President John F. Kennedy once quipped that he was merely “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.”
This week, Barack Obama might find out how he felt.
The first couple’s trip to Europe Tuesday takes Michelle Obama to a land that likes her husband but seems positively fascinated by her.
The British press in particular has followed Michelle Obama’s every move breathlessly, from her dresses to the “kitchen garden” behind the White House. One London paper tracked down her high-school prom date. Another asked plaintively, “Why Doesn’t the UK Have a Michelle Obama?”
So while the president has to juggle the politics, Michelle Obama's job is in some ways more subtle and just as complicated. France’s first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, was judged recently on her curtsy before the Queen, and back in the day, Jackie O.’s outfits and her command of the French language were closely scrutinized.
“Her every ensemble will be front page news and endlessly interpreted and decoded,” said Patricia McDonald, a London-based editor for the Michelle Obama fashion blog, www.Mrs- O.org. “Will she break out a new wardrobe, or in deference to the economy, recycle her greatest hits?”
Michelle Obama’s official schedule says she will accompany the president to many of his events – they both will have tea with Queen Elizabeth II, for instance – but she’ll have some solo outings as well. She’ll visit an all-girls school in London where the population is mostly minority and the second language is English — an echo of her work in Washington, DC.
Sarah Brown, Britain’s first lady, will give Michelle Obama a tour of a health facility in London Wednesday and will take her and other spouses on a tour in London Thursday during the G-20 economic summit.
In France, Obama will join NATO spouses in visiting a hospital and a cathedral. And at all of these events, she'll stand next to some of the world’s most high-profile political spouses— including Bruni-Sarkozy, the Italian-born ex-supermodel who is an admirer of the self-described girl from the Chicago’s South Side.
“She looks like she’s a great, strong, intelligent woman,” Bruni-Sarkozy said in one recent interview. “I must say that she doesn’t look like she [needs] advice … I think it would probably be better for me to be getting advice from her.
Aides say Michelle Obama is aware of the moment and she has been reading up on her fellow members of the first ladies' club ahead of the trip.
But her first stride across the global stage is about more than merely sightseeing with other first ladies.
For all the attention that will be paid to the arrival of America’s first black president, there is also a deep fascination with his wife — her humble roots, her groundbreaking role and her ability to juggle being first lady and raising two daughters.
Some even seem puzzled by the complex mix of expectations placed on Michelle Obama in America. While her sleeveless-in-winter look caused a bit of a stir here—seen as immodest by some and fashion forward by others—across the pond, many observers just didn’t understand the fuss.
“In the U.S., Michelle is the locus for a nation's attitudes about femininity, motherhood, feminism and sexuality,” McDonald said. “In Europe, she carries less symbolic significance. Her willingness to experiment are all traits European fashionistas admire -- and if the occasional misstep is the result of taking a few risks, c'est la vie.”
Michelle Obama’s aides also insist that she is there in a support role to her husband. Yet if history is any guide, first ladies can overshadow their spouses, and the comparisons to Jacqueline Kennedy’s 1961 trip to Paris seem sure to abound, much like some are fond of comparing Michelle O. to Jackie O.
Kennedy had a few built-in advantages, of course – she charmed Charles de Gaulle with her style and impeccable French, and her French maiden name and schooling at the Sorbonne didn’t hurt—but her turn in Paris proved that little things matter.
Notably, Bruni-Sarkozy, who had been fodder for British tabs for her racy, rock-and-roll past, was able to sway public opinion in her simple visit with the Queen.
“She was so elegant in her Chanel and the way she did her curtsy in front of the Queen, she was elegant,” Renaud Girard, a foreign editor with Le Figaro said. “She was so modest. The British public
loved it. They became mad with her and she became instantly a new Jackie.”
The comparisons are inevitable, as are the questions – will Obama stick with American designs, or go international? What does one wear to have tea with the Queen? And what will she wear to stand next to Bruni-Sarkozy, dubbed the “Chanel gazelle?”
Brown, Britain’s first lady, was quite candid after her meeting with Bruni-Sarkozy that it’s all a bit intimidating.
“Well, I didn't stand a chance, did I?” Brown confessed in one interview. “I mean, I was standing next to a supermodel. I thought that whatever I wore didn't matter. With all due respect to myself, I knew that day I couldn't win.”
But at least some in France think their First Family could take a few lessons from Michelle Obama.
“She has shown that she has a good sense of communication and PR, like being photographed at a charity place,” said Marie Colmant, a French television commentator. “When she was doing that, our French first lady and the president were in Mexico at a luxury villa. She has a good perception of the temperature of the American people. She gets it.”