Inside Malia Obama's Private World After Growing Up in the White House

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Originally appeared on E! Online

Malia Obama was ready to strike out on her own after high school, let alone once she finished college.

After committing to Harvard, the first daughter spent a gap year traveling and interning in New York, almost like a normal kid. Not counting the bodyguards and private jets.

She started off with a trip to Liberia and Morocco in July 2016 with sister Sasha Obama, mom Michelle Obama and grandmother Marian Robinson to promote the Let Girls Learn Initiative. The Obama family went on their usual summer getaway to Martha's Vineyard.

And toward the end of the year, Malia spent 83 days in Peru and Bolivia, where she lived with a family in the town of Tiquipaya, a trip so unpublicized that no one knew she was gone until after she got back to the U.S.

"She was very humble, chatty, spoke Spanish very well," Gregorio Mamani, one of the guides on a five-day hike Malia took through the Cordillera Real mountain range, told The New York Times. "She was mesmerized by the Bolivian landscape." Minus the added security, all of those on the excursion were expected to look after themselves and Malia reportedly acquitted herself admirably, doing her share of the cooking and other chores.

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She spent a few months as an intern at The Weinstein Company in early 2017 (after reports detailing years of sexual assault and harassment allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein came out later that year, the Obamas said they were "disgusted"), her second entertainment gig after a stint on the set of Girls in 2015.

Malia Obama, 2024 Sundance Film Festival
Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

The Obama family spent 10 days vacationing in Bali. And then, that was time for Michelle and Barack Obama to drop their eldest child off at Harvard.

"I was proud that I did not cry in front of her," the former president said at an event about a month after moving Malia into her dorm. "But on the way back, the Secret Service was looking straight ahead pretending they weren't hearing me as I sniffled and blew my nose. It was rough."

Malia wasn't the first-ever daughter of a former U.S. president to enroll at the storied Ivy League institution in Cambridge, Mass., but Caroline Kennedy in the 1970s didn't have to deal with social media in the dorm where Facebook was created.

Malia Obama, Barack Obama

The eldest Obama daughter lived in the White House from age 10 to 18, young enough for a bit of an Eloise-at-the-Plaza type of experience but old enough to be privy to plenty of the criticism directed at her family from the vast world of cable news, Twitter (now known as X) and, more than a few times, Capitol Hill.

There's been no such thing as a presidency that didn't exist under a skewed microscope—Chelsea Clinton left for Stanford just in time—but a lot of the mundane daily scrutiny usually saved for the president himself broadened to encompass the first lady and their children at an unprecedented level during the Obama years.

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No stranger to attention because their dad was the president, Jenna Bush Hager and twin sister Barbara Bush offered some words of wisdom to the Obama sisters in 2017 about navigating life after the White House.

"Enjoy college. As most of the world knows, we did," they wrote in an open letter. "And you won't have the weight of the world on your young shoulders anymore. Explore your passions. Learn who you are. Make mistakes—you are allowed to."

"Continue to surround yourself with loyal friends who know you, adore you and will fiercely protect you," the continued. "Those who judge you don't love you, and their voices shouldn't hold weight. Rather, it's your own hearts that matter."

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Malia Obama, Sasha Obama
STR/AFP/Getty Images

From the department of snoozy headlines, before she moved into school, Malia went to Lollapalooza in Chicago—and reportedly ended up needing to make a detour to an Apple Store when she lost her iPhone.

Otherwise, sheltered within the centuries-old walls of Harvard Yard, Malia had for all intents and purposes a very normal college experience, if not for the fame that preceded her. On day one of her freshman year she politely shook the hand of a Boston Globe reporter but declined an interview and wouldn't offer any first-day-of-school anecdotes, but for the most part she was noticed yet left to her own devices.

Michelle said at a 2018 event that she did give Malia a key piece of advice: "'Don't end up on Page Six.' I don't know if she managed that." (As dutifully reported by Page Six.)

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Malia didn't hide from the spotlight—she could be seen tailgating at football games and hanging out with friends, and even going on the occasional date—but she didn't run toward it, either. And her fellow Crimson let her be, though her off-campus excursions were often snapped by long-lens-toting paparazzi.

Malia Obama, 2016
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

But there really wasn't any way that she could make people un-interested in her, whether she was spotted holding a cigarette at the football stadium or wearing braids and workout clothes after Soul Cycle.

"Sometimes we treat our children too preciously because of the issues they've dealt with," Michelle said in November 2017 at the Obama Foundation summit in Chicago, per InStyle. "Barack and I, we thought about with Malia and Sasha, okay, we could've spent eight years feeling sorry for them that they were living in a bubble that every misstep for them would be on YouTube, that their privacy, they didn't have access to their father in a way…We could've felt bad for them, and there would've been a truth there. But our view was this is their life, and we can't apologize for the life they have because a whole lot of it is good."

The Obamas' hands-on-but-not-with-kid-gloves approach seems to have served both of their relatively drama-free daughters well.

Malia Obama, 2018

"I threaten them that I'm going to buy an apartment near their campus and visit and sit in their classes, but that's an idle threat," Michelle told Entertainment Tonight in May 2017. "I'm going to be happy to see them thriving on campus, work study jobs, traveling and having all these wonderful independent experiences that are going to make them phenomenal people."

And now that their daughters are both out in the world—Sasha just graduated from USC and Malia just celebrated the premiere of her short film The Heart at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival—it turns out the Obamas knew what they were doing.

Malia even joined the writers' room for the Prime Video series Swarm. "I think she's so intelligent," star Dominique Fishback said of Malia, telling E! News in April, "She's so cool. I just want to know what she wants to do next. Maybe we can do something together."

Series co-creator Janine Nabers also sang her praises, calling Malia an "incredible writer," whose first credited episode was "probably one of the wildest" of the season. "She brought a lot to the table," Janine told Entertainment Tonight of the up-and-comer. "She's really, really dedicated to her craft."

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And despite being a bold-faced name from day one, Malia wasn't in for any special treatment, Swarm co-creator Donald Glover—whose company is also producer her directorial debut short film—assured Vanity Fair.

"We can't be easy on her just because she's the president's daughter," he cracked. "Nah, she's very down to earth, and cool. So, it's not a problem at all."

Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Sasha Obama, Malia Obama, Fathers Day 2016, Twitter

Nor does she seem like the "do you know who I am?" type.

Since graduating from Harvard with a degree in Visual and Environmental Studies in 2021, Malia has remained more tight-lipped than a member of the royal family.

Like, queen-level tight-lipped. She avoids interviews, stays out of the kind of trouble that ends up in public records and, if she has a social media presence, reserves it for a closely vetted inner circle.

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Which is why she celebrated her 25th birthday July 4 with nary a scandal or even an errant quote or misstep to her name. "To see them grow up to be incredible women, independent women," said fellow erstwhile first daughter Jenna of Malia and Sasha, "I mean, I think we knew they would be."

From when they first moved into the White House, "we saw those bright lights even then," the TODAY host told E! News in November. "But to think about how much their lives—and mine—have changed in 14 years, makes me so proud, slightly emotional. I can't believe it's been 14 years."

Their mom highlighted a particularly noticeable change, telling Ellen DeGeneres in April 2022 that both of her daughters had boyfriends—but, as tends to be the case, that was a bit of a misnomer.

Ellen recalled that she first met Malia and Sasha when their mom brought them to her show to watch the Jonas Brothers perform before the 2008 election, Michelle quipped, "Now they're bringing grown men home. Before it was just a pop band. Now, they have boyfriends and real lives."

And thanks to Malia's discrete ways, her real life is all her own.

(Originally published July 2, 2018, at 12:55 p.m. PT)

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