The Toyota Center was packed on Saturday night with people dressed in just this side of their Sunday best and buzzing with excitement over former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Houston stop on her sell-out, stadium-sized Becoming book tour.
“She’s amazing! I can’t believe she’s here!” a woman squealed to her friend as we all made our way through security. People were expressing iterations of that thought throughout the night, even if it sometimes just translated to enthusiastic but wordless woos. In other words, this event could barely hold a candle to the tough political appearances she used to make, where it was her job to win over the crowd. This group was already won over long before they bought the tickets. All she had to do was, well, be herself. Luckily, she was well up to that task.
Ticket-holders flooded the arena a solid hour before the show was slated to start, lining up to buy Becoming tour paraphernalia, to snap pictures with a massive blow-up of the book cover, and to get drinks, of course. (What’s a night with an intimate conversation with this beloved half of the former First Couple without a good frosé, right?)
We all gradually made our way to our seats where the crowds were entertained with clips from some of Obama’s wonderful viral videos and late-night show appearances from over the years. While she expressed feeling thoroughly unprepared to the tidal wave of change that washed over her and her family’s life when her husband was elected president back in 2008, it was something else to be reminded how she still managed to handle her role as First Lady with both grace and humor, and how she also used her platform to try and do some good in the country and the world.
And then the show officially kicked off, as Beyonce’s “Halo” reverberated in the arena and the lights went down, allowing the beautifully designed book tour set, two comfortable chairs and a small table, all clean modern-lined pieces, placed on a sort of enormous space coaster made of glass and silver, and all of it surrounded by dangling light fixtures that sparkled when she made her entrance. That didn’t happen all at once, though. Before the show, attendees had been encouraged to tweet using #IAmBecoming and a few local women, including a teenaged Girl Scout and James Harden’s mom, appeared on stage, suddenly illuminated by spotlights to share what they are becoming. It might sound a bit cheesy, but in real life it was incredibly effective.
By the time former NPR host Michelle Norris popped up and introduced a little overview video to remind everyone the basic points Obama covered in that mammoth bestseller of a book, only released last November and yet still easily the top-selling book of 2018, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Even the men around me were hastily swiping at their eyes.
And then the lady herself arrived, wearing a sparkly silver pantsuit, sporting periwinkle blue nail polish that perfectly complemented the book cover projected on an enormous screen behind her, and somehow managing to make a stadium appearance feel downright intimate.
She talked about the same things she covered in the book, growing up in Chicago a driven kid hungry for education and accomplishment who became a Harvard-educated lawyer, a box-checker who loved punctuality and order and plans, and who met a man who wasn’t particularly interested in any of those things. “Even walking in late for his first day, he had that walk; he wasn’t hurrying or apologetic. It was pure swag,” she told the audience, eliciting knowing nods and appreciative murmurs from the crowd who knew exactly what she meant.
Over the course of the event—and she spoke for nearly an hour and a half, so people really got their money’s worth—Obama hit all the expected talking points. She’s still the box-checker she’s always been, clearly. But the most interesting moments were when she shared some additional insight like noting how growing up with a disabled parent may have helped drive so much of her and her brother’s achievements, since they were always intent on handling things and “not being a problem,” she said.
Or how she felt it was important to share the reality of how hard marriage is. “I know that Barack and I are #relationshipgoals for a lot of people, but I don’t want people to think that this is something that just happened. Every good relationship has to be worked on and built, and I think we do young people a great disservice when we don’t talk about that. Then the moment they have a problem, they split up.”
She also delved into how, when preparing to write her book, she went back and examined the intensely negative coverage that surrounded her when she and her husband first landed on the national political stage more than a decade ago. In writing her book, she sat down and read all of the articles, looked at the garish, troubling and clearly racist cartoons that popped up in newspapers, peered out from the cover of Time magazine. There were articles written about things she said, of course, but also about her outfits, even her facial expressions. It’s an ugly part of the book, but she tackled it during the tour with a calmness that was incredibly impressive when compared to the cartoons and headlines flashing on the enormous screens around the center.
Still, the night mostly focused on the more positive subjects, like how she approached raising her own two daughters in the glare of the public spotlight, the work she has done with kids and military families to the happier things, especially when Norris drew from questions submitted via Twitter.
Obama stuck to the high road throughout the night, never directly mentioning President Donald Trump, or the current administration, even though that was clearly on just about everyone’s minds. Obama wasn’t interested in delving into any of that on Saturday night. The point of all of this was about understanding her own story, something she encouraged everyone in the audience to try and take the time to do.
“The truth is, for me, the eight years in the White House is the least of the journey,” she said. “That is not the most interesting part of my life. It was all of those little things, that little house on Euclid Avenue, it was the music in our life, it was my father’s values, it was the Deuce and a Quarter, it was the fight that I had with DeeDee, it was my favorite eighth-grade teacher. All those little components of our journeys are what makes us who we are, they are all valuable, and that’s what connects us.”