Michelle Obama

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As soon as the 2008 US presidential campaign began it became clear [Barack Obama]'s wife Michelle fascinated commentators as much as the Oval Office contenders themselves. Such is her reputation as a cool operator her husband says: "If I ever had to run against her for public office, she would beat me without too much difficulty".

The two lawyers met in the summer 1989 when Michelle Robinson, as she was then, was asked to mentor her future spouse at a Chicago firm, where worked as an intellectual property specialist. "There was this buzz about this guy," she said. "And I remember thinking we probably had nothing in common - any black guy who came from Hawaii had to be weird."

She turned out to be wrong. They discovered they had plenty in common and became romantically involved. In 1992 they were married, and went on to have two girls, Malia in 1998 and Sasha three years later.

In political circles their union is regarded as the epitome of a modern partnership with all decisions taken jointly, including the choice to run for White House. "I never heard Barack say, 'I want to do it. Can you support me?'," remembered Valerie Jarrett, Michelle's former boss, now a close family friend and adviser. "Instead, they both asked themselves, 'Does this make sense for us?'."

Even so, nothing in Michelle's upbringing marked her out for a prominent role on the national stage. The future politician's wife was born January 17, 1964, in Chicago, Illinois, to Fraser Robinson, a pump operator for the city water plant department and Marian Shields, a stay-at-home mum who later became a secretary. The family home in the city's South Side area was a one-bedroom apartment.

Her parents were able to enrol their charismatic daughter in a school for gifted pupils, a path which led via Princeton and Harvard to a career in law. As a student at the prestigious Ivy League establishments Michelle recalls being shocked "by college students who drove BMWs", revealing "I didn't even know parents who drove BMWs."

The death of her adored father from multiple scelerosis in 1991, followed shortly after by the passing of her best friend at the age of 25 from breast cancer, led the high-flier to re-evaluate her priorities. Soon afterwards she switched from the law in favour of public and voluntary sector positions - latterly at the University of Chicago Hospital as the Vice President for Community and External Affairs.

When her husband set his sights on America's top office, she cut down her hours on the $273,000-job and made a commitment to be away overnight only once a week for the sake of their daughters.

The mother-of-two's public style is marked by an elegance that has earned her comparisons with Jacqueline Kennedy, and by extreme candour. Her husband can be "snorey and stinky " in the mornings she once informed would-be voters. To anyone who asks how an African-American from a modest home got so far she replies: "There's nothing magical about my background. I am not a super genius. (I just had) that perfect storm of good parents, self-esteem and good teachers."
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