“Make 'em jealous at work,” another hawker cried as thousands squeezed into the Capital One Arena on Saturday night to hear from the woman that the evening’s host, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to former president Barack Obama, called “a badass.”
There were Michelle calendars being sold by little kids looking to raise money for . . . something. An entire table was covered with DVDs featuring her “five most inspiring speeches.” There were custom clutch purses decorated with what appeared to be every single one of her magazine covers. A fuchsia “silk” scarf with her book’s cover image on one side and inspiring quotes on the other. Michelle buttons, Michelle wallets, Michelle beanies in every crazy color from highlighter yellow to tangerine. There was a Michelle fanny pack.
And that was just outside. Inside, the “official” tour T-shirt with a crisp, non-bootlegged — er, blurry — image of Mrs. Obama on the front sold for $35. If you wanted long sleeves, it was $50. Onesies for budding Michelle fanatics were $20.
“Ladies,” one woman yelled to her posse of girlfriends as they passed the official tour merchandise tables, “are we here for any of these overpriced items?” No one raised their hand, which meant the line moved quicker for women like 45-year-old Lachelle Parker.
“She’s killing it,” Parker said while waiting, “mature woman’s drink” in hand, for a $35 “Becoming” candle (which we can only assume smelled like inspiration and empowerment). “She’s doing a Beyoncé,” she continued as she bought a signed book for $36 before the arena ran out. “I’m super hype. She is a trailblazer. And I love her.”
Everyone in the arena loved her, admires her, is inspired by her and would like some of her to rub off on them.
“I’m expecting to become,” Katrell Mendenhall, 41, explained as she stood next to her mother. “I think every woman and man in here is trying to reach something.”
With five minutes left before the event’s start time, the crowd has already been steeped in Michelle Obama everything for what feels like eternity — the merch, the life-size portraits for Instagram, the crackling energy — and somehow there was room for more.
A group of a half-dozen teenage Girls Scouts scurried to their section, vests flapping, as Mary Contee used a walking cane like a scepter to glide to her own seat with her two daughters and granddaughter in tow. Her 70th birthday was last week, she said, and this was her present.
It’s hard to define when a book tour is no longer really a book tour, but this event felt like the deciding difference. Is it when it’s selling out basketball arenas and not dwindling book stores? Check. When the tickets are going for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars? Check. When most of the crowd hasn’t even read the book yet? When white parents are bringing their 10-year-olds as a treat (and a lesson), and grown black women are bringing their 70-year-old mothers for the same reason? Check and check.
Inside the arena, Michelle Obama’s personal playlist was blasting — Beyoncé, Janet Jackson, Alessia Cara, Mary J. Blige — while photos of her through the years flashed across the big screens. Thirty minutes after the event was supposed to begin, a line of attendees was still around the block. Meanwhile, the crowd indoors was whipped into a frenzy with a video montage of Mrs. Obama’s greatest dancing hits — with talk show host Jimmy Fallon, Barack Obama and that one time with a turnip. It’s Michelle Obama or bust.
Finally, a voice rose from the behind the billowing ivy curtains on the main stage.
“Hey, Washington, D.C.!” boomed the former first lady — or “forever” first lady, according to this crowd — from backstage at 8:47 p.m. “I have one question for you: Who are you becoming?”
With Alicia Keys’s “Girl on Fire” playing in the background, Mrs. Obama strutted onstage in a drapey black pantsuit accented on one side with crystals. The applause shook the room, but just as suddenly, a devout hush took over. For the next hour and half, Jarrett provided the road signs to Mrs. Obama’s life story as the former first lady dove into one story after another from her childhood onward.
She talked about everything: from in vitro to marriage counseling, the South Shore to Buckingham Palace, Princeton to her first black Saab. Nothing seemed off-limits. Obama’s voice echoed through the sold-out arena as she dispensed truism after truism about overcoming self-doubt, ignoring insults but admitting the pain, and putting yourself first. “Say that!” and “Yassssss” filled the rafters like “amens” in this crowd.
As the gab fest began to wrap up, Mrs. Obama admitted that she and her husband were just now, in 2018, starting to reflect on how much they had accomplished. “I just looked at him and said, ‘Man, you did this,’” she recalled.
The former president himself made a surprise appearance onstage with flowers just as the night was winding down. “Oh, my God!” shouted someone (everyone?) as the crowd leaped to its feet and stayed there until Obama told them to “sit down” as he perched on the arm of Michelle’s chair. He planned to stay awhile, or at least long enough to get the story of their first meeting straight: Yes, he was late. Yes, he was wet (it was raining and he didn’t have an umbrella). And yes, Michelle had assumed that with a name like Barack Hussein Obama, he was going to be a nerd. He thought she was a little — how do you say . . . uptight? — but cute.
“She’s really tall,” he recalled of seeing Michelle for the first time. “And most of it is legs.”
“Alright,” chided Mrs. Obama, her hand on the former president’s thigh. “There are children here.”
But in the end, it wasn’t just the legs.
“She was one of a kind. I hadn’t met somebody who was that strong and that honest,” he said. “Somebody that I just felt was a rock. Somebody who I knew at that point I would always be able to count on.”
“Michelle Obama and her husband, President Barack Obama, ladies and gentleman,” Jarrett announced as the couple strode offstage, hand in hand.
It’s been almost two years since Michelle Obama was first lady, but to her fans in packed arenas and those who helped “Becoming” sell 725,000 units on its first day of release — it kind of feels like she never left.