On Tuesday morning, more than 1,000 girls (and a multitude of Secret Service members, NYPD officers, and police dogs) gathered at Harlem’s Apollo Theater to see Michelle Obama IRL. Technically, the event was a star-studded panel on girls’ education worldwide, organized by Glamour magazine. But “Power of an Educated Girl” panel was all about Michelle—from the hundreds of tween and high school-aged girls in the audience who shrieked every time her name was uttered, to the battalion of journalists in the audience who couldn’t help hollering every time the first lady said something totally badass (spoiler alert: this was a fairly common occurrence).
As befits any event at the intersection of world leaders, celebrities, serious issues, Glamour magazine, and sponsor Maybelline New York, the decorating scheme at the Apollo was Elle Woods chic: pink lighting, plush chairs, and a classy bouquet placed by every panelist. As the majority female audience settled in, a PowerPoint presentation featuring young girls around the world flashed by on the screen, accompanied by the pounding beats of The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face.” Mistress of ceremonies and huge social media stan Sophia Bush took the stage to encourage the audience to live-tweet, Instagram and hashtag the show. The One Tree Hill actress alleged that “in high school I was a pretty big nerd” and linked her love of storytelling to her passion for English in grade school. Then, because education rocks and so does breakout Oslo duo Nico & Vinz, the two pop heartthrobs performed their hit single “Am I Wrong,” which they dedicated to all the “beautiful, strong, independent women” in the packed venue. Every girl in the audience quickly proceeded to lose her shit.
After insisting that women “run the show” and that “smart is sexy and beautiful and badass,” Bush ceded the mic to Glamour Editor-in-Chief and panel moderator Cindi Leive. The accomplished guests included former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, whom Leive described as “totally fierce,” 16-year-old student activist Nurfahada, and U.N. Messenger of Peace Charlize Theron, whom you may have heard of. Finally, FLOTUS entered to an Apollo-sized round of applause.
Theron stressed the important link between girls’ education and HIV prevention. As a South Africa native and founder of the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, the Oscar-winning actress stressed that this project is very personal; in South Africa, girls are eight times more likely to become infected than boys. She maintained that “education is a social vaccine against HIV.” In a plea for go-girl empowerment, the actress bemoaned the fact that, even in the U.S., young women are often treated as second- or even third-class citizens: “these girls are being forgotten…we should be enraged by it.” She emphasized the need for gratitude and for self-affirmation, insisting that “there is nothing sexier than a smart woman…we have been told to live by a certain mold; it’s time to break it.”
Despite light-hearted moments—explaining that she’s still a girl even with short hair, or advising her younger self to quit wearing shoulder pads—Theron wasn’t playing around when it came to gender inequality and female empowerment. The self-professed “farm girl from a small farm community” told the audience that “if you dream big, it can happen—so why not?”
“You’re worth it” was a recurring theme throughout the conversation. In addition to examining the implications of educating the 62 million girls around the world who are not in school, the panelists encouraged American girls to take full advantage of their educations and pursue the outer limits of their potential. The first lady opened up the conversation by saying that without her education, she “wouldn’t be here.” She catalogued her experience traveling three hours a day to get to her public high school in Chicago, and the financial struggles her parents faced funding her college education. After admitting that getting a good education can be a daunting endeavor even in the U.S., Obama emphasized how much harder it was for the 62 million girls worldwide who don’t even have access to primary school. After outlining the work that she and the president are undertaking through the “Let Girls Learn” initiative, Obama insisted that “we can never give up, we can’t afford to,” even if the work of equal opportunity and universal access to education takes generations.
But FLOTUS truly wowed the audience with the advice she would give to her younger self. She told the assembled teenagers that she felt their pain through the collected complaints of her daughters—that being a teenager is hard, that there are a lot of bad hair days, a lot of homework, and your mother is always around “getting on your nerves.” But according to your dream mom Michelle, “life is long,” and you shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff”: “don’t base your whole existence on a bad day…don’t hate school so much that you don’t stay with it.” Obama encouraged the audience to invest in their education now, so they can “beat the boys,” realize their full potential, and enjoy all the freedom that comes along with it. Plus, FLOTUS added, if you drop out of school, you’ll probably have to listen to your nagging mother forever. Very wise words.
More Michelle-isms included the gem “you don’t want to be with a boy who’s too stupid to appreciate a smart young woman,” and her sage advice to “clean your house” of anyone who’s hanging around and dragging you down—whether it’s “your boo or your best friend.” But Obama truly brought down the house with some straight talk for any young girl who’s more preoccupied with getting her “Mrs.” than her Ph. D: “If I had worried about who liked me or who was cute at your age, I wouldn’t be married to the President of the United States.”