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Michelle Obama is the most pop culture–friendly first lady in history. That isn’t an accident.

“First you get them to laugh, then you get them to listen.”

Michelle Obama + Sesame Street = media success
PBS

Michelle Obama might seem like an unlikely cover subject for an entertainment magazine, but as Variety proves in an in-depth look at the first lady’s media presence, there’s a reason why and how she’s become such a prominent figure in her own right.

As Obama’s launched her own initiatives — like anti-obesity campaign Let’s Move and educational project Let Girls Learn — a large part of her strategy to gain support has been to embrace the power of pop culture to raise awareness of more than just those who are already keyed into the political news cycle.

“'Where are the people?’” Obama says she asked herself. “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.”

And so she turned to TV shows that are wide-ranging in genres and audiences, from CBS’s NCIS to Nickelodeon’s iCarly to NBC’s The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. She rocked out to the song Diane Warren wrote for Let Girls Learn — “Let’s Hear It for the Girls” — on James Corden’s carpool karaoke, which boosted sales by a stunning 1,562 percent.

While she says she knows some might find the segments she appears in silly — most especially her weirdo turn on Billy Eichner’s decibel-shattering game show Billy on the Street — Obama’s also firm in her belief that humor is one of the fastest ways to connect with someone, whether in person or through a TV screen. “My view is, first you get them to laugh,” she says, “then you get them to listen.”

Obama recognizes that she’s “a product of pop culture.” When she was 10, she tells Variety, The Mary Tyler Moore Show made her realize that a single woman could prize her career and not need a husband at the end of the tunnel. Today, she says, she fervently believes in the power of pop culture to show people lives they might not have considered before — or to validate the lives they’re already living.

“For so many people, television and movies may be the only way they understand people who aren’t like them,” Obama says. “I come across many little black girls who [have] come up to me over the course of this 7½ years with tears in their eyes, and they say: ‘Thank you for being a role model for me. I don’t see educated black women on TV, and the fact that you’re first lady validates who I am.’”

That awe at seeing anyone remotely like herself represented in media is why she believes media that shows a wider range of experiences to be so important:

We’re not new. We’re not special. People who come from intact families who are educated, who have values, who care for their kids, who raise their kids — if you don’t see that on TV, and you don’t live in communities with people like me, you never know who we are, and you can make and be susceptible to all sorts of assumptions and stereotypes and biases, based on nothing but what you see and hear on TV. So it becomes very important for the world to see different images of each other, so that, again, we can develop empathy and understanding.

…that is particularly true in a country where there are still millions of people who live in communities where they can live their whole lives not having contact or exposure with people who aren’t like them, whether that is race or religion or simply lifestyle. The only way that millions of people get to know other folks and the way they live … is through the power of television and movies.”

You can read the rest of the deep dive into Michelle Obama’s relationship with media in Variety.