Posts tagged ‘michelle obama’

May 2, 2011

Michelle Obama meet David Szeto (Rules for wearing a print dress)

I just saw Mrs. Obama  on “Oprah” wearing quite an “interesting” print dress by Duro Olowu.

My rule for prints is this: if you can’t describe the print, you shouldn’t be wearing it.

This is a graphic dot print dress. It’s a print that never goes out of style. David Szeto wrap dress, $995, Barneys New York.

February 26, 2011

The Sociology of Fame: Concealing and Revealing (or Thus Spoke Gaga)

In a 2007 interview with GQ magazine  to promote “The Bourne Ultimatum,” Matt Damon came clean about why he’s such a notoriously difficult interview subject, as far as his personal life is concerned.

“The better the actor, the less you know about his life. I mean, nobody’s better than De Niro, and you don’t know anything about him, right? Look at Meryl. We don’t know sh*t about Meryl. Look at Clint. And Jack. And Brando. Marlon Brando—who f*ing knows, right?”

That certainly explains why  at the peak of her fame Sharon Stone was  incessantly forthcoming.

On a fundamental level, as an artist, you want the quality of your work to speak for  itself but in the tabloid culture we live in there is constant demand for personal details. Some entertainers know how to conceal themselves despite that demand while others mete out  revelatory dribs and drabs as it suits their career arc or affects their their bank account. (A few years ago, during the press junket to launch her new talk show, Jane Pauley revealed she was bipolar. Recently, Tyler Perry revealed on “Oprah” that he had been molested as a child while promoting his latest film “For Colored Girls.” Senator Scott Brown reveals similar abuse in his new book, timed to coincide with his re election campaign.)

Still  others openly court that demand. We are now witnessing the advent of  “reality stardom”, in which  the otherwise talentless  (housewives, baby mamas, Kardashians, New Jersey hooligans, et al) become famous precisely for divulging every sordid pathological detail of their private lives.

If you’re interested in managing your image, it’s essential that you understand in which one of the three paradigms you operate.

That of course assumes that only those paradigms I’ve outlines are the only ones which exist. Might there be more? In a recent interview with “60 Minutes” Lady Gaga details to Anderson Cooper her personal image paradigm:

“As part of my mastering the Art of fame, part of it is getting people to pay attention to what you want them to pay attention to and not pay attention to what you don’t want them to pay attention to–the Sociology of fame: how to maintain a certain privacy without feeling like you are withholding anything from your fans.

My philosophy is that if I am open [with my fans] about everything yet art direct every moment of my life, I can maintain a certain form of privacy–in a way I maintain a certain soulfulness that I have yet to give.”

In other words, art is not an end product separate from the artist’s personal life. Art is a means by which one  manipulates the balancing act between revealing and concealing.

She says her music is about “self empowerment and self acceptance”  though she admits the creation of Lady Gaga in all her guises came about because she felt disconnected and disenfranchised  and bullied as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta.

Lady Gaga, as she presents herself, teeters between being the product of the warm and fuzzy philosophy of  “Oprah” and the cold calculation of Nietzsche, though from the outside looking in, the scales tip heavily toward Nietzsche.

While there is an element of sexuality to Gaga, it’s by no means conventional or even appealing. (She’s often referred to by men as “butterface”–as in everything about her is desirable but her face.) Sexuality is unmistakably present and potent in her work but it is  also fraught with danger, usually mixed up in some trajectory of birth and death. Most recently, she arrived at the Grammys in a Hussein Chalayan plexiglass egg from which she later emerged on stage dressed in Mugler to sing “Born this way.” Later in the week she appeared dressed as a condom on “Good Morning America” to promote AIDS awareness.

Credit: Jason Merrit/Getty Images

Unlike Madonna, who used her sexuality to manipulate the male gaze on her way to superstardom, Gaga’s interest is in mining our cultural interest in the “decay of the superstar. Isn’t that the age that we live in that we want to see people who have it all lose it all? It’s dramatic. It’s a movie.” Madonna’s ability to reinvent herself was a  patent career move, whereas Gaga’s creation is at once both more revelatory and more disturbing as it depends on the abandonment of Stephani–a career move perhaps but one with a decidedly psychiatric component–or a healthy dose of poker face deception.

Her fame, deception and all, can be seen as the revenge of the nerd (Stefani), something she shares in common  with the other world famous 20something seeking to empower everyone, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, as portrayed in “The Social Network.”

The reality of course is that most of us don’t have the luxury of art directing our lives, certainly in the extreme way Gaga does it.

But there are lessons to be learned here and it would seem that Michelle Obama has done just that. The First Lady is widely lauded for her sense of personal style. Most people are blithely unaware of the amount of time, money and human resources that go into creating and maintaining that image.

The First Lady’s image is as art directed  as Gaga’s. Her sense of style, as it has evolved with the expert oversight of the luxury retailer Ikram Goldberg, consists mainly of pieces of clothing which individually cost more than most people’s mortgage. Yet the First Lady’s style is in no way seen in  to be  extravagant. As a matter of fact, most women will tell you that her style is eminently approachable and affordable. How does this happen?

When Mrs. Obama dresses specifically for  mass media appearances–talk shows, magazine covers–she is always careful to wear an outfit that the masses can easily find and afford. Best leave the couture for events which get far less attention. It’s a strategy which started with her appearance on “The View”  before the election in a White House Black Market dress, and continued with various J Crew ensembles for other talk shows. As First Lady she donned a $395 Tracy Reese dress for the cover of People magazine and just a few weeks back, clearly mindful of the sad economic times, donned a dress from H+M on “The Today Show.” (The way she accessorized the dress, however, made it  painfully clear that Ms. Goldberg is no longer officially involved in styling Mrs. Obama.)

Of course, the studied choice and the complicit PR machine from both the White House and H+M meant that the dress sold out in a matter of hours.

The more  important takeaway from this story is that  every woman who bought that dress ($34.95) felt that she had just acquired the exact style of Michelle Obama (priceless).

Watch the entire “60 Minutes”  Lady Gaga interview HERE.

Lady Gaga appears in concert at the United Center February 28.

November 1, 2009

The Women (1929/1939/2009)

tom_kolovos_wordpressnewEven if Jodi Kantor’s  essay “The First Marriage” in the New York Times Magazine  didn’t have the misfortune of appearing in the same Sunday edition as  the extraordinary continuing series “Women at Arms,” which today highlighted the  difficulties women veterans face when diagnosed with with post traumatic stress disorder from the Iraq/Afganistan wars, it would still come off as a thoughtless, tone deaf and premature hagiography of Michelle Obama. (Yes, the real subject here is not the marriage but Michelle. Surprise.)

You don’t have to be a raving fringe political lunatic (Liz Cheney comes to mind) to notice that even though Ms Kantor’s aim is to illuminate how the Obamas “mix politics and romance in a way that no first couple have before,” her tiresome analysis (and dubious premise) is short on history and long on the two-married-professionals-with-children cliches better suited to the ilk of celebrity rags and television chat shows.

And you don’t have to be Virginia Woolf to know that intelligent and ambitious  women have historically sacrificed so the men in their lives get ahead. (Wo)Man bites dog circa 1929.


Compared with the two most obvious political high wire duo marriages of the last century,  The Kennedys and the Clintons, The Obama’s balancing act comes off as cotidian. (Perhaps that’s the way in which it it’s “modern,”  by which Ms Kantor surely means contemporary, but as I said history is not her forte.)

There’s nothing here  that any one of us out here in a long term relationship hasn’t experienced and nothing newsworthy about the balancing act all of us have to achieve in  life once we grow up and realize that balance and compromise (if we’re lucky) is all there is. The Obamas spent a lot of time apart when Barack ran for political office. They weren’t making a lot of money. They couldn’t all be there for the girls’ activities.  Barack thought he could go it alone. Michelle never signed up to be a political wife. Michelle’s character and support were invaluable to Barack’s success. Yada yada yada.

You mean to tell us, Ms Kantor, that Pat Nixon knowingly signed on for the disgrace of Watergate? Laura Bush for the the alcoholism and coke fueled benders? Hillary for the public infidelities? Nancy Reagan for the 10 years of home nursing? Jackie Kennedy for the blood splattered head of her husband in her lap?

It simply does not occur to Ms Kantor that,  given what could possibly go wrong in a  political marriage, the way she portrays the Obama’s marriage as a  shiny new model of “modernity” just a year into the job, she’s completely overreaching.

Her obtuseness reaches its nadir when she walks “into the Hyde Park apartment the Obama’s bought when they married, hoping to find clues to their old lives. The cramped master bedroom,” she proudly observes, “had a closet barely big enough for one wardrobe. Where did Michelle keep her clothes?” Excuse  me?

The marriage of Jacqueline Bouvier into the crass Kennedy clan was seminal to the political career of JFK. So even if we start there, the very notion that Mrs Obama was intent on upscaling her husband’s office space, his venues for public appearances  and ultimately humanizing him by appearing in public and speaking on his behalf speaks both to the naivete of Ms Kantor and to the valuable image savvy of Mrs Obama.

The wide latitude that Mrs Obama can enjoy in her role  as First Lady, is in no small part due to the trailblazing legacy of Hillary Clinton, so it’s snarky on the part of Ms Kantor to  both oversimplify the comparisons between the Clintons and the Obamas and then to take cheap shots at Mrs Clinton’s expense. “While the Clinton marriage seems forged in shared beliefs about the promise of politics, the Obama union has been a decades-long debate about whether politics could be an effective avenue for social change.” Clinton bad. Obama good. Got it. Thanks.

She continues: Michelle “also played a vital role in heading off the most promising female candidate in United States history. It was essential for the Obama campaign to present some sort of accomplished female counterweight to Hillary Clinton, to convince Democratic women that they could vote for Barack Obama and a powerful female figure besides. Consciously or not, Michelle made herself into an appealing contrast to the front-runner. She was candid; Hillary was often guarded. Michelle represented the idea that a little black girl from the South Side of Chicago could grow up to be first lady of the United States; Hillary stood for the hold of the already-powerful on the political system. And Michelle seemed to have the kind of marriage many people might aspire to; Hillary did not.”

And then there’s this. Kantor reports that “as a first-time candidate, Barack could be stiff; friends remember him talking to voters with his arms folded, looking defensive. Michelle warmed everyone up, including her husband. “She is really Bill, and he is really Hillary,” one friend recently put it.” We get it. She’s not Hillary.

As I was reading the essay I was reminded how much of the seriously misguided effort by Ms Kantor could easily be remade as  a screwball comedy, let’s just say the George Cukor classic 1939 film of Clare Boothe Luce’s play The Women. It would take  some time to figure out which First Lady and in which way Ms Kantor has maligned whom so I could align them with the the cast of the film, but I think it could be done.

Jungle red mother.

August 25, 2009

Why Michelle Obama descended Air Force One in shorts, white sneakers and hair undone

tom_kolovos_wordpressnewIt wasn’t Michelle Obama at all.

It was actually Meryl Streep playing Michelle Obama in the new movie “Michel and Michelle.”

It’s a breezy yet moody  psychological thriller about how the ghost of Michel Foucaultreads aloud, and in French, to Mrs. Obama from “The Birth of the Clinic,” his 1963 tract on the history of the medical profession, hoping to inform health care reform in 21st century America.

Reports have circulated that the filmakers, who also borrowed liberally from Foucault’s “Civilization and Madness”  and “The History of Sexuality,”  were forced by studio executives to compromise their artistic vision in order to make it accessible to a multiplex audience.

The footage  of Ms Streep descending Air Force One was actually part of the movie’s penultimate scene, which was leaked on YouTube, according to sources who refused to  be identified because they were not authorized to speak  by Lynn Cheney, whose daughter was “not a lesbian” before the 2000 election but was having sex with women during that time.

Sources  close to the production have disclosed that the film  begins where “The Crying Game” left off.  Ms Streep’s character discovers that her husband really doesn’t have the balls to take on the banking industry and  that as a consequence the White House is facing foreclosure. The ghost, to which her husband is oblivious, persuasively makes the case that the health care reform he seeks is unpopular  not because people are losing their minds but because people who have insurance are losing (or feel like they yet may lose) their homes.

In order to escape the French ghost which haunts her and  to protect her family from the deadly apathy of her husband’s economic team (which she finds in bed with the banking industry) she takes refuge in  the only other home a First Lady knows: Air Force One.

Thinking she is safe up at 30,000 feet after Harrison Ford kills the French philosopher’s ghost  with venomous snakes he and Samuel  Jackson find on board, she must still enlist the help of Jodie Foster and  wisecracking flight attendant/TSB agent Mo’Nique to hermetically seal Sasha and Malia (both of whom are played by Dakota Fanning) in one of the aircraft’s lavatories, away from an  overbearing Ikram Goldberg who is fiendishly spoiling the girls with boxes upon boxes of delicious candy colored  Crewcuts outfits.

After Ms Fanning drives Ikram mad by revealing that she is  both Mile High Cyrus and her alter ego Hanna Colorado, she retaliates against her mother and forces her to dress like Ms Foster’s  travel “companion.”   Eventually she takes pity on her mother and allows her to remove the Mellisa Etheridge concert baseball cap, which has now irrevocably messed up Ms Streep’s heretofore impeccably yet incomprehensibly appointed big hair.

The film reaches its climactic moment as Ms Streep forgives the girls and just as Air Force One lands at the Grand Canyon, where they all happily descend the aircraft, blithely unaware that the dreaded  Ikram has not been vanquished!

In an astonishing denouement–or more likely  a crass marketing setup for the sequel–the woman Sasha and Malia really drove mad was Sarah Jessica Parker, who had assembled an Ikram Goldberg disguise made out of the factory overruns from her “Bitten” collection (for the now defunct  Steve and Barry’s discount chain) and  about which she is still telling anyone who will listen that they were categorically not made in sweatshops.

Mrs Cheney did authorize sources to reveal that Ms Parker will be played in the film by Sally Field, circa 1979.

January 22, 2009

Inaugural Fashion: Beyond the Clothes


The real news about Michelle Obama’s fashion choices for the Inauguration is not, ironically,  in the details you will surely not be able to avoid today but in the larger picture you might have already missed.

As of yesterday, there is a very good case to be made that, amid the rumors about whether Anna Wintour, the uber poweful editrix of Vogue magazine is about to be replaced,  America’s new First Lady is now the de facto most important and powerful  champion of American fashion.

Only fashion insiders keep score of Ms. Wintour’s  conspicuously short list of designers for whom she serves as cheerleader in chief. (Well, okay, those on the longer list for whom she does not cheerlead keep  even closer score.) The average American consumer, and dare I say even but the most attentive of Vogue readers, can’t tell you who curries her favor and who doesn’t. Read Cathy Horyn‘s excellent New York Times piece  “Citizen Anna” if you need to catch up.

By contrast, women all over the country and the world, can tell you not only which designers and brands  Mrs. Obama favors (J CrewWhite House Black Market, Maria Pinto, Narciso RodriguezMaria Cornejo),  but wait with baited breath for whom she will add to her expanding list of favorites. Anna Winour may be an  elite kingmaker behind the scenes, but Michelle Obama is a populist kingmaker who can  make household names out of relatively obscure designers like Maria Pinto and, as she surely did yesterday, with Jason Wu and Isabel Toledo.[picapp src=”c/7/f/0/8c.JPG?adImageId=4876749&imageId=3817303″ width=”500″ height=”612″ /]

But she can also make merchandise  fly out of showrooms and store shelves, in large part because like people of real  contemporary style she is adept at navigating  and mixing high and low pricepoints  with  enviable ease. In the current dismal retail environment, Mrs. Obama’s power is, as Guy Trebay reports, remarkably important, whether you’re courting favor by impressing her with your merchandise at the mall or by knowing Ikram Goldberg, the influential Chicago retailer who  (unofficially but  with glaring  business savvy –and Isabel Toledo and Jason Wu inventory!) has the First Lady’s ear.

This is not to say that all of her  fashion choices are always right. She has made plenty of mistakes but that is to be expected of anyone who goes out of their way to think (or in this case, dress) out of the box. When you take risks, as long as more of your risks pay off big, the risks which dont are easily overshadowed.

As for the clothes she wore yesterday, here’s my take: the  color of the Isabel Toledo ensemble was beautiful and extremely flattering (which is what I think people are responding to when they rave about how good she looked) but apart from that, if you added a handbag and goofy hat, it was essentially a Princess Margaret outfit or a mother of the bride outfit.

The Narciso Rodriguez designed  camel skirt, black silk blouse and black silk lined camel coat she wore to the concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday was the real show stopper of the Inaugural events.

Right down to the belt, earings hair and makeup , I don’t think I have ever  seen her look more chic and sophisticated. (Both designer and client needed to right the wrong of the election night dress in Grant Park and what a more fitting place to do it than in front of Lincoln.  Irony noted. Apology accepted.)

The Jason Wu gown was a clearly a labor of love and craftmanship as it was in naivite. Its color choice certainly brought to mind the inaugural choices of the two chicest First Lady’s of the 2oth century, Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan.[picapp src=”4/5/f/8/7b.JPG?adImageId=4876756&imageId=3666832″ width=”380″ height=”268″ /]

As far as Inaugural ballgowns go, it was one of the best ever, if that can be considered a compliment.  But it  also came dangerously close to looking like a wedding dress. The train made it visibly awkward to dance in, and even a casual viewer of Project Runway would easily and gleefully point out that is not a minor flaw in a ball gown.  Finally, I’m not convinced that a column dress of such volume  was the most flattering choice for her figure.

That said, the good news is really that this is only the beginning of her look for formal events on the international stage and it was impressive enough. She’s  already proven that she can engage both the public and the design world with her choices. I hear they both send  their best wishes for a picture perfect marriage of style and politics.

June 19, 2008

Michelle Obama and “the view”

Oh my, how times (and The Times) have changed. Or maybe they haven’t. I wish Amy Spindler were still alive to sort through all of this for me.

It’s been 46 years since 1962, when Corole King wrote “He hit me and it felt like a kiss,” and 2008 when Leona Lewis sang the megahit “You cut me and I keep bleeding love.” Somewhere during that time there was a women’s movement(?).

photo by Steve Fenn/ABCIt’s been been 46 years between Jacqueline Kennedy’s 1962 televised tour of the White House and Michelle Obama’stour de force guest host appearance yesterday in a White House Black Market dress (retail value $150) on ABC’s “The View.”

Yesterday, Michelle Obama definitively made it clear to her critics– with humor, warmth and (dare I say it) that dress— that they better move on to an easier target.

If you listen to the conventional view, Ms. Obama has an image problem. Yesterday’s New York Times ran the front page story “After Attacks, Michelle Obama Looks for a New Introduction.”

She more than found that introduction on “The View,” where she was able to make good on her remark at the end of the article: “You know, if someone sat in a room with me for five minutes after hearing these rumors, they’d go ‘huh?’ They’d realize it doesn’t make sense.”

I won’t rehash the unfounded criticisms leveled against her–read for yourself, from any source you’d like–but I will put them in context for you.

I told USA Today last fall that “this is an election, maybe the first one since Kennedy-Nixon, where appearance really does matter. Because we have credible female, black, Hispanic candidates, style and substance may actually be competitive, or even equally important to the public.”

Comparisons to Jack and Jackie abound for Barak and Michelle. He gets compared to JFK for his political style and she to Jackie for her sense of style.

Last week, The Times ran the article “She dresses to Win” by Guy Trebay in its Style section. Mr. Trebay points out correctly that on the night her husband clinched the Democratic nomination “what grabbed the eye was the sleeveless purple silk crepe sheath made for Mrs. Obama by Maria Pinto.” She did indeed look stunning in that dress.

“But it was particularly the color Michelle Obama chose Tuesday night that seemed symbolically rich, even if its message may have been so subtle as to be subliminal.” The article makes the arguably misguided attempt to point out that that, despite the dress’ $900 price tag, purple might have been the color of choice because it is the color achieved by mixing blue and red (states, get it?).

I say arguably misguided because even I instantly thought that the populist, budget conscious, black and white sleeveless number she wore on “The View” was worn with such drop-dead-gorgeous-sans-culottesinsouciance and was, therefore, so deliciously subversively ironic that it couldn’t have been accidental. Could it?

What I do know is that, while a woman of such accomplishment as Michelle Obama can be lauded for understanding the power of dressing, she cannot simplistically be reduced to the choices of her outfits. Yes, we all want to be considered people of substance and style. But, take it from someone who gets paid to make this call, it is a dangerous mistake to think that style is ever a lasting substitute for substance. Yes, it’s an advantage if you know how to use it to your benefit but that advantage has its limits.

I do wish the dimwits who were responsible for the film version of “Sex and the City” understood this. As Manohlia Dargis put it in her deservedly scathing review of the movie, “It isn’t that Carrie has grown older or overly familiar. It’s that awash in materialism and narcissism, a cloth flower pinned to her dress where cool chicks wear their Obama buttons, this It Girl has become totally Ick.”

And speaking of it, I’ve never been able to resist the opportunity to tell the following story because it is, well, irresistable. And suddenly pithy.

Three years ago, at a party given by Barney’s to benefit the Comer Children’s Hospital, Michelle Obama and the designer Narciso Rodriguez were the guests of honor. At that party I introduced her to Mr. Rodriguez as “the wife of Senator Obama.” She graciously corrected me by addressing Mr. Rodriguez: “Hello. I’m Michelle. I also work for the Children’s Hospital. Actually, I wear many hats.”

Thinking he’d get the joke I was about to make, I turned to Mr. Rodriquez and said “Do you make hats?” Perplexed, he looked at me and then at Michelle and said “No, but I can make you some really beautiful suits.” (I still wonder if he ever got the joke.)

The problem her critics have with Michelle Obama is that she is a woman of both style and substance. She is the coolest chick in the country wearing an Obama button.

In 2008, why is that such a bee in our collective bonnet when it should be a feather in her cap?