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25 April 2023

When Michelle Obama met Oprah Winfrey: a festival of mutual adoration

This cosiest of love-ins is a celebrity duvet for traumatised liberals. I’ve never felt more righteously British.

By Rachel Cooke

I was up early to watch Michelle Obama’s conversation with Oprah Winfrey, filmed for Netflix on stage in Los Angeles on the last night of the former First Lady’s tour to promote her latest book, The Light We Carry – and at first, I was full of beans. Self-optimisation was the order of the day, for which reason I wore my pilates gear and my contact lenses (unusual combo). But I must report that the bounce did not last. Boy, this self-help shit is exhausting, isn’t it? Ninety minutes later, and I still could not locate my own light within, unless the beacon in question can be said to be connected to what one has had for dinner the night before (in my case, a possibly quite unwise combination of a little too much white wine and a soup made of Jerusalem artichokes).

But, wait. I must quieten my fearful mind, take Michelle’s adviceand go back… to the toolbox. I’ve got this! It isn’t as if I wasn’t warned, after all: contains “emotionally intense scenes” it says on screen just before we’re taken backstage to see Michelle having her pre-show make-up applied (her eyelids are so shiny, they look like they’re carved from mother of pearl). Moments later, she and Oprah are out there, on stage in some vast auditorium, both of them in trouser suits – no forearms, for those of you who still dream of the First Lady’s biceps – and yes, they are certainly emotional, in the American way. They love each other (“I love you!”… “And I love YOU!”), and they like to praise each other: their careers, their families, their ability to crest the menopause, as if it was a wave and they were two surfers.

Sure, this festival of mutual adoration is undercut with some token self-deprecation. Michelle tells us that her mind is threatening to get fearful again – not you, too, Michelle! – and Oprah jokes about Taco Tuesdays, and how she ate her way through the pandemic; the metaphorical toolbox is conjured, and we all try our best to picture its contents (there is, one gathers, a spanner for every mood). But in the main, this is a love-in: a cosy celebrity duvet in which traumatised American liberals might wrap themselves for an hour or so, and by doing so, gently muffle the sound of Trump, De Santis and all the rest. It’s little a bit Hallmark card, and it’s a little bit Susan “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” Jeffers, and watching it, I’ve never felt more righteously British in my life.

[See also: The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama review]

Of course, I’m on Michelle Obama’s side (if I have to pick one). All power to her, with her gold talons and her Princeton education; her big, white trainers that look like an oligarch’s yacht come into harbour, and her annoying Mr President husband, aka the Fact Guy whom she famously spent 10 years hating. “Y’all spend way too much on weddings,” she tells the cheering audience, decrying the American fad for three different white dresses for the big day – and who could possibly disagree with her on this? (Meghan Sussex here popped into my mind, and I do wonder if she felt very left out of this book tour. Why wasn’t she invited to moderate one of the events? After all, as Winfrey revealed, her good friend Gayle King was.)

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But still, the jangling emptiness. The moneyed vacancy! As the poet said: I can connect nothing with nothing. If this extravaganza of Cracker Barrel wit isn’t a perfect example of what left-liberal pundits like to call late capitalism, I can’t think what is. Whether in the auditorium or via their streaming service, people are paying good money to hear a stranger dish out the kind of blindingly obvious advice they would once have got from their friends and family – and probably still could, if only they could get off Instagram for a second. Avoid self-pity. Try to be grateful. Happiness is down to you, not other people. Marry a man because he’s good, not because he’s handsome. You can have it all, but not at the same time. Cheese and onion are the best flavour crisps. (Spot the one I made up.)

“You’re so real,” says Winfrey, tugging at her strange, mustard-yellow sleeveless jacket as she prepares to wind up (the gilet-thing comes with matching trousers and a matching polo neck, and the overall result is a bit Starship Enterprise). Here, she reminds the delirious audience, is a woman with vulnerabilities and leather pants. If this statement alerted the crowd on the night to the fact that, actually, the opposite is true – on screen, present-day Obama seems more and more a chimera with every old photograph that’s flashed up – I don’t know. But to me, she was as slick and as fake as her manicure, and for all that I have tried, I have not been able to find anything at all in my imaginary cognitive behavioural toolbox to persuade me otherwise.

[See also: The Michelle Obama Podcast shows the former First Lady’s adroitness as a broadcaster]

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