December 8, 2019

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Former first lady lights up downtown arena with inspirational message

There were no musicians onstage at Bell MTS Place, but Michelle Obama still got a rock star's welcome.

"I just wish I could play an instrument and sing; I would be so intolerable," she joked before an adoring audience gathered Tuesday for the Winnipeg stop of her speaking tour. "If I just had some musical talent, I wouldn’t be doing this. I’d be on the stage singing and dancing."

Michelle Obama on…

Favourite celebrities she’s met:

“We’ve made some really good friendships along the way, so if I sit here and say that one is better than the other – let me just throw out a few really cool names. Beyoncé. Love her. She’s smart, she works hard, she is crazy talented, alright? Doing it all. Love her.

Favourite celebrities she’s met:

“We’ve made some really good friendships along the way, so if I sit here and say that one is better than the other – let me just throw out a few really cool names. Beyoncé. Love her. She’s smart, she works hard, she is crazy talented, alright? Doing it all. Love her.

Bruce Springsteen is one of the people... he is so self-reflective in a way that, to me he’s a good mentor as a man and a father to somebody like Barack because he’s really worked on himself and his music. His lyrics as I’ve gotten to know them helped me to tell my story better because the colour that he adds, the level of description, the way he can describe in his music, a tree, a song, a block, the smell of the neighbourhood bar. It was like, I knew that was the kind of texture I wanted in my book..

Steven Spielberg, he’s so sweet and just an amazing talent.

Whether she prefers books or music

 “It is music, because music is always accessible and this is another parenting thing. It’s like, when you’re raising kids, your mind doesn’t settle long enough to read books all the time. ... Music can be everywhere with me all the time and it is. We love music. We took time to fill the house with music. We had some of the best entertainment at the White House, again making sure that young kids around the world had access to those performances, too.

The last two times she cried -- dropping her daughter Sasha off at college this year and thinking about her deceased father

Both Barack and I shed a tear. We tried to suck it up, but it didn’t work. And then the other time was just last week. I really had a tough time because I was doing an on-camera interview and the interview(er) asked me about my father and just what I would hope that he could have seen. And it wasn’t the White House, it wasn’t those years. It was just like, my dad died before he had grandchildren and he would have been that grandfather, and he would have been so proud of the family that has grown. And so the thought of him missing all this was moving to me.”

On what she's learned about herself after life in the White House

"I’ve found that the truth of the title of the book, Becoming. You know, it is an active word for a reason. Because we’re always, and I want people to understand this, we are always constantly in a period of growth and evolution. And I feel like even after the life that I have lived and the things that I’ve accomplished, what lies ahead is a beautiful next chapter….There’s always a way to recreate yourself. There’s always the next thing. And I hope that gives people out there a sense of hope, because I know that I find that after all that I’ve done, there’s still so much that lies ahead. And I have no idea how that’s going to really fully unfold. But it’s getting to a place where you know that there is room for growth and how exciting that is. And I want our young people to understand this: you are just in the beginnings of your chapter."

The charismatic former U.S. first lady delivered a crowd-pleasing inspirational message to about 7,500 people, who paid as much as $349 to attend the noon-hour event sponsored by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. The crowd responded with standing ovations at the beginning and end of her time on stage.

Obama, wife of the first African-American president, who was elected by a landslide in 2008, focused on the importance of personal authenticity and empowering young people through equal access to education.

"What I want young people in this auditorium and around the world to understand is that kids like us, we do have the gift and the potential. Even if we don’t have money or networks or access — which I never had as a working-class kid — we’re born with an innateness and a set of abilities," said the 55-year-old lawyer and mother of two, who grew up on the south side of Chicago.

"We cannot define ourselves by the colour of our skin, our language, our cultures. It’s truly what’s within us (that matters)."

Justina Stone poses with cardboard cutouts of Barack and Michelle Obama in the lobby at Bell MTS Place Tuesday.

JESSICA BOTELHO-URBANSKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Justina Stone poses with cardboard cutouts of Barack and Michelle Obama in the lobby at Bell MTS Place Tuesday.

Obama addressed youth in the arena directly several times during the roughly hour-long interview, which was conducted by University of Manitoba chancellor Anne Mahon.

Mahon began by asking about Obama's best-selling memoir, Becoming, which sold more copies than any other American book last year.

Obama said she felt compelled to tell a story that went beyond a chronology of events she and her husband Barack, the 44th president, experienced in the White House from January 2009 to January 2017.

She also described the importance of every person owning their own story.

"What I found as first lady, working as a professional, working in communities all over this world, is that people are more open to you when you are open to yourself," she said. "If you can just, you know, brush off the fears of rejection and own the journey that is uniquely yours and understand that there is value in that journey."

Her journey started in Chicago, where she worked as a lawyer and met her future husband at work. Mahon asked for a description of how they fell in love and Obama discussed how, at first, she was unimpressed.

"Who names their kid Barack Obama? This kid’s weird," she recalled thinking before meeting him, eliciting laughter from the crowd.

The "weird" former president visited Winnipeg last March, also for a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce speaking event at Bell MTS Place.

University of Winnipeg students Courtney Bear, Rachelle Kabuha, Sidney Leggett and Beverly Tran got to meet Michelle Obama briefly on Tuesday.

SUPPLIED

University of Winnipeg students Courtney Bear, Rachelle Kabuha, Sidney Leggett and Beverly Tran got to meet Michelle Obama briefly on Tuesday.

His wife also discussed her passion for public service and how she believes average people can make a larger impact in their communities than world leaders.

"We put all our faith in a president or a prime minister or in government or some bigwig, some CEO. We think, well that’s where real change happens. But I want people to understand that real change — the lasting kind of change — happens on the ground. It’s the stuff that we all can uniquely control," she said, describing the importance of being a good parent, friend or neighbour.

Canada Life donated about 500 tickets, enabling Winnipeg School Division students to attend.

Four University of Winnipeg students — Rachelle Kabuha, Courtney Bear, Beverly Tran and Sidney Leggett — got to briefly meet Obama during a VIP session afterward. They had about 30 seconds for a photo-op and hugs, which Leggett said was enough.

"Even though we had such a short time with her, it still felt very personal and she still felt really invested in seeing us," Leggett said.

Justina Stone wasn't among the VIPs and didn't get to meet Obama, but she was thrilled to be there, snapping a few selfies with a cardboard cut-out version of the former first lady in the arena's lobby.

"I learned a lot of things from her today and the fact that she’s so down to earth and she speaks with respect — I just love her," a grinning Stone said.

"Michelle Obama. She is a lady and I love her. Thank you, Michelle."

jessica.botelho@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @_jessbu

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski
Legislature reporter

Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, September 24, 2019 at 8:30 PM CDT: Final version

10:49 PM: Updates fact box

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