First Class

In the final stretch of a polarizing election season, there's one thing that the American public can agree on: the power of Michelle Obama. As the First Lady prepares to exit the White House after a game-changing eight years, she sits down with editorial director Ariel Foxman to talk about the importance of educating girls, the impact of social media, and, of course, her personal style.

By Ariel Foxman
Photos by Thomas Whiteside

I had been invited to the White House to chat with Michelle Obama as she rounded out the final months of her second four-year run as our nation's ever-popular, ever-inspiring First Lady. It was a very hot, very humid summer morning in Washington, D.C. I arrived at the East Wing gate and was escorted to the Map Room, a venerable space filled with history and gravitas. (President Obama had welcomed the Dalai Lama there only a month prior.) Here I would wait with some of the First Lady's communications team while she was being photographed in the East Colonnade for our cover feature. This was the first time a shoot like this was taking place in this corridor, one whose windows look out onto the five-decade-old Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. I was told Mrs. Obama might want a few minutes for herself between the shoot and our interview. An intern brought over a glass of water. It was covered with a paper cap printed with the presidential seal and placed on a coaster next to my recorder. Moments later we got the signal that FLOTUS was on her way. Suddenly, in she walked, buoyant and exuberant. Absolutely stunning in a Brandon Maxwell dress, the First Lady had come directly from set—no break necessary—to talk with InStyle about her Let Girls Learn initiative, her legacy, what the future might hold for her and the First Family, and, naturally, a little bit about the significance of fashion.

ARIEL FOXMAN: It's such an honor and privilege to be here.

MICHELLE OBAMA: Oh, thank you. I'm a huge fan of the magazine. It's on all my planes. It's part of all my travels. It's like, Where's InStyle?

Great to hear. Those are [newsstand] pockets we can't buy [both laugh]. We're so excited about your Let Girls Learn initiative and our partnership. What would you want our readers to know [in case] they're hearing about Let Girls Learn for the first time? Why should they make room in their hearts and minds for this platform?

For the same reason I did. Sixty-two million girls around the world aren't in school, and the first thing that comes to my mind is, "That could've been me." [I think about] how I would have felt at the age of 10 or 11 or 12 if somebody walked up and said, "That's it. Your dreams are over! You're going to have to leave school and get married to somebody twice your age and start having kids." It made me think, "What can we do, besides feel bad, to change that circumstance?" So I want your readers to know that the issue exists, number one, and that there are many ways that women and girls of all ages can engage. A great place to start is our website,

Was there this flash point where you said, "I want to do something—and now is the moment"?

It's always been a part of my life—mentoring, looking out for kids. I mean, I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and I had friends who were just as smart as me who didn't apply to college for whatever reason...didn't have the aspirations, didn't have the support. I went away to school and came home and thought, "I've got to figure out how to use my education to start helping my friends and folks in my community."

I read your piece in The Atlantic about the initiative, and what struck me as so incredible about this endeavor is the infrastructure aspect—all these different obstacles that young women face around the world. What has it taken to get this moving? It seems like such a herculean process.

All communities, we've learned, are very different [in terms of] traditions and cultural norms. So what makes this issue so challenging is that there's no one solution. It's not just about building bathrooms and providing school fees and making sure girls have tampons and menstrual pads, which are definitely on-the-ground issues, as you mentioned. But there are places in the world where families don't believe that girls are worthy of an education. They'll save money and send their sons to school, but they believe that it's more important for their girls to stay home, get married early, care for the chickens, cook, and clean. So part of it is, How do you begin to tackle the various traditions that keep girls out of school? And that's why the work with the Peace Corps has been very important—our partnership with them recognizes that we have to have community organizers on the ground. They're there for long periods of time, so they can develop trust and understand who the voices in these communities are. And that looks very different in every country.

I'm sitting here as the husband of a high school principal. And my mom was a teacher for 27 years. But as you're telling this story, I'm thinking about my grandmother, who grew up in Canada and was told by her father, "You're not going to go to school; your brother will." And she said no. She found a way to supplement the family income so she could go and become a teacher. A lot of us think, "Oh, this is something that's happening on the other side of the world." But these attitudes are pervasive.

Well, that's one of the things we talked about on our trip to Spain, a developed country whose statistics look like ours. Girls are going to primary and secondary school, they're graduating, they're going on to college; their numbers sometimes outrank those of men in colleges. Yet there are still these cultural stereotypes and norms that create ceilings for women there, like, When are you going to get married after you've spent your lifetime getting your law degree? The expectations for men are very different. In Liberia, those same things are happening, but they're literally keeping girls out of school. We're trying to make the connection between the developing and the developed world that it is gender inequality that is driving this issue—and that we have to keep fighting, even when it feels like we in the United States or in Spain have already arrived. We haven't. We're still fighting these stereotypes.

Can you talk about what you imagine the long-term impact a program like this could have not just globally but also on American citizens?

Well, the facts are clear. When women are educated around the world, they earn higher salaries. They bring more money into their families. They have lower infant mortality rates. They have lower rates of HIV and AIDS. There's a larger likelihood that their children will be immunized and educated. And in many ways we've seen how educating women can improve an entire country's GDP. So these are huge issues. And as we talk on my team, girls' education is kind of a no-brainer. Girls are going to move our country and our world to a place where there's more peace, more prosperity, more possibility, because women raise the next generations again and again and again.

What really stands out about your recent trip to Liberia and Morocco as part of Let Girls Learn?

[In Liberia we were] visiting schools with no electricity, windows, or doors—and the kids there are paying to go; there is no free public education system. I was sitting next to President [Ellen Johnson] Sirleaf—the first female president in an African country—whom these girls idolized. You could see it when she walked in the room. Hearing how oppressed these girls feel, to have them do their best to articulate the challenges they face...that left an impression on me. And we went to Morocco, to Marrakesh, where there's obviously less poverty, but the cultural issues are still pretty powerful. Sitting in a room with those amazing young girls and Meryl Streep, Freida Pinto, and some of the smartest women in the world—those conversations are the ones that stand out for me. And hopefully, the women who were watching via Snapchat will somehow be moved by those stories too, moved enough to act.

I'm not embarrassed to say that I watched your City College of New York commencement speech maybe 20 times. When you think about education in this country for women in particular, what would you want our audience to know are the biggest challenges we're facing today?

I think one of them is that we can't take what we have for granted. It pains me to hear statistics about dropout rates and kids who are bored or don't understand the importance that education plays, because it's just so available. Yes, there are problems with our public education; there's work to be done. But every child in this country has a school to go to. So what I want to tell our young people is, Don't take this for granted. We have an obligation to take our education seriously and then to use the skills we develop to help other people who don't have a voice and are nowhere near close to having a voice in their countries.

I want to switch gears a little bit. I was saying to your team that one of the things I'm going to miss is the incredible accessibility and, it's not a word, but down-to-earthness that you and the First Family have brought to everything you do. Your use of social media has been a great point of entry for this accessibility. Do you have a set strategy? Or do you use it like most of us, sort of in the moment?

There's definitely a strategy. We've learned that we need to reach people where they are. We can fool ourselves into thinking that everybody is still watching the evening news and Sunday morning talk shows, but I live with Generation Z, and I know that their habits, the way they take in information is so different. And they've changed—there's a difference between my 18-year-old [Malia] and my 15-year-old [Sasha]. We've got to meet our constituents where they are, and they're on Snapchat.

Do you like Snapchat? Are you having fun with it?

I'm learning it.

It's not completely intuitive, right?

It's not, but it's intuitive to them. I'm fortunate enough to have a team of young people, because they get it. People on social media want to have fun. So you've got to pull them in with a little humor, a little pop culture, [by] staying on top of the trends and understanding that this is what draws people in—the latest dance, the latest craze, the latest saying. That's the first step to getting their attention. And then once you have them, you can do a travel documentary on an issue that's very serious, because you've got them. We mix the two. We might be doing a little carpool karaoke one day, but the next day we're sitting down in a serious conversation with girls in Marrakesh and hearing about their challenges.

InStyle uses social media to create interest around things that aren't maybe at the top of the evening news, like what the First Lady wore when she walked off the plane in D.C. So I wanted to talk a bit about style. What role does fashion play for you?

It goes hand in hand for anyone who's in the public sphere. Your first interaction with people is what they see. So you can't take it for granted. When you're traveling in a country, the colors you wear, the cut of a dress, the hem length, whether your shoulders are showing—those are all important statements of respect and appreciation and understanding of a culture. But it's also just as important for the wearer to be comfortable, and that has always been what drives my choices—do I feel good in this? I don't really care what the trend is. I mean, if the trend is nice and it happens to look good...

Or you're setting the trend, which may be the case.

I tend to not worry about the trends, because what works for an 18-year-old selfie queen may not for a 52-year-old First Lady who is a mom of teenagers she's trying to be a good role model for.

Is fashion a family affair? Do you shop and dress and pick out things together?

No, no. The girls do their own thing. They have their own style that's very much connected to that of their friends and their community. How we dress when we're in public may or may not reflect how we dress in our real lives.

What is your off-duty style?

Very casual. No makeup, a T-shirt, and a pair of ripped jean shorts or workout pants because I'm always on the verge of going to or coming from [working out]. So it isn't formal. I love color and pieces that make me feel good, but it's much more informal.

Yesterday, maybe you know, was National Simplicity Day. Right now, you're so busy and your days are so full. When you look out six months, will it be a more simple time? Are there things that you're excited to embrace again?

Well, the honest answer is I have no idea, just like I had no idea what life would be like living in the White House. My hopes are that we recapture some everydayness, some anonymity. And we know that will take some time. But I always joke that I dream of opening up my front door and walking out without any notification, without any security. But at the same time, there are many aspects to living in the White House that we'll miss—the folks who work here, the staff who takes care of our families, my team who works on these issues. I mean, these are the people we see every day. They've cared for us for eight years. My children's formative years have been in this house. But we're young. Barack and I still want to do great work.

Is Let Girls Learn part of that legacy?

Let Girls Learn is something I want to do for the rest of my life. Because we're not going to solve this issue, unfortunately, in my lifetime. But to the extent that I can continue to shine a light, whatever light I have left when I leave here, on those girls and to work with leaders in this country and around the world to find solutions—I think that's a worthy goal. But we've got a lot of other things we also will continue to do. We just have to figure out what our time looks like, what our tools look like. And it will be nice to open up the paper, look at the front page, and know that you're not responsible for every headline [both laugh].

That's a huge onus that lifts.

It's sort of like, It's not my job.

Someone else's problem [both laugh]. Well, I want to thank you so much. I think the tote-bag collection we are launching around this initiative is going to sell out immediately.

It's important because InStyle is what young people, what women are reading. So the fact that you, in addition to caring about fashion and trends, are taking on substantive issues in a serious way and signing on to initiatives like this is tremendous.

Thank you. We're so happy to have you as a partner.

Hopefully, we'll keep working together.

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