How normal will life be for Obama girls?: The public is fascinated by famous tweens Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7
NEW YORK - They're only 10 and 7, and already designers are angling to dress them. They've been on the cover of People and Us Weekly. And there's that standing invitation — unlikely though it is to be redeemed — to the set of "Hannah Montana."
Malia and Sasha Obama are unquestionably the world's most famous tweens, and they haven't even moved into the White House yet. When they arrive, do they have even a chance at the normal existence their parents have often said they want for them?
A look at history suggests that the media, at least, will keep their distance. Chelsea Clinton, 13 when she entered the White House, was largely left alone at the request of her parents. Amy Carter, who came at age 9, was allowed to live a fairly normal life. And the much younger Kennedy kids were kept from the public glare by their mother, Jackie, who even set up a school for Caroline at the White House.
But this is a different world, one where photos and video can be snapped not just by mainstream photographers but anyone with a cell phone, and uploaded to the Web within minutes. It's also a world where kids, now a powerful consumer force, eagerly devour news about celebrities closer to their own age: Miley Cyrus, for example, or the "High School Musical" bunch.
Are the Obama girls celebrities in their own right?
"If you're talking about people who fascinate the public, then yes, absolutely," says Larry Hackett, managing editor of People, which has featured the Obama family on its cover three times. "But if you mean celebrity in the sense that we can cover their every move, then no. These are kids."
Public fascination with the girls
Figuring out just how public the Obama girls can and should be, Hackett says, will be a tricky process not just for the media but for the Obama family.
"I think the Obamas are clearly aware there's a fascination with the girls and how they're going to lead their lives," Hackett says. "They're going to try to chart a course."
Though the Obama girls weren't constant fixtures on the campaign trail, they were hardly invisible, either. They occasionally appeared at rallies, spoke onstage to a video image of their father at the Democratic convention, and, with their parents, gave an interview to "Access Hollywood," a move Obama later said he regretted.
"I think that we got carried away in the moment," he said. "We wouldn't do it again."
Yet the girls, who captured many hearts with their poised, joyful, color-coordinated appearance on election night in Chicago, were clearly an asset to Obama the candidate, says Janice Min, editor of Us Weekly.
"These images of the Obama kids have been incredibly heartwarming," says Min. "No one could doubt that these were great parents, and that they have great girls."
But now, says Min, "it's time for business, and I expect there will be far fewer pictures." Except, of course, for the inauguration — "everybody wants to see them in something super-cute" — and perhaps a flurry of activity whenever their hotly awaited puppy makes his or her arrival.
A normal childhood
Certainly, there will be slip-ups, no matter how protective the Obamas try to be. Paparazzi shots of a shirtless Obama on a Hawaii beach were one thing, but those of daughter Sasha in a blue bikini may have been another — at least according to some angry commenters on the photo agency's Web site.
But once safely in the White House, the girls will be well protected and nurtured, says Ann Stock, who was White House social secretary during the Clinton administration.
"Will there be the occasional photo? I'm sure. But the people around these girls are going to work very hard to let them go about their routines," says Stock, now at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Can the girls live a normal life, or close to it? Stock, who watched Chelsea Clinton spend her preteen years in the White House, thinks they can. "I know it can work," she says. "Chelsea went to her ballet rehearsals. Then she came home, did homework, ate dinner with her parents, went to bed."
"You try very hard to make their lives be a childhood," says Stock. She remembers the White House ushers setting up a scavenger hunt for Chelsea when she came, so she could get to know the place.
And the Obama family is starting with one huge advantage over the past few years: Dinner together, every night. "Remember, essentially they're living above the store," says Stock. "They'll see each other seven days a week."
We know the Obama girls like their dance classes, their soccer, their sleepovers. Those will likely continue. And surely we can expect President Obama, like candidate Obama, to never miss a parent-teacher conference at the private Sidwell Friends school.
Former White House curator Betty Monkman recalls the little Amy Carter, famous for once reading a book at a state dinner, engaging in lots of the normal activities of childhood — like hanging out in a tree house designed by her dad, or carving pumpkins with friends.
"I think they had enjoyable lives," says Monkman of Amy and the other White House children she came to know during 30 years there. "Their families worked hard at it. Their fathers were there probably more than before. The media was not too invasive."
In the shadow of the White House
One author on presidential children has a somewhat more pessimistic view. In "All the President's Children," Doug Wead, a former aide to President George H.W. Bush, details the various difficulties he says White House children have experienced later in their lives. Not least of them, he says, is an identity crisis.
"Most White House children live in the shadow of the White House for the rest of their lives," says Wead. "For all their accomplishments, they are forever defined by something they said or did there."
If that's true, it could be one reason why so many White House children decline now to speak to the media, Carter and Clinton among them. But it's not a problem the Obama girls will be facing anytime soon.
First, they'll have to make new friends. At school, one can assume that neither Malia nor Sasha will be the odd girl out.
"You're probably not going to be the picked-on girl," jokes Min, of Us Weekly. "You're already going in as the queen bee."
On the other hand, even that can be difficult, says Carol Weston, an author of books for young girls and the advice columnist for Girls' Life magazine.
"I don't think they'll get left out of anything," says Weston. "But you want to feel you're invited because you're you, not so your parents can get invited to the White House! In New York, we see this all the time with kids of regular old celebrities."
Weston thinks that if anyone can successfully navigate the pitfalls of newfound celebrity at such a young age, it's the Obama family.
"I truly believe the Obamas have laid a good foundation," she says. "You get a sense that there's a lot of love there, a lot of back and forth. Michelle says she wants to be mom-in-chief — how wonderful is that? And Barack Obama says 'I love you' to his kids right up there on the stage. That wins me over."
Of course, the tricky part comes with adolescence — something Malia, at least, would be experiencing at the end of a first Obama term. With middle school comes all sorts of issues: rebellion, body issues, mean-girl stuff. But there's plenty of time to think about that. Right now, there are rooms to decorate and lots of people to meet.
And will the Obama girls be treated like celebrities? Weston thinks that's a given.
"This is America," she says. "And who's more famous than the Obama family? We're curious. Who wouldn't be?"