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Column: How Michelle Obama got real in San Diego: on being a woman, a mom and hosting White House slumber parties

FILE - In this June 22, 2018 file photo, former first lady Michelle Obama speaks at the American Lib
In this June 22, 2018 file photo, Michelle Obama speaks at the American Library Association annual conference in New Orleans. The former first lady was in San Diego on Sept. 19 as a keynote speaker at the BOLD Mindbody conference at the Hilton Bayfront San Diego hotel.

She told the 2,000 or so people in the Hilton San Diego Bayfront ballroom that they could all call her “Michelle.” And by the end of Michelle Obama’s hour-long keynote speech at the BOLD Mindbody Conference on Wednesday, it was easy to believe you were on first-name basis with the former first lady.

Oh, who are we kidding? It felt that way after about five minutes.

In town to support the fitness and wellness industry that she started championing while she was in the White House, Obama took the audience on a casual guided tour of her big life.

The journey started with her childhood growing up in an “itty-bitty” house on the South Side of Chicago, wound through her attempts to balance motherhood and high-stress jobs while her husband was out campaigning before bringing us to the surreal White House adventures that included wondering what her daughters could possibly be saying to the Pope.

She looked chic in her black pantsuit and strappy red heels, but when she talked about showing up to a job interview with daughter Sasha in her stroller, or the time her presidential husband pulled the ultimate dorky Dad move, Obama focused on the small, humane details that made being first lady sound not all that different from being any other working woman. The kind with too many balls in the air and not enough time in the day.

“One thing we do as women is, we beat up on ourselves,” Obama said during her on-stage conversation with Mindbody CEO and co-founder Rick Stollmeyer. “To do a good job, you feel like you have to go above and beyond. My message is, to give yourself a break.”

Easy for her to say, given that the road trip of her life made stops at Princeton (where she graduated cum laude), Harvard Law School, and the Chicago law firm where she ended up being the adviser for a summer intern named Barack.

The rest is history, but the former first lady did not make it feel like history.

“I just left with the feeling that she’s a real person. She’s just like us,” attendee Michole McBroom said after the talk, which ended with Obama promising to come back and the audience giving her a standing ovation.

“I loved that she said being a woman and a mom is not about being perfect. You know that being a mom is her highest priority, and that comes through in everything she says and does.”

When Stollmeyer asked her where the fire inside her comes from, Obama took the audience back to the house at “74th and Euclid” that her mom still owns. That is where Michelle and her older brother, Craig, grew up learning to express their opinions around a kitchen table covered with a plastic tablecloth that had “every single story of our lives on it.” Including the time somebody spilled Easter egg dye all over everywhere.

It was around that kitchen table that Michelle and Craig Robinson were encouraged to talk with their parents about anything and everything. And when the Obamas moved into the White House with Sasha and big sister Malia, they made a point of honoring that kitchen-table tradition. Although the tablecloth was a lot nicer, and a butler was in attendance.

“It was important that we made sure to give the girls a space that was just about them,” Obama said of the regular family meals in the White House. “Bin Laden was not invited to dinner. The financial crisis was not invited for dinner.”

There was room in her talk for humor. Like the eye-rolling time President Obama introduced Justin Bieber at a White House event and pronounced his last name wrong. Or when Michelle was talked into throwing one last slumber party on the night before the Obamas moved out and President Trump moved in.

“It is the morning of the inauguration, and I’ve got eight little girls ordering their favorite breakfasts. I see trays of food rolling into the bedrooms. I’m asking them how their parents are going to come pick them up when all the roads are closed. And then I’m scooting all of them out through the freight elevator because the Trumps are coming.”

Many of these stories will appear in Obama’s autobiography, “Becoming,” which is out on Nov. 13. It’s all about her, but when Stollmeyer asked her for details, she once again made it all about us.

“I say in the book, ‘It’s hard to hate up close,’” the former first lady said. “People can easily dehumanize people they feel is (an) ‘other.’ ‘Other’ happens when you don’t know a person’s story. When we attack people, we are attacking the unknown things about them.

“We are told that only rich people’s stories matter. Or only male stories matter. This book is a call for people to talk and share their stories with themselves and with each other.”

It’s her book, but the message is ours if we want to hear it.

Twitter: @karla_peterson

karla.peterson@sduniontribune.com