article

03.31.09

Why Michelle Wows the Brits

For starters, she has similar qualities to the Queen: dedication, authenticity, and a very different attitude to clothes than Carla Bruni.

The excitement British women feel about the arrival of Michelle Obama in London for the G-20 summit is spiked with awe. She’s so big-time. So self-confident. So devoid of rainy, British diffidence. In a country where most political wives and female members of Parliament are the stylistic equivalent of a tufted ottoman, Michelle’s kind of striding self-assurance, glamour, and broad demographic appeal feels thrillingly 21st-century. The fact that she's African American adds an inspirational magic.

I am told by her closest courtiers that she—and all the royals—are very excited about meeting the president and Mrs. Obama.

It was smart of France’s ravishing first lady, Carla Bruni, to let her husband go to the conference without her. The second Madame Sarkozy was a big wow when she visited London last March, but she’s a shrewd enough PR hand to know she would suffer in comparison to the first and only Mrs. Obama. Carla is old news next to Michelle. Sure, she’s more beautiful in the cover-girl sense—looking good is her profession, after all—but an Italian heiress who strums the guitar and made a predatory move on France’s reigning little Napoleon isn’t the best poster girl for the scariest economic downturn since the 1930s. The Brits went off Carla almost as soon as she was back in Paris. That fake-demure little Dior suit she wore to lunch with Queen Elizabeth seemed in retrospect like the kind of get-up a reformed hooker might wear to meet her latest CEO for lunch at the Savoy.

One of the many appeal points of Michelle to the Brits is that her casual elegance feels as if it came out of her own closet on her own salary. The clean lines of Mrs. Obama’s jewel-colored shift dresses, skinny cardigans, and ballet flats have that effortless air that always gets high marks in dress-down Britain, where “she’s trying too hard” is the ultimate putdown. Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, never learned this lesson. Eight years into her husband’s premiership, she was still striving for fashion approval through a succession of car-crash wardrobe ensembles. Britain’s current first lady, Sarah Brown, is a handsome, charming woman, but her body language is so apologetic that everything she wears suggests she’d rather be somewhere else. Even Princess Diana took a long time to get it right. She took a fraught sartorial journey through operatic Ascot hats and bodybuilder shoulder pads before she arrived, in those final three years before her death, at an easy, breezy freedom of style that Michelle exudes already.

The Queen, with whom the president and first lady will have tea this afternoon in the private apartments at Buckingham Palace, will very much approve. Those images of Michelle digging in the White House vegetable garden will have resonated with Her Maj, a country woman down to her sensible shoes. The Queen was never all that enamored of either Hillary Clinton (too strident) or Nancy Reagan (too California); as for the Bush Juniors, the less said the better. Nor could Elizabeth abide Cherie Blair, whose loathing of trips to Balmoral—where Mrs. Blair’s allergies to the fur and feathers of the stuffed animals and hunting trophies adorning the castle’s walls kept the PM’s wife preoccupied with trying not to sneeze in the sovereign’s face—was a legend in Downing Street. The Queen will see immediately that Michelle has the qualities she most values in a working woman: Dedication. Authenticity. A sensible attitude toward rearing her children.

The immediacy of Michelle will make up for any mild chill that the president may bring to his first meeting with royalty. Unlike his predecessors, Obama is not big on Masterpiece Theatre nostalgia. He’s the first almost-colonial president to be in the presence of the monarch since John Adams, a point he underscored when he unceremoniously removed from the Oval Office the bust of Winston Churchill so prized by George W. (This would not have gone down well with the Queen, who gave a warm farewell dinner for the hero of World War II when he stepped down 22 months after she ascended the throne.) And she is sure to have noticed the dissing of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who, when he visited Washington earlier this month, gave the president a pen holder made from the timbers of the Victorian anti-slave ship HMS Gannet and, in return, was presented with a cheesy gift set of 25 classic American movies—which, to add insult to injury, don’t even work on British DVD players. (The Fleet Street tabloids, which do not go unread at the Palace, treated this White House gaffe as practically an act of war.) The Queen has met ten of Obama’s presidential predecessors in her 56 years on the throne and is very good at being Her Britannic Majesty when she senses the slimmest whiff of royal disrespect.

But I am told by her closest courtiers that she—and all the royals—are very excited about meeting the president and Mrs. Obama. Deeply worried about the financial crisis now sweeping Europe, the woman who has reigned longer than almost any other British monarch is as eager as all her countrywomen to come face to face with the future. When she looks into Michelle’s wide, warm eyes, she will see someone whose strength she will recognize at once as a new kind of Queen.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown.