Family first: 'Who's got time to put eyelashes on and all that?' In photographs, she appears rather ordinary. On the stump, she comes across as down-to-earth. But in person, the wife of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama is stunning.
Last week, when I sat down with her for an interview in Rockford, she wore a white sleeveless blouse made out of a tulle material that showed off her sculpted arms, and navy blue slacks with a double stranded leather belt.
Her hair, pulled back and held in place with a wide headband, was a no-fuss do peculiar to black women who actually sweat when they work out.
But if you think there was a buzz surrounding Sen. Hillary Clinton's recent show of cleavage, you should have been in the pressroom after Michelle went on "60 Minutes" earlier this year wearing very little makeup. Gray-haired journalists were aghast.
"I love girly makeup and stuff, but my view is that's a lot of work," she said, explaining her decision to routinely skip the makeup chair.
"I want people to get used to my face more naturally so that I don't have to do that every day. Who's got time to put eyelashes on and all that?"
Time is indeed a commodity.
On the day I interviewed her, Michelle had gotten up at 4 a.m. and was at the airport at 6:45 a.m. When she met me 12 hours later, she already had been to Champaign for a two-tier breakfast event, and to Peoria for a VIP reception and rally. I had 30 minutes between stops to talk with her.
"I separate my life so that when I am on the road I am on the road," she said. "It's sort of like you are Batman. When you turn that off, you put that cape away."
Given the discouraging statistics regarding black women and marriage (black women are the least likely of any group to get married and the most likely to get divorced, according to a recent study), Michelle and Barack have defied the odds.
I asked: How did she manage to snag Barack?
"What I talk about with my girlfriends is that before you start worrying about, 'I don't have a man,' where are you in your own space, in your own head?" she told me. "What do I need to be as healthy and happy on my own with or without? And the minute you get that in order, it seems like things fall into place."
She credits her working-class mother and father for raising her with the values that have prepared her for the place she is in today.
"My father was a stationary fireman who worked for the city his whole life," she said. "It was something we knew in our family. You did the best that you could. My father had multiple sclerosis, and we saw him struggle to get up and go to work. He didn't complain -- ever. He put his energy into us."
Despite her hectic schedule, Michelle has made a commitment to put her children first, even if it means raising a few hackles. For her, that means making sure the family spends Sundays together, and planning her travel around the social schedule of her two daughters, Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6.
"The first priority is to make sure that my kids have their heads on straight. They are great and they are stable and they are confident, and I want to make sure that they stay that way," Michelle said.
If she ends up in the White House in 2008, she intends to make family and work balance a priority.
"Every woman I know -- and this crosses race, political affiliation and religion -- is that we, as women in this day and age, are trying to do it all. Many of us work because we have to. Many of us don't have the flexible hours. Many of us don't have a job that pays a living wage or health care for our kids. When your family is not right and your children aren't right, you aren't right," she said.
"Women have taken on all this burden with fewer support from society and the government, and we are all just struggling through because nobody wants to look like they're not handling it," Michelle added.
"We need to change our priorities and make some demands as women about what the world should look like to help us be successful in our endeavors."
By the time I found my way back to the highway, Michelle Obama was on her way to another fund-raiser. She expected to be home by 8:30 p.m. -- just in time to kiss her daughters good-night.
If it's important to her, I don't think anything is "too much work" for Michelle Obama.