Is Michelle the New Oprah?

The G-20 trip has kicked Mighty Michelle up to a whole new level.

John Stillwell / AP Photo

It’s interesting how the view from abroad can shift and remake perceptions of homegrown celebrities, the ones who are part of the gross domestic product.

American women already admired Michelle Obama before she left for London—her popularity rating had risen 18 points, to 72 percent, since September—but the TV coverage in the last two days has dialed her up dramatically to another level. Suddenly she has zoomed past Oprah as the inspirational It Girl and iconic female African-American role model.

Oprah’s stock in trade has always been her powerful unmediated connection. She could feel your pain and empower you to talk about it. In doing so (as long as it was Oprah you chose to talk to), you were redeemed.

But when you become a juggernaut business franchise, authenticity can't help transmuting into something manufactured. It’s the need to feed the beast, to raise the stakes, to keep the act fresh, to maintain the monster ratings. Slowly but surely, you become a brand, not a person. You might as well have a little R in a circle next to your name.

“No wonder she has become the new hugger-in-chief.”

Looking at the news clips from London of Michelle next to all the other well-put-together first ladies, there’s a red-blooded realness to her that almost makes you feel the warmth of those long, sculpted arms. No wonder she has become the new hugger-in-chief. The most frequent thing people said to me about Princess Diana when I was conducting interviews for my biography was that she could create a circle of intimacy in the middle of a crowd. Those quivering antennae of the Princess could pick up the neediness of some unremarkable person in the room, lock into their gaze, and make them feel special. And when Michelle stooped down from her powerful height in those big fat pearls to embrace each of the little girls at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, it was Di time all over again.

There has been much speculation about how the Queen must have felt when Michelle, at their celebrated first meeting alongside the president and the Duke of Edinburgh at Buckingham Palace last night, not only broke the touching taboo but rubbed the monarch’s back in sisterly solicitude. How did she feel? I think she felt fine. The Queen has encountered every kind of despot, social climber, toady, oleaginous potentate, and arrogant bastard in her time, and I am told that when she’s “on,” very little actually penetrates except how quickly she can run out the clock. She instantly freezes over when she senses she is disrespected. But that wasn’t the case here at all. In fact, it was Elizabeth herself who first broke the touch barrier, making the motherly gesture of putting her arm lightly around Michelle.

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of Michelle's London Style

As for the iPod gift, I thought it was inspired. The vaults of Buckingham palace are groaning with priceless, useless freebies from foreign dignitaries. The last thing the Queen needs is one more jewel-embossed box, priceless illuminated manuscript, or unwieldy golden galleon that will be immediately dispatched to the butler’s pantry, to be flogged off on eBay the following week by whoever gets first dibs.

The tiny apartments in towns and cottages in the shires occupied by retired royal servants are often dollhouse versions of the royal palaces, stuffed with the loot they have either stolen or had given to them by their masters in an act of bounty to compensate for churchmouse salaries.

What was striking about the Windsor-Obama tableau was how tiny and antique the Queen seemed next to these high-flying extraterrestrial giants. She looked like a small girl on a visit to Stonehenge.

In the photograph on the front page of yesterday’s New York Post, some trick of the light made Her Majesty seem to be literally fading from the picture between these robust messengers from a made-over world. But then again, the monarch, who has greeted 11 American presidents in her 57 years on the throne, has seen an awful lot of hopeful messengers of the future fade into the past. She probably saw the thoroughly charming Obamas more matter-of-factly and less fraught with symbolism than the rest of us felt as we gazed at this unlikely trio.

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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.