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First Lady at 50 finding her own path

Washington, Jan. 17: She has perfected a mean forehand, is working on her yoga poses, dishes with girlfriends over brussels sprouts and dirty martinis (one olive) at the Mediterranean hotspot Zaytinya, pushes her two daughters to play two sports — one of her choosing and one of theirs — and said this week that the wonders of modern dermatology, like Botox, are in the realm of possibility for her.

Michelle Obama is in many ways the embodiment of the contemporary, urban, well-heeled middle-aged American woman. She likes to take “me time”, as she did during an extra vacation week this month without family in Hawaii, setting off a tabloid furore over the state of her marriage.

She frets that her older daughter, 15-year-old Malia, hangs out with the boys a grade above her. She gardens, although unlike the rest of us, she has significant weeding help. She toys with false eyelashes.

Tomorrow night, Obama will celebrate her 50th birthday with dancing and sweets throughout the state floor of the White House, drawing the nation’s attention away from her husband, at least for an evening. Guests will sip fine American wines, consume delicate macarons and be entertained — the expectation is by Beyoncé.

The mix of Hollywood and quirky individualism (American caterers, ready yourself for the onslaught of dessert-and-cocktails-only party requests) underscores the conflicting diptych of glamourous mystery woman and regular PTA mother that defines America’s First Lady.

Five years in, she has cobbled together a full life in Washington.

Sometimes she moves so discreetly through the area that a customer at a local Target store, not recognising her, asked the First Lady to reach for some highly perched toilet paper. At other times, Obama is on plain view around town as a parent on the sidelines of the soccer games of her daughter Sasha, 12.

Marc Howard, whose daughter Zoe once played on the soccer team with Sasha, recalled how his daughter drained the tiny water bottle he had brought for her one hot Washington day on the field. Obama lightheartedly chided him. “She said, ‘What kind of water bottle is that?’ and gave Zoe hers,” Howard said. “Those are things far away from the cameras.”

For all of her complaints about the scrutiny and isolation that come with living in the White House, Obama has created a vibrant life in Washington as well as a policy agenda that at times dovetails with her husband’s, particularly on education.

But she maintains a powerful zone of privacy, aided by discreet friends and a controlling East Wing. Accounts of her life here are culled from interviews with staff members, friends and parents of Malia and Sasha’s schoolmates. The accounts also draw on Obama’s public speeches and comments, including a recent interview with People magazine.

While Obama has been careful not to define herself or her role strictly through race, she has paid steadfast attention to her role as a model and mentor to minority children from poor backgrounds like her own, and has built much of her policy agenda around them.

“She is more self-determinative than prior first ladies because she very rarely allows herself to be drawn into distracting conversations,” said Carl Anthony, a historian of first ladies. In addition, he said, “She speaks to a demographic pretty much ignored by the White House by all first ladies except for Eleanor Roosevelt.”

He cited trips Obama has made to the Anacostia neighbourhood of Washington and White House invitations she has extended to local working-class African-Americans.

The Obamas and their daughters usually eat together as a family at the White House, but the President and First Lady also give small dinner parties at home with a mix of friends, notable local columnists and others. A typical menu is grilled shrimp with tomatoes and peppers, followed by lean fillet of steak (the First Lady’s favourite) with potatoes and a selection of pies for dessert. Guests should not expect bread.

Obama also frequents Washington’s restaurants of the moment. She has been spotted more than once sweeping into B.L.T. Steak on I Street with a gaggle of female friends, headed for a private room. She eats roasted cauliflower and stuffed grape leaves at Zaytinya and guacamole and margaritas at Oyamel. She has grown fond of Bibiana, an upscale Italian restaurant downtown.

“She is interested in local food,” said Eddie Gehman Kohan, the executive editor of obamafoodorama.com, an obsessive digital archive of the food ways and nutrition agenda of the Obamas. “Her typical meal is whatever is going on at the restaurant that is seasonal and best.”

Obama’s group frequently includes her closest friend, Sharon Malone, a prominent obstetrician and wife of the attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr.

 
 
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