When Oprah Winfrey took the stage in Chicago to introduce Michelle Obama, she opened on the inevitable: The deep political divide in our country. But instead of harping on the negative (of which there has been plenty this week, like many weeks) she made an observation that, in its singular Oprah-ness, can be taken as a motif of everything that Obama represents right now.
“You all being here is a testament to the light,” she said over a chorus of claps and cheers.
Many hours before the inaugural “intimate conversation,” as the individual shows are billed, the former first lady formally launched her memoir, Becoming, with a book signing at Seminary Co-op bookstore in Hyde Park, the community that has now become synonymous with the Obama family’s early years. Five-hundred fans waited in line for hours — in sub-30-degree temperatures — for their chance at face time with the former FLOTUS. Despite the swiftness of the occasion (readers had just enough time to rattle off a well-rehearsed tribute or gratitude before they were ushered along by security) it was an early indication of the emotional wellspring that Obama elicits in her adoring public; tears were not a rarity in the crowd.
Once the sun went down, the buzz moved northwest to the United Center, where Obama and Winfrey were preparing to kick off her 14-city stadium tour in honor of Becoming — and where Winfrey would be returning for the first time since her eponymous talk show’s farewell in 2011. The arena, which normally plays home to the Blackhawks and Bulls, was clad in full rock concert regalia: a step-and-repeat and dedicated marquees with an aesthetic that would have been at home on the On the Run Tour.
The extended opening of the show also took its cues from the Carter family, with family photos flashing to pop songs (Ellie Goulding’s “Burn,” Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire”) as well as taped cameos from Gwyneth Paltrow, Meghan Trainor, and other members of the Obama and Robinson families — all centered around this theme of becoming.
All this is to say that after more than a decade spent in the public eye, Michelle Obama really knows how to make an entrance. By the time she took the stage alongside Winfrey audience members could be forgiven for forgetting that the main event hadn’t even begun.
She provided a few revelations from her time in the White House: They (not the taxpayers) paid for all their food (“They counted peanuts and charged it back!”), they did away with staff formalwear to keep things normal for the children, Mrs. Obama fought off tears for the entirety of the most recent inauguration, only to lose it in the helicopter on the way out. She spoke a bit about 45 (the two women seemed to purposefully steer clear of specific name-dropping), saying of her inauguration, “When we sat on that stage and looked around we saw diversity; it looked like America.”
But the emotional bulk of the show was vested in just that: Emotions. Obama put her whole self on the line in her memoir and those themes translated onstage — although, in the hands of Oprah, it’s impossible not to go there. The former FLOTUS spoke at length about her recurring imposter syndrome: First at her magnet high school, Whitney Young (whose current students occupied a very vocal section of the United Center), then at Princeton and Harvard, and in her career as a hotshot corporate lawyer. “I was so busy proving people wrong,” she said. “And in the quest to do that I never stopped to wonder, who was I?”
Perhaps in response to the book’s headline-making revelation that Barack and Michelle have attended marriage counseling — a reaction she says she was expecting — she elaborated on the ways in which her relationship to the former president has affected her sense of self. It began during the early days of parenthood, when she says “She was mad at Barack because he prioritized himself in a way that I needed to but wasn’t doing” and continued through the 2008 election, a time in which she went from being the more successful half of the couple to being “Somebody’s Mrs.” — a role she told Winfrey and the audience she was never interested in.
She used this section to get in a few of her infamous Barack-directed jabs, like the fact that he “Has a lot of words” and that his tendency to rationalize her feelings away “makes me wanna push him out of a window.” But she credits his status as a “swerver” with teaching her to explore her passions instead of just a box-check, saying, “He was like a mighty wind coming through my life.” And once she made it to the White House and became determined to set her own agenda as first lady, she was relieved to find that despite her undeniable Mrs. status, she didn’t feel “like my life was on hold for someone else.”
Obama is off to Los Angeles next, where she’ll be joined onstage by Tracee Ellis Ross, and will then travel across the country for stops in Philadelphia, Boston, and even Paris. These shows seem to provide as much wish fulfillment for the celebrity moderators as they do for the audience; no matter how famous a woman may be, a sit-down with a beloved first lady is a rarity (even for Oprah).
“Honestly, it’s one of those pinch me, Cher-snap-out-of-it slap moments,” Phoebe Robinson, who will be moderating Philadelphia and Detroit, wrote in an email to EW. “She’s an icon and an incredible example for how we can live our lives. So to rock out with her on stage in front of thousands of people is just a dream come true!”
Most of the tour’s conversations will revolve around the main topics in Becoming, but hosts can’t help but have bucket-list questions in mind — Robinson, for her part, hopes to ask about Obama’s first trip to Africa, a story she wrote but has yet to speak (live and in public) about.
While Becoming is deeply personal, its themes of self-searching and identity are universal and the hometown tour kickoff attracted women at all stages of life (and, as Winfrey pointed out, “a few woke men”). As a whole, it painted a picture of the country as one where everyone counts and Obama’s repeated mantras sounded like a chant.
“The one thing I’m claiming is that my story is the quintessential American story,” she told the audience. “How dare somebody tell me that I don’t belong.”