There’s a very different first lady in town, and she’s got all of Washington buzzing about her status as a modern-day style icon along the lines of Jackie Kennedy four decades ago.
Michelle Obama will soon grace the cover of America’s style bible, Vogue magazine, amid her stated intention to focus on raising her young girls and to implement a three-pronged policy agenda: supporting military families, helping working women balance career and family and encouraging public service.
Not surprisingly, in a celebrity-obsessed nation that has long adored its cover girls, it’s Obama’s role as a fashionista rather than her work ethic that’s fuelling the most excitement.
The 45-year-old Obama is only the second first lady to appear on the cover of Vogue. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Kennedy who beat her to the punch – it was Hillary Clinton in 1998, donning a black Oscar de Renta evening gown. Both first ladies posed for famed photographer Annie Leibovitz.
For Obama, Vogue editors broke with tradition and allowed her to choose her own outfits for the March issue, including the magenta gown she wears on the cover that’s the creation of one-time Vancouver resident Jason Wu.
“She doesn’t need any help. She loves fashion and knows what works for her,” said Andre Leon Talley, Vogue’s editor-at-large. “She’s never had a conversation with me about, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘How did this look?’ And I’m glad for that.”
The 26-year-old Wu, now based in New York, was plucked out of relative obscurity thanks to Obama’s fondness for his designs. He also created the ivory ball gown she wore on inauguration night.
In an e-mail interview on Wednesday, Wu said he was delighted to have become an Obama favourite.
“This is an extraordinary opportunity and I thank (Vogue editor-in-chief) Anna Wintour and the first lady for the incredible compliment,” Wu wrote.
That might be Obama’s only connection to Canada for quite some time. The first lady won’t be with her husband when he makes a quick day trip to Ottawa next week to discuss bilateral issues with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Instead, she’ll stick close to Washington and her two girls, just like she has since the Jan. 20 inauguration.
“I’m going to try to take them to school every morning – as much as I can,” Obama is quoted as saying in Vogue.
“But there’s also a measure of independence. And obviously there will be times I won’t be able to drop them off at all. I like to be a presence in my kids’ school. I want to know the teacher; I want to know the other parents.”
Like Obama, first ladies have traditionally adopted pet causes while adapting to life in the White House. Nancy Reagan launched the “Just Say No” campaign against drug abuse, Rosalynn Carter focused on mental health, and both Barbara Bush and her daughter-in-law, Laura, supported literacy efforts.
Clinton gamely took on health care, although she was ultimately unsuccessful in her efforts to reform the health-care system in the U.S.
Advocates for many of Obama’s stated causes are hopeful she’ll make a difference during her years in Washington that goes beyond an attention to style that hasn’t been seen in the White House since the Kennedy years.
“She has the potential to be an extraordinary first lady and advocate for these issues,” Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, said in a recent interview.
“She has an enormous opportunity to raise these issues because people are so interested in what she has to say. And the power of her voice is so great.”
Obama’s own cult of personality seems equally powerful. The first lady’s many events in D.C. over the past three weeks are usually packed affairs that feature her charming the crowds not with her outfits, but with her straight talk and down-to-earth demeanour.
At an appearance Wednesday at D.C.’s Howard University, Obama told a crowd of about 250 that she still struggles to effectively balance work and family.
“There isn’t a day that goes by, particularly after having kids, that I don’t wonder or worry about whether I’m doing the right thing, for myself, for my family, for my girls,” she said.
“There is no right way or wrong way to do any of this. And the choices and decisions will change given your circumstances. The question I hate most that we ask of young people is: ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ And the truth is, I still don’t know and I’m 45.”