Michelle Obama Talks Panic Attacks, Watching Her Words at 'Becoming' Los Angeles Tour Stop

Michelle Obama & Tracee Ellis Ross
Rich Fury/Forum Photos

Michelle Obama and Tracee Ellis Ross speak onstage during Obama's highly anticipated book tour, Becoming: An Intimate Conversation With Michelle Obama on Nov. 15, 2018 in Los Angeles.

The former first lady spoke to a sold-out arena with moderator Tracee Ellis Ross.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama sat down for a revealing and often humorous conversation Thursday night with Black-ish actress Tracee Ellis Ross at the Forum in Los Angeles. This marked the second of 12 stops Obama will be taking in support of her new memoir, Becoming, which kicked off Nov. 13 in her hometown of Chicago.

Ross, who was decked out in hoop earrings that read “Mrs” and “Obama” kicked off the conversation with discussions of Obama’s childhood growing up on Chicago's South Side. Obama admitted she wasn’t big on going outside and playing with other kids for fear of getting “messy.”

“I thought about going outside with the other kids, but I would look out the window and it’s like messy. Messy, that childhood situation,” Obama said, mentioning she preferred her controlled indoor environment with her immaculate Barbie dolls. “Kids didn’t have their stuff together. I was like, let me just stay in this house and control these dolls.”

It wasn’t until an unbearably hot summer that Obama (née Michelle Robinson) was forced to go outside and interact with the other neighborhood kids.

“I was really thinking in my head a lot. And of course, when I did go out, I had to be initiated into the neighborhood girls and that's when I described my first fight,” Obama told the crowd. “There was the mean girl who just seemed annoyed with me and I was like, see, this is why I didn't want to be outside. If I'm going to be out here, I'm going to have to fight you.”

Ellis Ross asked if she got into those physical fights to which Mrs. Obama replied, “Yes, those were the only kinds of fights you had on the South Side. What? You thought people were debating?”

“My father taught me how to box. He was a boxer before he contracted [multiple sclerosis],” Obama said. “My father always included me. It was never just my father and my brother. When my brother got his first pair of boxing gloves, I had my itty-bitty pair of boxing gloves.”

Obama explained that her father wanted her to know how to handle herself and never treated her differently from her brother, which she greatly attributes to her confidence and success in her adulthood.

Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, also greatly influenced her demeanor growing up. She said her mother never indulged in outrage and helped keep the First Family grounded throughout their eight years in the White House.

“The Forum is filled up and my mother is the kind of person who says, ‘Why are all these people here? Who are they coming to see? Is there a band?’” Obama shared after admitting she had a panic attack before embarking on the 12-city book tour. “That can get in my head and I start thinking, who do I think I am doing this big tour?”

“I was having all these emotions because I am like my mother, you just sort of downplay everything. You don't ride the highs too high, you don't ride the lows too low," said Obama. "That's how she parented us."

She explained that she used the same parenting techniques with her daughters as they grew up in the public eye, telling them things like having SWAT teams on the roof during parent-teacher meetings was normal.

On the subject of her husband, former President Barack Obama, Michelle described their initial meeting when he showed up late for the first day she was meant to mentor him at a law firm.

“I started learning about him and the trajectory he had taken and his unusual background. Barack was always Barack. He was confident without being cocky. He was funny. He was self-deprecating. He was open. He wasn’t thirsty,” Mrs. Obama said of her husband.

“Has he always walked with that swagger?” Ross asked the former first lady.

“Yes and sometimes it is sexy and sometimes it is just slow,” Obama replied.  

Obama had no intention of pursuing a relationship with the future president, but they eventually kissed over some ice cream and started a life together, facing many hardships described in her book on their way and into the White House.

Obama and Ross -- whose own friendship started after Ross helped campaign for President Obama -- went on to discuss the immense amount of scrutiny Michelle faced during her husband’s time in office.

Obama discussed having to watch herself when she was suddenly had to take holiday photos with politicians who had spent years saying hurtful things about her, stating that Barack told her to “get your face right.”

When her and her speech writing team would practice her Q&As, Obama said she got all her non-politically polite words out in private.

“I had career ending thoughts. I could end this whole presidency thing with just these three sentences,” Obama joked. “We’d be like, ‘Sorry, Barack. I messed it up. Come on girls. Pack your stuff up. It’s over.’”

But, as Mrs. Obama said, she insisted on taking the high road since ‘throwing mud’ only breeds more fighting.

“There is a way you show up in your speeches that is an amplification of what you embody. The way you name things that are unacceptable, things that are true, things that we've all been seeing and feeling,” said Ross about Obama’s speeches, specifically referencing the former first lady’s 2016 Democratic National Convention speech where she called the White House “a house built by slaves” and being the first to call what President Donald Trump said in the Access Hollywood tape "sexual assault."

“You use these plain and clear words, that can't skirt around or dismiss any of it from a position of power that validates something,” Ross said. ”You show up in such a way for our country.”

Obama explained that she feels the need to call out bullies and that her speech writing process included several drafts and practices to make sure she always hit the right tone.

“We're going to practice it and practice it again until it is right, because I felt like I didn't have room not to be right for eight years. I didn't have the luxury to just be okay, to be inarticulate. I couldn’t make mistakes,” Obama said. “I couldn’t get facts wrong. Our whole team was very conscientious. We checked facts before we put anything into a speech.”

“That mattered to Barack and I as professional people,” Obama added.

“That’s so neat, the way you thought about what you said and worked on it and thought about it…because you cared about how your words affected us, because you were in a house that you reminded us was actually our house,” Ellis Ross said. “Tell us how that went. Maybe we can do that again.”

“We are the adults in the room, sadly,” Obama said. “We are the ones we’ve been looking for.”