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Michelle Obama: It’s tough to stay grounded

Every once in a while Michelle Obama checks in with old friends.

"Do you still recognize me?" she'll ask. "Do I still feel like Michelle?"

In the past year, the first lady's name has popped up on Forbes' "most powerful women" list, People's "most beautiful" list, Time's "most influential" list, Vanity Fair's "international best-dressed" list, Barbara Walters' "most fascinating" list. And so on.

Her every word, move, bite, gesture, dress and shoe has been analyzed and second-guessed.

Is she taking on too much? Why isn't she doing more?

Did she touch the queen first? Should her arms be bare? Are her shorts too short? Are her sneakers too expensive? Is she putting on weight?

"It wasn't something that I was prepared for," she said last week as she looked back on her first year as first lady.

The challenge, then, has been to remain Michelle through it all, and not become "somebody else that is in a magazine."

To stay grounded yet reach high.

This is a first lady, after all, who wants to make a difference, who dares to speak even now about her legacy.

She has spent the past year giving the job of first lady a test run, settling her family into a new life in a new town, trying to avoid creating controversy for her already burdened husband and figuring out where to make her mark.

"Our goal was to do everything that was done before, so that we'd know what it was, and uphold those traditions, but try to tweak it," she told reporters last week. "And now that we've gone through a year, we can really think about really what works for this administration, what works for me as a first lady, what resonates with where America is today."

Looking back, then, here are a few moments that help to sketch the portrait of a first lady who calls herself a "110-percenter," always looking to do more.

The gardner
There she is, this Harvard-educated lawyer and former executive, digging up sweet potatoes on the back lawn of the White House.

Tim Sloan / AFP
US First lady Michelle Obama hosts a fall harvest of the White House vegetable garden with help of students from Washington's Bancroft and Kimball Elementary schools on October 29, 2009 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / Tim Sloan (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Michelle Obama, gardener?

The first lady took her "pipe dream" of a modest kitchen garden and transformed it into a platform that she hopes will improve the lives of millions of young people.

The garden gave her a gentle way to start up a conversation about healthy eating that will get more pointed this year as she makes a head-on campaign against childhood obesity.

"We have a chance to change the fate of the next generation if we get on it," she says.

This is what Obama hopes will be her legacy.

The nurturer
They could have been two girlfriends headed out to lunch: Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth, arm in arm, strolling in to a reception at Buckingham Palace in April.

It may have been the most closely watched touchy-feely gesture of the first lady's first year ("Astounding!" British wags called it), but it was hardly the only one.

Obama, whose husband is seen as a rather cool character, emerged as the nation's nurturer-in-chief.

She hugs with reckless abandon, closing her eyes and enveloping school children, young women, ordinary Americans.

It fits with her larger mission of mentoring young people, giving them the confidence to rise, as she says, "from mediocrity to fabulousness."

The first lady started up her own mentoring program at the White House and is urging other Americans to do likewise.

"If there is a program that speaks fundamentally to who I am," she says, "it is this."

The fashionista
The fascination with Michelle Obama's fashion choices started with her inaugural twirl in a white, one-shoulder Jason Wu gown and hasn't let up since.

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    Image: First Lady Michelle Obama Hosts Talent Show At White House

    Michelle Obama’s effortless style

    The first lady looks as sophisticated in designer dresses as she does in outfits from J. Crew.

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    Michelle Obama’s effortless style

    The first lady looks as sophisticated in designer dresses as she does in outfits from J. Crew. Take a look at her great style:

    Michelle Obama, wearing a a Michael Kors optic white dress, speaks during a talent show at the East Room of the White House May 20, 2014 in Washington, DC.

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  • Image: First Lady Michelle Obama Hosts Annual Mother's Day Tea Honoring Military Mothers

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    Silver lining

    Michelle Obama, wearing a festive shirtdress, hosts the annual Mother's Day tea to honor military mothers at the White House May 12, 2014 in Washington, DC.

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    Giving the bold shoulder

    Michelle Obama wears a white Marchesa gown with a drop shoulder strap at the annual White House Correspondent's Association Gala on May 3, 2014.

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    Berry beautiful

    Michelle Obama smiles as she answers questions during the White House's annual "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day," on April 24, 2014, wearing a Sophie Theallet cardigan and leather and chiffon skirt.

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    Fashion forward

    First lady Michelle Obama wears a colorful wrap dress and sits with Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, and Maj. Gen. James McConville at a jobs fair for military members and spouses at Fort Campbell, Ky. on April 23, 2014.

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    Keeping it casual

    Wearing a plaid blouse and black pants, the first lady walks her dogs Sunny and Bo on the South Lawn of the White House at the annual White House Easter Egg Roll in Washington on April 21, 2014.

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    White House, white dress

    Dressed in all white, Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama depart from the White House in Washington on April 20, 2014 as they head to Easter services at St. John's Episcopal Church.

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    Rappin'

    Michelle Obama and hip-hop artist Bow Wow hold a forum with high school students at Howard University in Washington on April 17, 2014. Obama rocked a maroon pantsuit and black flats.

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    Classy for a cause

    The first lady wears a simple black and blue striped skirt paired with a white top and matching shrug to speak at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, during a civil rights summit on April 10, 2014.

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    In mourning

    President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama leave after paying their respects during a memorial service at Fort Hood in Texas on April 9, 2014.

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    Gettin' dirty

    First Lady Michelle Obama gets down and dirty in a tunic, pants and trenchcoat while planting oats with students at the White House Kitchen Garden at the White House in Washington on April 2, 2014.

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  • Image: First Lady Michelle Obama Travels to China - Day 2

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    Radiant in red

    First lady Michelle Obama, wearing a red Alexander McQueen gown, posed with her mother Marian Robinson during a visit with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan at the Diaoyutai State guest house on March 21, 2014 in Beijing, China.

    Pool via Getty Images / Pool via Getty Images
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    Ping-pong fun

    Michelle Obama plays table tennis at the Beijing Normal School, a school that prepares students to attend colleges overseas, in Beijing, China on March 21, 2014.

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    Welcome to China

    Michelle Obama waves as she and her daughter Sasha leave their plane at Capital International Airport in Beijing on March 20, 2014.

    Pool via AP / Pool via AP
  • Image: Obama and Kenny attend a St. Patrick's Day Reception

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    Green day

    Vice president Joe Biden, first lady Michelle Obama, and Irish Prime Mininster Enda Kenny's wife Fionnuala O'Kelly smile during a St. Patrick's Day reception in the East Room of the White House on March 14, 2014.

    EPA / EPA
  • Image: The First Lady And Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey Host Screening Of Muppets Most Wanted

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    We're green with envy

    Kermit the Frog is welcomed by Michelle Obama, who is wearing a printed Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress, at a screening of Disney's "Muppets Most Wanted" on March 12, 2014 in Washington, DC.

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    Seeking shades

    President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama make their way to board Air Force One before departing from Homestead Air Reserve Base in Homestead, Florida on March 9, 2014.

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  • Image: The First Lady Hosts Women In Soul Music Workshop And Performance At White House

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    Pretty prints

    Michelle Obama delivers remarks during s workshop titled "I'm Every Woman: The History of Women in Soul" with (L-R) Grammy Museum Executive Director Robert Santelli, and music artists Melissa Etheridge, Janelle Monae and Patti LaBelle in the State Dining Room at the White House March 6, 2014 in Washington, DC.

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    Jump to it

    Michelle Obama sports a chic black jumpsuit during an interview with Jimmy Fallon on Feb. 20, 2014.

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    Pretty as a painting

    Michelle Obama, in a bold print skirt, is escorted by Rose Cameron, CEO and founder of WAT-AAH!, a line of bottled water targeted to kids and teens, as they view the "Taking Back the Streets" art exhibit at the New Museum in New York on Feb. 20.

    AP / AP
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    Snow bunny

    Michelle Obama skis at Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, Colo. on Feb. 15. This is the third year in a row that Michelle Obama has vacationed in Aspen over the long President's Day weekend.

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    Ultimate elegance

    President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, in a dramatic Carolina Herrera ball gown, arrive at a state dinner at the White House on Feb. 11. The dress featured a sheer black top with hand-embroidered and beaded appliques and sleeves that dipped just below the first lady's elbows.

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    Lady in red

    First lady Michelle Obama wears a ravinshing red Thom Browne coat and, along with French President Francois Hollande and President Barack Obama, waves at the balcony of the White House on Feb. 11.

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  • Image: U.S. first lady Michelle Obama (C) waves next to U.S. Army Ranger Sgt. First Class Remsburg prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington

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    Deep green

    Michelle Obama, in a hunter green Azzedine Alaïa dress, waves next to U.S. Army Ranger Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, who was injured while serving in Afghanistan, prior to President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech in Washington on Jan. 28, 2014.

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    Vision in blue

    First Lady Michelle Obama smiles as she listens to President Barack Obama speak at an event on expanding college opportunity in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on Jan. 16, 2014.

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    Bold bling

    Michelle Obama wore a festive lucite necklace while speaking about education in underserved communities in the State Dining Room following a screening of the movie "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" at the White House on Jan. 15, 2014.

    AFP - Getty Images / AFP - Getty Images

The first lady's wardrobe — mixing trendsetting designs and off-the-rack cardigans — won her accolades from the fashion world.

She even held her own in a fashion face-off with French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a former model, at the NATO summit in April.

Still, it must be said, there was the occasional howler.

Even her husband turned fashion critic at times, poking fun at what he calls her "Star Wars belt."

And it's a fair bet the first lady never meant to be photographed walking dog Bo on the South Lawn in those less-than-flattering Bermuda shorts.

The obsession with her wardrobe reflected the supersized scrutiny attached to everything about her.

No wonder she's a big fan of the presidential retreat at Camp David, far removed from any cameras.

The swan
Hours before the Obamas' first state dinner, the first lady stood before young women participating in the White House mentoring program and made a confession of sorts.

"It's sort of like a swan, where we're kind of calm and serene above water — but we're paddling like mad, going crazy underneath, trying to look smooth," she said.

Everything did seem perfectly in order that afternoon. The first lady's strapless, cream-colored evening gown was sure to be a knockout. A celebrity chef was trolling the garden for just the right herbs to garnish the evening's feast. A chandeliered tent on the South Lawn stood ready to receive 340 A-list guests.

Enter the party-crashing Salahis.

Somehow, without an invitation, the fame-seekers insinuated themselves into the scene and eventually overshadowed it.

The whole episode was emblematic of the outside forces that can upend things for a first lady who works from a carefully crafted script.

Looking back now, Obama dismisses the gate-crashers as a mere "footnote" to an otherwise wonderful evening.

At the time, though, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs described her as angry.

The good wife
It's where she started as first lady and where it all will end: Michelle Obama is a wife and mother.

She has spent the past year figuring out how to be a very public role model, policy advocate and mentor without losing hold of that.

She's tried to be the perfect example without suggesting she's perfect.

Jae C. Hong / AP
President-elect Barack Obama, left, kisses his wife Michelle Obama after addressing supporters at the election night rally in Chicago, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2008. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

When she sat for an Oval Office interview about marriage with her husband last fall — something of a novelty in itself — she insisted that bumps are inevitable, even continuous, in any relationship.

"The last thing we want to project," she said then, is the image of a perfect marriage.

Ask her what she's most proud of in the past year, and she doesn't hesitate: "That my kids are sane," she says.

And sanity can be a precious commodity when one's life gets this level of scrutiny.

Even the smallest choices go under the microscope.

When Sasha and Malia got their swine flu vaccinations last fall, the first family was trying to set an example for the country.

Instead, instantly there were howls that the girls had gotten preferential treatment, that they had somehow jumped the line — even though the first family made sure the girls got their vaccine only after it was broadly available to schoolchildren in the District of Columbia.

Last fall, a high school student in Denver asked what was the hardest thing about being first lady.

She gestured toward the ever-present bank of news cameras and said it was "making sure my girls don't get lost in all this."

"I want to make sure they come out of this as whole as possible," she said.

She was talking about Sasha and Malia. She could have been talking about herself.

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