s in the White House. It’s not who is the first lady. You can give a lift, but once you give people that information, and help them understand that they have the power to make the change, then change actually happens.”