How do you end a highly successful podcast (turned HBO special) in a major way? If you’re Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson of WNYC Studios’ 2 Dope Queens, you interview the dopest queen around, our forever first lady turned soon-to-be bestselling author Michelle Obama.
For those who didn’t know the podcast was ending, you can read a farewell statement from the duo here, but apparently, their coveted final guest’s team reached out ahead of the release of her much-touted memoir, Becoming, and, as noted in their statement:
“When the queen calls, the Queens answer! We couldn’t have dreamed up a better, more meaningful, finale.”
So, what do you talk about with Mrs. Obama? Apparently, not much was off-limits, including not just politics, but the “angry black woman” stereotype; raising strong daughters; how to navigate embarrassing moments in front of the Secret Service; how to dress for a windy day or a push-up contest with Bishop Desmond Tutu; Harry Potter and why she’d choose brunch with Oprah over a Beyoncé concert.
But one of our favorite segments had to be the very candid discussion about how Mrs. Obama navigated black hair politics while in the White House. Well known for her flawless coiffures, the former first lady reveals that maintaining her locks was a matter of designating “up” and “down” days with her staff. In other words, jam-packed days when she needed to be hair and makeup ready, and days she could refrain from putting stress on her tresses.
As she told Williams and Robinson:
Well, you know, the first thing you’ve gotta worry about is how to keep it healthy. And that’s, at the core of it, which people don’t understand, it’s like, getting your hair done every day will mess with your hair. You know? So a lot of it, my whole goal, was I want to end this with hair on my head. You know? I want to leave here with the hair I came with. And so now you’ve got to think about how do you do that, you know? What are you doing? And are you swimming? Are you working out? But this wasn’t just a first lady journey. This is a black professional women’s journey …
Because, I always work out, and I wasn’t going to be one of those sisters who was like, well I can’t sweat. You know? Because it’s like, I’m going to be healthy, you know? So figuring out how much heat your hair can stand, and how to cover it, and how to protect it. So I’ve done a little bit of everything. Braids, weaves, wigs, extensions, and some of it depends on what is happening. You know? How many days am I going to have my hair done? You know? And how many days do I have off and down where I can let my hair breathe and be itself. And you know, I try not to put color on my hair. ... So if I’m going to color it, I’m going to color somebody else’s hair, and then put that on my head … so that I’m not messing up. So that’s what I, and I try to talk to my daughters about hair health because at the end we only have one set of hair follicles. You know, if you pull it out and stretch it out and burn it out, you know? You don’t have nothing. I want to have some hair when I’m 70. Seventy, 80, 90, I want to have hair.
It’s part of the double standard of being a woman in the public eye, and one that became very strategic for Mrs. Obama as she attempted to, in her words, “Get out of here in eight years without being a meme.” She continues:
[T]hat’s why I talk about fashion. Because, so much of fashion was not just oh does it look cute, but am I hugging somebody? Because I’d be doing anything from greeting the Queen to doing double-dutch. I could do that in one day, right? So you gotta have hair and clothes that can transition from doing pushups on the floor with Bishop Tutu, which I did by the way. He challenged me to a pushup contest.
But, I had to go from pushups to playing soccer with kids, to going to meet some first lady. So you have to think about what is your hair doing. Are you sweating? Are you going to pin it up? Is it raining that day? You know, it’s like, does the jacket allow you to do pushups? Well take it off if it doesn’t. And it’s like, what heels are you wearing? There’s a whole other life to black hair, black wardrobe, in the public eye. I could go on. ... You know, so you wind up, as you know, you have a whole strategy for hair that I’m sure a lot of white women are sitting over there going, man I didn’t know all that was going on.
Mrs. Obama also got real about the very real limitations imposed on black children, women and black women in particular, recalling a recent encounter with a group of other powerful black women where a very powerful question was asked.
“[W]e asked the question, ‘Who around the room was told at some point that they couldn’t do something?’ And everybody raised their hand. ... I mean, the fact that everyone around that room, and I think because it was not just black women, but women, were at some point told they couldn’t do something, is astonishing. For all those accomplished women to have some point, somebody, what they saw in them was ‘you can’t’. You know, and I’ve experienced that and I know that my story isn’t my only story because I know when I got advantages in my neighborhood there were kids left behind who were just as smart and just as capable.
“You know, we were never raised to think, you’re special. You know, of course, my parents loved us, but my mother was like, ‘No, there are a lot of other kids who were as smart as you, but the difference between success and failure when you’re a woman, when you’re a minority, is really slim.’”
For the former first lady, advocating for young black girls—like the one she once was—became the genesis of Let Girls Learn, a government initiative (now under threat from Trump) that has transitioned into the Global Girls Alliance now that Mrs. Obama is free of the White House. And while freedom seems to be a major theme for her these days, she remains keenly aware of how she’s interpreted, and what’s at stake when you’re a black woman with global recognition.
“I have to be aware of what I say and how I say it because if you want to get a point across … if you’re a woman and you’re too angry people stop hearing the point. They don’t hear you,” she told Williams and Robinson. “And I’d love to be able to get in and emotionally, psychologically change that, but the truth is, is that people will hear things differently from me. I will do one thing and somebody else will do the exact same thing and it will be interpreted completely differently. ... And [that] remains true for women and minorities. So yeah, I still watch what I say and think about what I say because I don’t get a second chance. I don’t get the benefit of the doubt that, ‘Maybe she had a bad day, or maybe she didn’t mean what she said.’”
But while she may filter herself, Mrs. Obama told her hosts that she’s not interested in stifling daughters Malia and Sasha.
“[R]ight now, I think I want to fan their flames. You know? I want to get them used to maybe overstepping a little bit cause sometimes with women you don’t step up enough,” she said. “You don’t use your voice enough because you’re told you’re mouthy or you’re bossy or be quiet or that’s not cute. ... So for me, it’s like I want to practice boldness, and then we can bring it back, you know?”
And why would she choose brunch over Beyoncé? For the conversation.
“I would choose a conversation because a concert is cool, and you’re feeling the vibe,” she said. “But I want to be like, ‘So, Oprah, girl, what’s going on? What’s really happening?’ And you can’t do that at a concert. Concert, you’re just, ‘Yeah! We’re here. Look!’ But I want to be like, ‘Beyoncé how are the kids, what’s going on, how you feeling?’ That’s a more meaningful interaction.”
It was also an incredibly meaningful end to the 2 Dope Queens podcast, of which Paula Szuchman, Vice President, On-Demand Content at WNYC Studios, said in statement:
This inspiring conversation with Michelle Obama ties together so much of what Phoebe and Jessica have brought to listeners since we first launched the 2 Dope Queens podcast out of a bar in Brooklyn more than two years ago. The Queens’ honest and intimate comedy, their FOMO-inducing friendship, and the diverse voices they invited into the spotlight has made the show more than a podcast. It is truly a phenomenon. We are proud to have been a part of it, and the Queens will always have a home at WNYC Studios. We can’t wait to see—and hear—what they do next!
The Glow Up tip: You can listen to—or read—2 Dope Queen’s full interview with Michelle Obama here.