PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – The fan's voice is urgent, her eyes wild. She is 40 years old but shrieking like a teenager.
“SIGN MY BIBLE! Can you sign my Bible?” Nzati Mbengi begs, waving the book over her head as she and the crowd surge forward.
The star is unrattled, flashing her dazzling smile, clasping the fans’ outstretched hands with her perfectly manicured fingers. She snatches the book and scribbles her initials.
Mbengi lifts the Bible up and wails, then plants her lips on the cover. She has an autograph from … MICHELLE OBAMA!
Yes, Michelle Obama. The 44-year-old soccer mom, whose appeal is centered squarely on her plain-talking, keepin’-it-real persona, has become a rock star.
It's a weird place to be, especially for a woman whose stump speech on behalf of her husband, Barack, is all about the plight of the Everyman, her modest upbringing on Chicago's South Side, her struggles as a working mother.
She knows it's weird. She says as much to crowd after crowd: “I am not supposed to be here.”
Yet here she is, the woman of the man of the people, who just happened to make Vanity Fair's best-dressed list, who lives in a $1.65 million mansion, who recently left a $212,000-a-year job as a hospital executive to help her husband's presidential campaign.
But forget about all that. Ask fans what they love about her and they rattle off words like funny, classy, smart. Most of all: “Real.”
It would be easy to dismiss the Michelle mania as a spillover of adulation for her celebrity husband. But read the signs at rallies that bear only her name, watch people laugh and cry over her words, and it's clear plenty are here for her. She's pulling in crowds of up to 2,500 – on her own.
“She's not like a plastic talking head the way that some of them can be,” Kimberly Sorrell, 41, says as she waits at the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick for her to arrive during campaigning last month for the primary there. “She's an actual person, a real person.”
At times, she’s been a little too real for some. Comments tweaking her husband have drawn criticism. And his campaign had to do major damage control when many took offense after a comment – misinterpreted, she said – about whether she was proud of her country.
She has learned from both the cheers and the boos as she goes about a whirlwind schedule that has utterly changed her life.
The morning after the rally, her brother, Craig Robinson, head basketball coach at Brown University in Providence, sits in a Starbucks pondering the previous night's pandemonium.
Not long ago, Michelle was known as “Craig Robinson's sister.” Now, he is “Michelle Obama's brother.”
“Surreal is almost like an understatement,” he says. “It's magical, is what it is. I mean, it's like going to sleep and waking up and you're Tinkerbell.”
In the beginning, Michelle Obama worried about what a presidential run would do to her family. And, as with everything in her life, if it was going to be done, it had to be done right.
How would it play out? As a kid, she walked out on her brother's basketball games if the score was close.
Once persuaded, her introduction to the public was gradual. She opened for her husband at events, but her remarks were brief.
Everything changed last April at an event in Chicago. She talked about her exhausting juggling act of campaign travel, work and parent-teacher conferences.
“And to top it off, I have the pleasure of doing it all in front of the watchful eyes of our friends in the back,” she said, gesturing toward the press. “What's up, people?”
“But other than that, things haven't changed much.”
The crowd loved it. And as their laughter faded, she segued into what would become a theme in her speeches.
“With the exception of the campaign trail and life in the public eye, I have to say that my life now is really not that much different from many of yours. I wake up every morning, wondering how on the earth I'm going to pull off that next minor miracle to get through the day.”
She began appearing solo, connecting to audiences on the premise that she was like them, felt their pain – and her husband could make it better.
Her stump speech offers a grim analysis of American life. She talks of her blue-collar beginnings and overcoming the odds, how some told her she didn't have the grades to go to
Princeton, but go she did – and later to Harvard Law. At the end, she tells the crowds they need her husband now.
Despite the sober themes, she's fun to watch. And she's a hugger. At a recent event, she repeatedly ignores the pleas of aides who tell her it's time to go. Instead, she pulls the breathless strangers close, stares deep into their eyes, nods empathetically as they share their struggles.
Could this just be a carefully calibrated political package?
No, says friend Yvonne Davila, who insists Michelle Obama's “real” is real. “She is you, she is me, she is everybody,” Davila says.
It was in Iowa that campaign aides began calling her “The Closer” for her ability to secure votes. At a speech in Muscatine, most of the crowd was undecided when they walked in. Half signed supporter cards when they walked out.
She has a soft spot. During her husband's recent speech responding to criticism of their church pastor's racial remarks, she was near tears.
Her hair flip, pearls and sleeveless shift dresses have drawn comparisons to Jackie Kennedy. So has her promise of something different and exciting.
But where Jackie was demure, Michelle is bold. And Michelle didn't come from money.
“Deep down inside, I'm still that little girl who grew up on the South Side of Chicago,” she told a New Hampshire crowd in January. “I am a product of that experience through and through. Everything that I think about and do is shaped around the life that I lived in that little apartment in that bungalow that my father worked so hard to provide for us.”
She is the product of her father's ideals, the lessons he taught her when she was Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, those who know her say.
Fraser Robinson worked swing shifts at the city water plant. Mother Marian stayed home to raise the kids. Michelle and Craig slept in the living room, which their grandfather converted into two tiny bedrooms and a small study area.
Fraser was revered. Despite a limp from multiple sclerosis, he never missed work. Marian doled out corporal punishment, but Fraser punished with The Look. Seeing disappointment in his eyes made them weep.
Fraser had plenty of lessons: The empty drum beats the loudest. Don't let others dictate what you think about yourself. Whatever you do, do it well.
By the time Fraser died in 1990, his daughter was working at a Chicago corporate law firm, where she'd begun dating an intern named Barack Obama.
Boyfriends never met her high expectations, her brother says. She “fired ‘em fast.”
Obama was different. She loved the easy way he connected with people. They have been married 15 years and have two daughters, Malia, 9, and Sasha, 6.
Motherhood had to be done right. Soon after Sasha was born, Michelle snagged an interview with Michael Riordan, then president and chief executive of the University of Chicago Medical Center. One problem: She didn't have a baby sitter. So she brought Sasha with her.
“It probably demonstrated early on what her priorities were gonna be,” Riordan says today. “And sometimes, family was gonna go first.”
But as open as she is about her personal life, Michelle brushes off questions about what her platform as first lady would be. Her staff rebuffed multiple requests to interview her for this article, citing scheduling demands.
She has a temper, though those who know her say she gets it under control quickly.
“I have never been on the receiving end of her temper, and I'm really grateful for that,'' friend Verna Williams says with a laugh.
Not everybody loves her anecdotes about her husband's imperfections: he's “snore-y and stinky'' in the morning, he forgets to put away the butter. She says she's just trying to keep people from deifying him.
“You really can't censor her,” friend Valerie Jarrett says. “And I can't imagine anyone would try.”
Her bluntness has earned her fans – and trouble. Some labeled her unpatriotic after she told a Milwaukee audience, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country.”
She later said she meant that she was proud of how Americans were engaging in the political process. But the comment energized opponents.
Speculation ran rampant about her senior thesis when Princeton restricted access to it. The campaign eventually released the 1985 document, which details her feelings of alienation from white students.
“I have found that at Princeton no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my White professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus,” she wrote. “As if I really don't belong.”
Standing well over 6 feet (1.8 meters) in her heels, she towers over nearly everyone in the ballroom of a Providence hotel.
She's closing her speech with the story of a little girl she met in South Carolina who told her Obama’s run for the presidency meant she could imagine anything for herself. The girl, she says, began to cry.
There's a collective “awww” from the audience.
“You know why I know what that little girl is feeling?'' she says. “Because she was me. See, because I am NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE.”
She finishes and the crowd leaps to its feet applauding.
“I could barely keep it together,” says Linda Newton, a working mother of two, as she blinks back tears. “Because it's a fundamentally different message. It's a message that resonates deep at your core, that you can identify with as a woman, as a mother, as someone who cares about people, someone who cares and believes in community.
“I'm gonna go write a check.”
The Closer indeed.