Malia and Sasha Obama are familiar faces from their time in the White House. After all, the American public watched the girls blossom from children to young adults while their father served as the 44th president of the United States. Yet Malia and Sasha have mostly shied away from the limelight and kept their private lives separate from their public duties. So when, in May 2020, the pair offered an astonishing revelation about what their mother – Michelle Obama – is really like behind closed doors, the world sat up and took notice.
You see, even though Michelle Obama is among the most well-known women on the planet, glimpses of her life behind the scenes are few and far between. We know, for instance, that the former first lady comes from a modest background. And that it’s perhaps her efforts to find a way in life that has made her such a relatable public figure. When her autobiography, Becoming, was published in 2018, in fact, people the world over embraced her life story.
And yet despite Michelle’s success, she wanted her daughters to have a normal upbringing. Not easy, of course – especially when you consider that her husband, Barack, served as the president for eight years. Nevertheless, according to O, The Oprah Magazine, Michelle and Barack were able to bring up Malia and Sasha in a way that their children could “pretend like all the craziness around them wasn’t happening.” So how do the girls truly feel about their private lives?
Well, public appearances by Sasha and Malia were minimal during their father’s incumbency. The Obama daughters were only seven and ten, respectively, when the family entered the White House, after all. So – save for the occasional official portrait, Thanksgiving pics and vacation photos – the girls were rarely seen by the general public.
But now, of course, Sasha and Malia are grown up. And, having found their own identities following their unconventional childhoods, the girls have even made a rare interview appearance. In fact, the clip appeared in the 2020 Netflix documentary Becoming – inspired by their mother’s best-selling memoir. So it seemed like the perfect opportunity for Sasha and Malia to reveal the truth about their famous mom.
Becoming – the documentary – follows Michelle Obama on a 34-date publicity round to promote her autobiography. Streaming platform Netflix describes the film as “an intimate documentary looking at her life, hopes and connection with others.” The flick takes a look at Michelle’s life before she and Barack entered the White House as well.
You see, as mentioned previously, Michelle comes from a lower-class background. And she explains in the documentary’s trailer, “I am from the South Side of Chicago. That tells you as much about me as you need to know.” How so? Well, poverty and segregation were rife in that area of the city during Michelle’s formative years.
But growing up without much money and facing racial discrimination weren’t the only obstacles Michelle had to overcome. She also watched on as her father, Fraser Robinson III, slowly lost his battle with multiple sclerosis, which eventually claimed his life in 1991. And there were the challenges that came with being a female, black student with lofty ambitions, too.
Michelle has described a moment when she had a meeting in high school, for instance. The young student had aspirations to follow her brother, Craig Robinson, to Princeton University. However, the careers advisor had other ideas, telling Michelle that she was “reaching too high” and should perhaps re-evaluate her ambitions.
But Michelle was undeterred. The student figured that she knew more about herself and her capabilities than the counselor, and so she sent off her Princeton application. As she recalled in her memoir, “I wasn’t going to let one person’s opinion dislodge everything I thought I knew about myself.” So Michelle “settled down and got back to work.”
Then, half a year down the line, Michelle received a notification informing her that Princeton had approved the application. Despite this, though, she apparently refused to gloat at the counselor’s misjudgment. Indeed, she’d all but blotted out the meeting from her memory. As the one-time first lady later explained, “In the end, I hadn’t needed to show her anything. I was only showing myself.”
Any feelings of inferiority at Princeton were short-lived, too. “I tried not to feel intimidated when classroom conversation was dominated by male students, which it often was,” Michelle recalled. “Hearing them, I realized that they weren’t at all smarter than the rest of us. They were simply emboldened, floating on an ancient tide of superiority, buoyed by the fact that history had never told them anything different.”
This kind of empowerment is a prevalent theme throughout the Becoming book and documentary. The former first lady often speaks of drawing from inner strength and holding yourself to a higher standard, for instance. After all, Michelle has always been determined to avoid conforming to the expectations of others – and that almost led to her refusing to date Barack.
Michelle speaks about her hesitation in getting together with her now-husband in the documentary, in fact. The film, you see, is peppered with footage of events in which Michelle is in conversation with various hosts – including chat-show presenters Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Colbert as well as actress Reece Witherspoon. And during these discussions, the former FLOTUS offers candid insights into her pre-White House life.
So what happened with Barack? Well, after graduating from Princeton, Michelle took a job at a legal practice in Chicago. And it just so happened that it was the very same place that a certain future president was also employed. Yet Michelle refused his early advances because the thought of the two of them getting together seemed clichéd. She recalls, “That’s just what they are waiting for. ‘You two love each other, don’t you? You’re black, he’s black. This will be great!’”
Needless to say, though, Michelle eventually succumbed to Barack’s charm. Their first date was in mid-1989, and a couple of years later he proposed. The couple then wed in 1992, with their first daughter, Malia, arriving on Independence Day in 1998. Natasha – also known as Sasha – followed in June 2001. The new wife and mom subsequently put her own ambitions aside for the sake of her partner’s career.
Michelle’s presence during her husband’s 2008 presidential campaign was incredibly impactful, too. It seems that her forthright determination, fearlessness and dry sense of humor connected with voters. That no doubt helped Barack win the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton, too. Yet not everyone was enamored by the soon-to-be-FLOTUS’ plucky charm – and she sometimes felt the sting of detractors.
The documentary highlights a moment between Michelle and Barack when they shared a fist bump on the campaign trail, for instance. At the time, certain factions of the media claimed that the gesture was some kind of “terrorist fist jab.” And when The New Yorker ran a tongue-in-cheek image portraying the Obamas as jihadis, Michelle was suddenly seen by some as anti-American and even a traitor.
The treatment Michelle received during that period was at times cruel. “The only thing I can share is that it hurts,” she reveals in Becoming. “That changes the shape of a person’s soul.” Indeed, despite her heavy involvement in her husband’s campaigning, she hadn’t expected to become a target for so much negativity.
“[The media] went after me like they went after candidates,” Michelle recalls in the film. “It blindsided me.” For some, though, Barack’s election as president marked a watershed moment in the battle against racism in the U.S. Michelle recognized many of the same signs she’d experienced since her youth, however. And, of course, her two daughters were privy to the effects of their mom’s mistreatment.
Malia and Sasha spent a large part of their formative years in the White House, after all. Yet Michelle and Barack aimed to provide their daughters with as normal an upbringing as possible. So whenever the girls’ circumstances were affected by their father’s position, they were told to “pretend like all the craziness around them wasn’t happening.”
Michelle discussed her daughters’ upbringing in conversation with journalist Gayle King at New Orleans’ Essence Festival in 2019. She said, “For eight years, we were like, ‘Yup, your dad’s president. That doesn’t have anything to do with you. Take your butt to school. Yes, you have security, just ignore them, they’re not here for you.’” Home life was made as normal as possible, too.
Upon entering the White House in 2008, for instance, the Obamas made the dress code of their staff less formal. That move was primarily about setting a standard for their daughters. Michelle says in Becoming that she didn’t want Sasha and Malia to believe it was normal to have “grown African-American men serve them in tuxedos.” The girls couldn’t escape housework, either.
Michelle recalls, “I also had to beg the housekeepers: ‘These girls need to learn how to clean their own rooms and make their beds and do their laundry. You cannot do this every day because they will not live here forever, and I am not raising kids who don’t know how to make a bed.’”
“You want them to be able to have wonderful experiences privately, and you want them to be able to fail and stumble privately, like any other kids,” Michelle continues. “And when they’re not allowed to do that, it’s unfair and you feel guilty about it, you know, because they didn’t choose this life.”
So, when Sasha and Malia made a rare cameo in Becoming, the world was excited to hear what they had to say. The young women are, of course, very different from the girls who entered the White House in 2008. Indeed, 21-year-old Malia is now studying at Harvard, while Sasha, 18, is in her first year at the University of Michigan.
As we’ve heard, too, Sasha and Malia’s parents shielded them as best they could from media scrutiny. The two girls were painfully aware of what their mom went through during their father’s presidency, though. And in the sisters’ first sit-down interview, they revealed the contrast in Michelle’s life since the family left the White House in 2017.
As Malia explains, their mom is “no longer facing that same scrutiny.” Referring to the media circus that followed her mom around, the 21-year-old adds, “Being able to let all of that leave your mind creates so much more space.” Meanwhile, her sister expresses a sense of pride in what their mom achieved as the first lady.
“I’m excited for [Mom] to be proud of what she’s done,” Sasha explains. “Because I think that that’s the most important thing for a human to do, is be proud of themselves.” During a more candid moment in the documentary, though, viewers gain a sense of the affection that exists between Michelle and her daughters.
In the film, Malia comes to talk with her mom, who’s seemingly just finished one of those sit-down interviews on the promotional rounds for her book. The former first lady greets her daughter and refers to her as “my little potato.” And without the formality of an interview, the 21-year-old offers a sincere reflection of her mom and how she feels about her.
“You’re so good, I love you too much,” Malia tells Michelle. She then admits, “I cried again.” Her mom asks, “Why you always crying?” Malia tries to explain how she was feeling, saying, “It’s always so…” before trailing off, seemingly struggling to find the right words to express herself.
“This has demonstrated in a way – it’s just like, damn, those eight years weren’t for nothing. You know?” Malia explains to her mom. “You see that huge crowd out there and that last kind of speech you gave about – people are here because people really believe in hope and hope in other people.”
Indeed, inspiring others is perhaps the main legacy that Michelle Obama created as the first lady. Though it was a position she was initially uncertain of, it’s one that Michelle eventually very much came to terms with. And among her major topics of discussion in the film is higher education – particularly for women and people of color. It’s something that she continues to advocate throughout her Becoming tour, too.
Michelle doesn’t see the role of first lady as something that has defined her, either. “Little of who I am happened in those eight years,” she states in the documentary. “So much more of who I am is what happened before.” Despite the difficulties she encountered during her upbringing, then, Michelle still recalls her childhood with fondness.
“It was a typical working-class community: some good music, some good barbecue, some good times,” the former FLOTUS says. If anything, it laid the foundations for creating normalcy for her children in an incredibly abnormal situation. It’s the music that Malia most closely and most fondly associates with her mother, after all.
“Every time you guys play Stevie Wonder, I don’t know, I cry a little bit,” Malia confesses in the documentary. In fact, throughout her life in the public eye, the former first lady has become known for her eclectic tastes in music. “This is what I do in the car,” she admits as she scrolls for the right track to suit her mood while sitting in the rear seat of an SUV.
Michelle learned many years ago not to bend to others’ expectations – particularly as a black woman. “We can’t afford to wait for the world to be equal to start feeling seen,” she states. “I feel like I got to share with you all that the energy that’s out there is much better than what we see.”
So while the former first lady has learned over time to play the media game adeptly, she’s nevertheless carried herself with authority and charisma. And in recent years, Michelle has spent time figuring out how to live post-White House. Her daughters growing up has perhaps added an extra dimension to that challenge, too.
“Barack and I are empty-nesters,” Michelle admits in the film. “And that has been exhilarating: to watch the two little beans you were in charge of grow up.” She then says of her life after the White House, “It’s a whole new track. It’s just all different, and it’s different forever. So it’s not getting back on track; it’s creating my next track.”
It’s perhaps her honesty that makes the former first lady so endearing. “As my mother would say, Michelle and Barack Obama aren’t special,” Michelle states. “There are millions of Michelle and Barack Obamas all over the world. [But] if we can open up a little bit more to each other and share our stories, that’s what breaks down barriers.”
Want to know a little more about the Obamas’ love story? After all, they’re one of the cutest and most affectionate couples in White House history. And as we’ve heard, they’ve been inseparable – and adorable – ever since they first met in 1989, while working at the same law firm. If you trace their history together from their early days to the present, though, what you uncover is one truly amazing love story.
Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson posed for a photo while visiting Kenya in 1992. At that point in time, the couple were engaged but not yet married. And while Michelle looked playful, Barack looked at the ground, serious and deep in thought. Perhaps he was considering what was to come for them both in the future?
However, Barack was very much smiling on his wedding day. The couple tied the knot on October 3, 1992, and it was obviously a very happy occasion for them both. Future style icon Michelle, meanwhile, wore a white cold-shoulder wedding dress and pearl earrings.
Then in 1996 the Obamas, looking as close as ever, took part in a photoshoot and interview with Mariana Cook of The New Yorker. “There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career,” Michelle told her. “There is a little tension with that. I’m very wary of politics.” Little did she know what would happen just 12 short years later…
And soon Barack was putting his ambition into action. By 2004, in fact, he was a U.S. Senate candidate, and Michelle – despite the earlier misgivings – was behind him all the way. So when his keynote speech at the July 2004 Democratic National Convention was met with great applause, his loving wife was there to embrace him.
Of course, the Obamas also had the support of their young children, Malia and Sasha, too. And throughout the senatorial race, the couple kept their marriage a priority and their children close by. Indeed, the girls even cuddled up to their parents while awaiting the U.S. Senate election results on November 2, 2004.
Then, of course, came the presidential race – and as the whole world knows, Obama won. On January 20, 2009, then, he was sworn in as America’s 44th President, following that up by joining Michelle for the traditional Inaugural Parade. The new First Lady, meanwhile, clung on to her husband like she would never let him go.
That same day, no fewer than ten Inaugural Balls took place in the evening, and Barack and Michelle looked very much in love as they danced. Even more adorably, though, the new President would introduce Michelle to the crowds that night by explaining that she did “everything I do, except in high heels.”
Many years later, President Obama would tweet a behind-the-scenes picture of that night. And he posted it on January 17, 2017: Michelle’s birthday. But it was the caption the commander-in-chief penned to accompany the shot that would make hearts melt across the globe. “To the girl from the South Side who took on a role she didn’t ask for and made it her own: Happy Birthday, Michelle. I love you,” he wrote.
What’s more, the couple’s affection for each other didn’t seem to dim in the slightest as they took up residency in the White House. And in addition to all the warm words they continued to have for each other, they shared a public hug in the White House’s Red Room on March 20, 2009.
A year later, meanwhile, and it looked like nothing had changed, as the couple were snapped enjoying an intimate moment in the Map Room on May 19, 2010. For the most part, heads of state aren’t generally overly affectionate with their spouses in public; clearly, though, this seemed to be a tradition that the Obamas were happy to break.
Yet one of the most touching photographs of the Obamas as First Couple is, in fact, one in which neither of their faces are visible. The official White House photographer snapped a beautiful image of the couple’s hands touching during a tour of St. Andrews Bay on August 15, 2010.
And no matter what important things President Obama was doing in his capacity as U.S. President, he never forgot to thank his wife. In fact, before signing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act into law on December 13, 2010, he stopped to kiss Michelle.
Even despite the stress that the forthcoming election must have put on them, the Obamas were apparently as loved-up as ever during this period. On July 16, 2012, during a basketball game in Washington D.C., the pair happily kissed for the Kiss Cam. Their embarrassed daughter Malia looked away, though, of course…
On August 15, 2012, meanwhile, the two of them hugged after delivering speeches in Iowa. “[Barack] knows what it means to want something better for your kids and your grandkids,” Michelle told the crowd. “And that’s why I love him, and that’s why I will have his back forever.”
Not long after that moment, though, a new chapter in the lives of the Obamas was to unfurl. On November 6, 2012, Barack was re-elected President; he and his family were set to spend four more years in the White House. And, naturally, after the results were announced he and Michelle embraced.
Plus, like any good husband, President Obama always made it a point to celebrate special events, such as Michelle’s birthday, with love and enthusiasm. January 17, 2013, saw one particularly adorable example, as the leader of the free world sang “Happy Birthday” to his spouse in the Blue Room of the White House.
And the public displays of affection just kept on coming – when the White House held its 2014 Easter Egg Roll party, for example, Obama was happy to kiss Michelle then as well. Being watched by guests, photographers, children and a giant bunny wasn’t going to stop him, either.
By the time Barack Obama’s presidency was reaching its end, however, he had become noticeably older-looking – not least through his grayer hair. But while the years may have aged the commander-in-chief, it hasn’t stopped him from posing for super-sweet shots.
And both Barack and Michelle Obama looked attractive and healthy on stage at an event on September 17, 2016. Clearly, then, the love they still have for each other is standing them in good stead.