Michelle Obama brought her personal stories of ‘Becoming’ to the Wells Fargo Center | Elizabeth Wellington
Thursday's surprise was the first part of former Michelle Obama's Philadelphia visit. The former FLOTUS was in town Thursday as part of her 10-city tour for her New York Times Best Seller, Becoming.
Before former first lady Michelle Obama took the stage before a capacity crowd at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night, attendees jammed to a stellar montage of music with all of her favorite songs, from the Jackson 5 to Earth Wind and Fire.
So, by the time Obama took her comfy seat next to interviewer Phoebe Robinson, the capacity crowd was sufficiently amped.
Robinson, writer, actress, and one-half of the comedy duo 2 Dope Queens, started in classic girlfriend mode: "Hi, Meesh. … How's it going?"
Obama came to Philadelphia as part of a 10-city tour promoting her memoir, Becoming. Released on Nov. 13, Becoming sold 1.4 million copies in its first week. While the Wells Fargo Center event capped her evening, earlier in the day Obama surprised a group of Philadelphia high school girls to give them a personal pep talk.
People have been talking about the rock-star nature of her tour since it was announced, with Obama selling out every arena she has been in. It's official: She won a large swath of us over with her authenticity.
On stage in front of thousands, the former FLOTUS was equally candid, talking about everything from sweet potato pie to putting former President Barack Obama in the friendzone and the importance of telling diverse stories.
"The commonality that we share across this country are the stories of who we are," said Obama, wearing a stunning red pantsuit featuring a high low blazer and slightly flared trousers. "It is now incumbent upon us to share our stories. We have to dig deep and know our stories and put them on the table."
What does it mean to Become?
It means growing up on the South Side of Chicago, where she rode a white-and purple bike and where elders wouldn't hesitate to whip the behind of any misbehaving child in a neighborhood decimated by White Flight.
It means listening to jazz at her grandfather's house, where people played Spades and drank cans of Schlitz malt liquor.
It means discovering that failure is a feeling before it becomes a result.
And it means having to move beyond the limitations of family and friends to be your best self.
She also spoke about the pressures of being the first first family of color. "We had to be excellent in ways that were exhausting," she said.
Robinson, who has interviewed Obama at several stops, kept the conversation going by bringing up anecdotes from Obama's book — questioning her about kids making fun of her for sounding white, or a guidance counselor who didn't think she could get into Princeton. Despite everything, Obama succeeded.
"Your story, no matter how bumpy or interesting it is, makes you you," Obama said. "Don't run from it."
Obama shared similar inspiration earlier in the day, when she tiptoed into the African American Museum in Philadelphia to surprise a dozen young women from area high schools. The tears flowed.
Obama was sleekly dressed in an off-the-shoulder black sweater and tailored trousers, pulled together with a wide belt. Shocked, the girls were all smiles, giggles, and glee. One sprang from her seat and hugged Obama, prompting the other girls in the circle to ask for hugs, too.
"Before this is over, everyone will get hugs," Obama promised.
The young women are participants in the Philadelphia-based nonprofit beGirl.world. The organization, cofounded by former White House social secretary and Philadelphia native Deesha Dyer in 2014, encourages young women of color to travel. The girls, who had been given copies of Becoming and tickets to Thursday's show, had thought they were at the museum to chat it up with Dyer and Robinson.
Halfway through the chitchat, Obama appeared.
We learned that Sasha, the younger Obama daughter, was interested in becoming a food critic. Obama talked about how she didn't like playing with other kids in her neighborhood when she was little. (Kids are just messy, she said.)
She encouraged the girls to follow their gut and assured them that they were as brilliant as the next Fortune 500 CEO, and just need to believe in themselves. You could tell by the way these girls nodded their pin-curled heads that they believed her. After all — before the law degree and the first ladyship — she was one of them, a young woman growing up in a tough inner city where success doesn't come easily.
"I was afraid to travel when I was your age," Obama said. When she spoke, the room was silent. "I was nervous about leaving my comfort zone. That's why I'm really excited about this organization."
How did Michelle Obama move past her comfort zone? She didn't let fear stop her.
"Don't let fear stop you flat on your feet," Obama said. "When you let fear choke you, you miss out on a lot."