VIBE Veteran Lola Ogunnaike Speaks On Interviewing Michelle Obama In Africa

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Tray Hova / August 26, 2011

Journo-genius Lola Ogunnaike doesn’t get nervous before interviewing anyone. She’s queried the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Lopez, and just about every entertainment hotshot who’d turn a stan mute. But understandably, the former CNN correspondent felt her first butterfly flutter right before sitting down with our first lady, Michelle Obama. That of course doesn’t mean Lola’s interview skills dissolved in the process. For the upcoming BET special, Michelle Obama: Impact Africa (airing this Sunday, Aug 28 at 7:30), Lola accompanied the first lady on her trip to South Africa and Botswana. Here, one of our favorite writers details the experience. —Tracy Garraud

VIBE: For anyone who’s hearing about this special for the first time, break down the goal of Michelle Obama’s South Africa initiative.
Lola Ogunnaike: Michelle Obama had a few goals in mind. One of her primary ones was to inspire the youth and two to inspire women. She really wanted to inspire the youth in general to take control of their destiny and understand that they can make a difference in their country and that they’re important players on the global scene. There’s this common misconception that you have to do something major to make a difference, but just being a better citizen in your neighborhood helps you play your part.

The other thing she really wanted to get across was the importance and power of an education. One of the things that struck me was when she was talking to a group of college students in Capetown and said ‘There’s no difference between me and you, there’s no difference in how we grew up, The only difference is that I had a vision of what I wanted my life to look like and I actively pursued an education.’ And she credits having an education for taking her from Chicago to the White House.

Love that and also love that she’s not afraid of targeting the black community directly. 
Exactly. Intially all news outlets were only given ten minutes to speak with her, but she ended up giving us, BET, an extra fifteen minutes. And one of the reasons she said she was committed to giving us extra time is because she wants young kids in the US to understand that they are part of the bigger world and she wants her trip to inspire young kids to get passports and travel. Part of being a human being is getting out there and exploring the world.

And this was your first time interviewing Michelle, right?
No, I’ve never interviewed her before. But I interviewed Desiree Rogers, who was her former social secretary. That was an amazing experience. I grew up in Northern Virginia and after church every Sunday in D.C. we’d pass the White House on the way home. Just being in the East Wing was sort of a full-circle moment for me. 

Is it safe to consider this interview the biggest highlight of your professional career?
I definitely think this was. I’m of African American descent, so being there with the first black first lady was very special. Two, I am not a political reporter so having to learn about that world was at one point terrifying and the other half liberating. 

I can imagine. How did you prepare?
I read everything I could about the first lady, scoured the Internet, looked up anything that was relevant to her trip and Barack’s trip to Africa. And basically did a lot of the typical legwork, which is ask other people what they would want me to ask her. I think my job as a journalist is to be a representative of the viewer or reader.

Most definitely. Was there one particular question you found most people asking?
Not necessarlly, but people are pretty preoccupied with her fashion and her hair [laughs]. I was tweeting during the trip and so many people wanted pictures of what she was wearing. And she looked fantastic by the way, she was definitely doing Africa in grand style.

Ha! Talk to me about those first few moments before meeting her. Were the nerves kicking?
I’m never nervous when I interview people, I think that’s one of my strengths as a journalist, but I do have to say that I did feel a second of ‘Oh my God! I’m about to interview the first lady!’ But that quickly disappeared when I reached out to shake her hand and she reached out to say ‘Hey, don’t shake my hand come and give me a hug.’ So she gave me a big hug and we were off to the races.

Looking back on your trip with her, can you share a few experiences that stand out the most?
One of the things was how excited she was to meet Nelson Mandela. She’s met kings, she’s met queens, she’s met heads of states, but it was clear to me that meeting Nelson Mandela was probably one of the highlights of her life. Her eyes lit up and you could see how powerful it was for her. I don’t even think words can describe how magical that was for her. You’d have to tune in. Another moment was watching her speak to a crowd close to 2,000 people at the Zion Christinan Church, which is the largest church in South Africa that also cerved as a center for the anti-apartheid movement. Being in that church and watching her speak to that crowd was a phenomenal experience. I interviewed her shortly after and she told me all she kept thinking about was ‘Please don’t cry.’

Powerful, indeed. I’m guessing your interviewee list could fill up a small book. Who’s left on your list now?
Of course, Barack Obama! I hope I’m one step closer. I’ve interviewed Desiree, I’ve interviewed Michelle, now I have to complete the trilogy.