The December issue of Vogue arrives with first lady Michelle Obama on its cover wearing a slinky white Carolina Herrera gown. It is sleeveless. Her hair is swept back and flowing. Her makeup is perfectly natural. She is wearing a magnificent sparkly ring and a pair of Monique Péan earrings. The backdrop offers no hint of the White House, the nation’s capital or the ornate stateliness that has long attached to the occupant of the East Wing. The portrait exudes the sort of casual glamour in which Vogue specializes, but that is not typically associated with first ladies.
If there is any takeaway from the images by photographer Annie Leibovitz, it is that Obama is offering up a version of herself to the public that is separate and distinct from the role she has filled for nearly eight years. The message is not brusque or without nostalgia and gratitude. But she is done. Finished. Free.
The accompanying article, which was reported by Jonathan Van Meter over the course of several months, is a review of her time in the White House. A victory lap. It highlights Obama’s work with students, her garden and her focus on the nation’s veterans. Van Meter was there when she surprised students at Howard University and co-hosted “Ellen.” And he takes the readers along as he moves from room to room in the White House, chatting with her staff and noshing on hummus and crudites. He gazes at the portraits of previous first ladies and muses on their legacy. There is even a moment when he wonders where a portrait of Bill Clinton — as a first gentleman to a president Hillary Clinton — might hang.
“Presumably, should Hillary prevail (this story went to press just prior to the election), Bill Clinton’s portraits will eventually hang in the White House in two places: upstairs on the State Floor, as president, and a new one that will replace Mrs. Obama’s, which will move down the line, further into history,” Van Meter writes. “And who will Michelle Obama be then?”
What will she do? The first lady doesn’t answer that question. (Valerie Jarrett assures him that Obama will not be running for political office.) “I will take the same approach leaving as I did coming in,” Obama says. “I won’t know until I’m there. I’ve never been the former first lady of the United States of America before.
“But I will always be engaged in some way in public service and public life,” she adds.
The photographs make plain that Obama is moving on from the rigors, the expectations and the limitations of the White House. Obama is photographed mostly in Atelier Versace, rather than American designers, which is more typical. And while she is standing or seated in various corners and porticoes of the White House, the background is more graphic than iconic. Her hair is tousled — a little messy, even. And in one portrait, she is wearing a black Atelier Versace dress and matching jacket with a belt cinched neatly around her waist. Her legs are bare and her black pumps are by Jimmy Choo. She’s seated on a stone staircase with her hands resting against her hips, and her head is thrown back as she leans against the steps. It is a posed look of quiet meditation, one with which regular readers of glossy magazines are familiar. It is part of the canon of sexy. Not in a plunging evening gown, pinup way, but more: “I might take him on a flight on my chopper, I slay.”
It is impossible to imagine Obama sitting for a portrait and arching her back and looking toward the sky during the early years of the Obama administration. Indeed, one of the first images of her in Vogue had her styled in a manner that recalled Jackie Kennedy — curled alongside her husband and her children, a strand of pearls around her neck. The then-senator’s wife had even nixed a mussed hairstyle, saying that it made her look as if she’d just gotten out of bed. Whether in Vogue or elsewhere, her early pictures were more formal, regal or homey. They seemed aimed at reassuring an audience that she could fit into their preconceived notions about how a first lady should look, even if she happened to be African American.
As Obama settled into the White House, her approach to fashion was more contemporary than her predecessors, and she brought her individuality and personality to her tenure as first lady. But she kept her promise of being a caretaker of the position’s traditions. She transformed the look and feel of the role, but not the essence of it, no matter how murky that essence might be. Her successor will be freer to be more of herself rather than a two-dimensional visitor’s guide version of it — if that is her choice.
These photographs speak to an exit strategy. They serve as a bridge between the symbol Obama has been and the woman she will become.
Obama is a celebrity. Charismatic and influential. Other portraits have tended to put that fame in the context of politics, Washington or first ladies. These pictures remove all those modifiers.