First Lady Michelle Obama Talks About How She Uses Pop Culture to Make an Impact

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Ten days before delivering the best-received speech at the Democratic National Convention, first lady Michelle Obama was in her East Wing office describing an entirely different appearance she was about to make that was poised to have an equally notable impact.

That was Carpool Karaoke, the insanely popular segment on CBS’ “Late Late Show,” in which she sat in the passenger seat with host James Corden and belted out renditions of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” as they circled the driveway on the South Lawn.

“First of all, I was riding in a car with somebody else, without the Secret Service,” she says, with more than a hint of glee. “So right there, [I said], ‘Let’s keep driving!’ I think we drove around the South Lawn about 100 times.”

In her telling, the joy she got from that feeling of momentary freedom in the car with Corden is secondary to why she filmed it in the first place: the power of pop culture. As entertaining and unusual as the segment was, and as far as it spread virally on social media, it was a part of a carefully planned strategy executed by the first lady to leverage the power of Hollywood to advocate for issues near and dear to her heart.

Obama has done potato-sack races in the East Wing with Jimmy Fallon; she made a recent cameo on “NCIS,” and her office cleared the way for the show to shoot on the White House grounds; she did “random dancing” on Nickelodeon’s “iCarly.” And those are just a few of the several dozen appearances that she has made outside of traditional news venues.

Obama, 52, calls herself “a product of pop culture.” She is convinced of its influence on the public consciousness — in her case to build awareness of her signature policy initiatives, specifically ones tied to healthy eating and exercise, girls’ education, support for military families, and college advancement.

She’s not the first first lady to tap the entertainment industry to deliver a message. Nancy Reagan famously appeared on “Diff’rent Strokes” to promote her anti-drug campaign, Just Say No. Laura Bush appeared on shows like “Rachael Ray,” promoting heart-disease awareness, and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” promoting Katrina relief.

Obama, however, has taken things a step further — not just in magnitude, but with a certain degree of mirth.

“What I have never been afraid of is to be a little silly, and you can engage people that way,” Obama says in an interview with Variety in her upstairs White House office, decorated in an eclectic mix of abstract art and framed mementos from her tenure. “My view is, first you get them to laugh, then you get them to listen. So I’m always game for a good joke, and I’m not so formal in this role. There’s very little that we can’t do that people wouldn’t appreciate.”

Has it worked?

The first lady is convinced that it has.

A case in point: The Carpool Karaoke segment highlighted one of Obama’s key initiatives, Let Girls Learn, a worldwide plan of action to promote girls’ access to education. She and Corden also sang “This Is for My Girls,” which songwriter Diane Warren wrote several years ago but was recorded as an anthem for the initiative, with Elliott, Kelly Clarkson, Janelle Monae, and others participating, and AOL Makers producing.

Obama says that Warren urged them to do a segment. “What better way?” the first lady says. “The hottest way that music is being heard is in the car with James.”

The results proved them right.

According to Nielsen, digital sales of “This Is for My Girls” climbed a whopping 1,562% in the week after the segment aired. And it generated almost 40 million views on YouTube.

Obama explains that as she launched the initiatives, she knew it would take “reaching people where they lived on a day-to-day basis, and the next step was, ‘How do you do that? Where are the people?’ Well, they’re not reading the op-ed pieces in the major newspapers. They’re not watching Sunday morning news talk shows. They’re doing what most people are doing: They are watching TV.”

She adds: “A lot of our audiences are kids and teens, and they want to be in on the joke. And they’ll listen again. We’re just a little looser with this stuff than most traditional first ladies.”

Obama doesn’t see much of a downside to diverging from tradition, even if it has been met at times with some criticism. She accepted an invitation in 2013 to present the Academy Award for best picture (to “Argo”) live via remote from the White House, with members of the military standing behind her. It was a first for the ceremony, and it drew disapproval from some conservative commentators who felt that the surprise appearance was elitist.

Even the first lady acknowledges, with a bit of humor, that there have been some segments she can’t quite believe she did.

“I think it was probably ‘Billy on the Street,’ when I was literally pushing [Billy Eichner] in a grocery cart in a grocery store,” she says. “You know, that’s when I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ But again, it resonated. It was something that was successful. Maybe if I’d done that in my first year, it might have been too much. But I think by the time we did this in the second term, people knew me. They understood the approach. It allows me to take a few more risks than in the first term, when people were just getting to know who I was.”

In Obama’s view, taking risks has been worthwhile.

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SOURCE: Variety, Ted Johnson