No doubt about it, Michelle Obama’s on a roll right now, coming fresh off her triumphant G-20 It Girl World Tour: Hugging the Queen. Swarmed by schoolgirls in London. Air-kissing Carla Bruni Sarkozy. The Daily Beast’s Tina Brown asks, “Is Michelle the New Oprah?” and compares her to Princess Di. She’s been dubbed the hugger in chief, Mighty Michelle, a first lady whose popularity soars with a 72 percent approval rating. And now, she’s been immortalized in wax, standing right alongside her husband at Madame Tussauds in Washington, D.C.
The basic details of her face, though not quite pretty enough, are there: the curve of her nose, the almond tilt of the eyes, the radiant smile. Her normally bouncing bob is a little stiff, not surprising, since it’s a statue. The pearls are there, along with the trademark sleeveless dress and cardigan. All in all, it’s Michelle Obama.
But what’s up with the café-au-lait shading? The wax first lady looks a good couple of shades lighter than her biracial husband. She’s immortalized in a honey hue that has absolutely, positively, nothing to do with her richly mahogany reality.
Granted, wax renderings seem to be a fairly imprecise art—Dubya’s doppelganger isn’t exactly a match. And you might not recognize Brad Pitt if his wax statue were not standing next to Angelina Jolie. But waxy Michelle seems like a more troubling revisionist remaking.
There were hints of this, earlier, when American designers trotted out their visions for Michelle’s inaugural ball gown. With few exceptions, sketch after sketch showed the first lady-to-be completely pigment-free. It’s as though the designers were still struggling to come to grips with something that they’d never dealt with before.
That Tussauds could get the first lady so wrong is puzzling. There are plenty of other suitably chocolaty wax figures in the chain of museums around the world, from Whoopi Goldberg to Martin Luther King to Biggie Smalls. The problem is clearly not in the mix. So why not render the first lady in all her brown beauty?
Like it or not, the first black first lady’s skin tone comes wrapped in all kinds of cultural significance and four centuries’ worth of emotional baggage. There is a growing canon of essays on the potency of Michelle Obama’s dark brown presence. That Barack picked her, a straight-no-chaser, black woman, endeared him to African-American women around the country.
Sure, Mrs. Obama’s undiluted blackness has been intimidating to some, seen as too threatening, angry, even alien. The New Yorker’s failed attempt at satirizing such perceptions played out in a controversial cover depicting the then-aspiring first lady as a dark-skinned, fist-bumping, Angela Davis ‘fro-wearing terrorist/radical. But somewhere along the way—perhaps it was that speech at the Democratic Convention—that perception muted, softened, and the country began to fall in love.
Last week’s whirlwind European tour proved that the world thinks Michelle is quite fabulous, thank you, in all of her natural brown glory.
Somehow Madame Tussauds missed the memo. Having your visage frozen in wax is proof positive that you’ve arrived, that you’ve carved out a little niche for yourself in the annals of history. Too bad Michelle Obama had to be frozen in someone else’s skin.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.