Chances are, Allison Samuels is your favorite Black celebrity’s favorite journalist. The award-winning writer for Newsweek and The Daily Beast has interviewed many top sports and entertainment figures throughout her 16-year-career. But a series of interviews with one of the most celebrated First Ladies in history inspired her latest book, the empowering guide for young women, “What Would Michelle Obama Do?”
Drawing from her conversations with the First Lady of the United States and in-depth research into all things Michelle, Ms. Samuels not only gives readers the inside scoop on Michelle’s beauty and fashion secrets, readers are also treated to a step-by-step guide to living a fabulous and purposeful life – just like Michelle.
In an interview with EBONY.com, Ms. Samuels dished on her best and worst celebrity interviews and why she believes it’s time for all of the Housewives of Basketball to have a seat and let Michelle Obama be the role model for today’s young women.
EBONY: Your book is so much more than a biography of Michelle Obama’s life. You have her tips for friendship and romance in there and you explain how to network in business and social settings like Michelle and you even provide advice on how to deal with struggles like absentee fathers and racism. Why did you decide to structure this book as a guide as opposed to an insider look at the First Lady’s life?
ALLISON SAMUELS: Well, I can't take total credit for the idea. It grew from books on other classic and celebrated women, like “What would Jackie [Kennedy Onassis] Do?” And “What would Audrey [Hepburn] Do?” [Jackie and Audrey] were White and they thrived in a different time, but Michelle is a modern day woman living this amazing life and so this book is for everyone who wants to know how she did it and what she's done to get to where she is now.
I started interviewing her [years ago] and I saw this inspiring, savvy, smart woman who is iconic like Jackie and Audrey, and definitely deserving of this kind of book. We have so many young girls today who look up to these women on so-called reality shows who are living in a fantasy world, when we have this real-life Black woman living in the White House living a real fairy tale with a great husband and father and beautiful kids. It’s like, why aren’t more people looking to her as their example?
EBONY: What do you think is the answer to that question? Why do you think so many young women look up to reality stars and consider those women’s lives to be more attainable than a life like the First Lady’s?
AS: I think, unfortunately, the dysfunction they see on reality shows mirrors the dysfunction they see in real life. I work at The Boys and Girls Club in South Central and that’s the only way I know what’s going on with these reality show women. The girls there don’t see happiness [in those shows], they don’t see that these women aren’t even with these basketball players anymore, they just see the money. They just want to be on T.V., too.
EBONY: So, when you’re working with these young girls in South Central, how do you respond to them when they’re telling you about reality stars and all the money and fame they have?
AS: I say, that Michelle has it all – and it’s not because she always had it all or got it from a man or saw images of other people doing things she wanted to do growing up. Michelle came from very humble beginnings and though she had a very strong family life and a devoted father, she started imagining greater things for herself than what her current circumstances provided for her. Other young girls can take that same mentality Michelle had and see something beyond what they’ve experienced. That’s why I wanted to write this book as a guide.
[In the book] I talk about getting beyond what you have and what you see. You have to read, do research, and find out, what creates a healthy relationship? What does that even look like? When Barack and Michelle were dating, they were always in church and hanging around older couples in the church who mentored them as their relationship grew. That’s important.
And it’s also important to know what does a “good man” even look like? When Michelle met Barack, she talks about the raggedy car he had. Would you look at that guy and think, “He's corny, he's broke,” or would you be like Michelle and look beyond that? He's smart. He's intelligent. He has a good character and the drive to actually bring his goals to reality. You have to look at those things and as women we have to start judging men by their characters. You have to take steps to figure that out how to do that, whether it’s taking the advice in this book and going even further and going to see a therapist to deal with these issues we might not even realize we have.
Yes it’s harder to do well when you don't have these standard things in your life. But like Michelle, you have to think, “How do I bring these things I need into my life?”
EBONY: You mentioned that you believe the women on these reality shows are unhappy people. What advice would you offer to them?
AS: My advice would be to get off T.V. and go get some help. Think about your children. Think about kids who watch those shows who totally take those things in. Understand you're negatively influencing a whole generation of children. You get in a fight in a restaurant on T.V., you don't go to jail. In real life you go to jail. Kids don't get that. These shows send those messages without giving the whole story. I have pictures of Michelle Obama that I hold up when the girls [at The Boys and Girls Club] start fighting. I ask them, What would Michelle do? That’s who they need to look up to.
EBONY: You’ve interviewed everyone from Oprah to Denzel. Who were your best and worst interviews?
Taye Diggs and Teddy Riley were the worst. I'm not sure what went wrong there but I got nothing from them. Most [interviews] go ok. That was one of those interviews I just don't know what happened. I think Teddy Riley might have just been going through something that day but Taye Diggs — I just got nothing. As a rule I am able to find a way to kind of connect with people. Aretha Franklin was a little cold at first, but as soon as I asked her about Sam Cooke, who she had had a crush on back in the day, she warmed right up! I love Aretha.
But, Eddie Murphy, I'd love to interview him again because he was such a great interview, such a great interview. Anything you asked him, he would answer it. He was very introspective and had no hesitation to admit the mistakes he’d made. It was 4 hour interview and I just love that he was so open and so willing to go there and talk about the people who had made him angry. It's rare that you have people that are that honest particularly at that level. I don’t think he’d do that same interview again today. I got him right before he shut down.
EBONY: In your research, what was something you were surprised to learn about Michelle?
AS: I wouldn’t necessarily call it surprise, but I'm amazed that, during the campaign, when she was told to soften up her image and lose the business suits and opt for dresses when she was criticized as being “too strong,” she just incredibly and quickly just sort of pulled back from that image. She changed on a dime. She became what he needed her to be in order to be President. She did not let her ego get in the way. She understood the end game and decided, “I'm going to do what it takes for my husband.” Just being able to do that and make that compromise and to see the big picture of how it benefits everyone when you're able to take a step back and put your ego aside, that was very admirable.
EBONY: As you said, Michelle “understood the end game,” and in your book you recommend that all women have an end game in order to have the life they dream of. What’s your end game?
I know I wrote a story the year that Denzel [Washington] won his Oscar and I think the story forced Hollywood to think twice about passing him up for that Oscar again and he thinks so too. My goal is to write stories that make a difference. I'm writing about entertainment, it's not world peace, but I hope it helps the industry understand that they cannot ignore African Americans or distort our images and if they do, there are people who will bring attention to it. I want to keep on playing a role in people like Denzel getting the respect they deserve.
Black women's roles in Hollywood and those images of us as women haven't changed, but I'll keep writing about it. I hope I’m remembered as someone who tried to advocate for women of color to get images of them on screen who reflect who we really are.