MOBama First Lady of Reality TV

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Going where no first lady has gone before, Michelle Obama plans to get sweaty with strangers in the East Room. Jewel Samad / AFP-Getty Images

This month, in a first for the Republic, Americans will have a chance to watch their first lady getting sweaty with a bunch of strangers in the East Room.

In a burst of synergy with the spring release of American Grown, her book about the White House garden, the food- and fitness-focused Michelle Obama is scheduled to appear on The Biggest Loser. In the first of two episodes, she welcomes the show’s weight-loss gladiators to the White House for a group workout.

The show’s get-fit theme fits brilliantly with MObama’s much-ballyhooed “Let’s Move” exercise campaign. This stop, however, is just the latest in a string of reality-TV stints for the first lady, who has done turns on Iron Chef, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and the self-improvement-themed Nate Berkus Show.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, news of these spots has sparked grumbling over Michelle’s associating herself with—and opening up the people’s house to—such a déclassé, exploitative species of media. That is precisely the genius of this move.

What is the most common knock on President Obama? He’s aloof, elitist, too exotic to relate to Real America. Well, nothing screams Real America more loudly than reality TV. The point of the genre is to let viewers gawk at the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of ordinary shmoes.

In this way the first lady’s reality cameos are, politically speaking, superior to her chit-chats with the likes of Leno, Letterman, Oprah, and Barbara. For starters, Michelle’s reality drop-ins can be more carefully controlled than your average interview. (No one still believes these shows are spontaneous, right?)

Talk shows are for celebrities. But reality TV—that’s for regular folks. Like Barack and Michelle.

Michelle Obama is hardly the first first lady to tap the media zeitgeist. In the 1980s, Nancy Reagan took her “Just Say No” crusade primetime, with cameos on Diff’rent Strokes and in the anti-drug music video “Stop the Madness.”

Just as Obama’s forays into reality TV capture the current media moment, so Reagan’s appearances reflected the flavor of her times, when the cherub-cheeked Gary Coleman was the toast of the small screen and the under-30 crowd ran around chanting “I want my MTV.”

Reagan’s Diff’rent Strokes spot in March 1983 packed a particularly big punch, landing her on the cover of TV Guide with her arm around Coleman. Such snuggly imagery was great PR for a first lady whose high style (remember the new-china and designer-frocks uproars?) earned her the moniker “Queen Nancy” and prompted unflattering comparisons between the Reagan White House and another TV icon of that era, Dynasty’s rich and vulgar Carrington clan.

Fifty years ago this February, Jackie Kennedy engaged in her own bit of media pioneering, conducting the first-ever televised tour of the White House. It was a PR tour de force: she too made the cover of TV Guide, a record audience of 80 million tuned in, and the first lady garnered an honorary Emmy.

The primary purpose of the telecast was to showcase the freshly restored mansion, a project close to the first lady’s heart. More broadly, the behind-the-scenes peek at presidential life fueled the nation’s love affair with its glamorous first family—especially the elegant Jackie.

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