For better or worse, first ladies and first men have the opportunity to be the softer face of an administration. Who gets it right?
Though rarely official and often underestimated, the role of the first lady – or, increasingly, the first man – can be one of the most potent ambassadorial positions in any nation’s diplomatic ranks. The work done by the spouses of heads of state has often been depicted as frothy; it’s true that part of the job is hosting state dinners, making appearances at cultural openings and entertaining visiting dignitaries. But while political partners might not be drafting policy, their marital ties to power mean they are often on the front lines of diplomatic events. As first wives and husbands are freed from the expectations of pushing a political agenda, they are also often in the perfect position to put a friendlier face on their nation than their spouse. Looked at through another lens, the role of the first spouse is the distilled essence of soft power.
When it comes to diplomacy, the US has long recognised the usefulness of putting the president’s wife in the spotlight (and, alas, the US has only had first ladies). But the rest of the world has started to catch on. When Emmanuel Macron became president in 2017, he sought to make the first spouse an official position. Though there was resistance to the idea by the public, a charter was created outlining that the first lady or man would “represent France” by supporting cultural and charitable events to promote the country.
Not every presidential partner plays the diplomatic game the same way, however. We take stock of some of the more notable spouses of state leaders to assess who is giving their nation a good name and who needs to step up.
First lady since: 2017
Career: Businesswoman and former model
Most memorable photo-op: Refusing to hold her husband’s hand in Israel
Donald Trump isn’t big on foreign policy so the Slovenia-born first lady hasn’t had to contend with a deluge of overseas trips; the few the president has taken, she’s often chosen to skip. Clearly not comfortable in the political spotlight, she has tended to be a quiet figure, getting more attention for her outfits – which are more risqué than her predecessors, including a red Dior number in Paris in July 2018 – than any diplomatic skills.
She’s been known for her naivety, too. On her first solo foreign trip, to Africa in October, she chose to wear a pith helmet, widely seen as a symbol of British colonial rule. On the US-Mexico border visiting immigrant children in Texas in June she wore a jacket emblazoned with the words “I really don’t care” on the back, causing a media frenzy.
And, while American first ladies have tended to show a united front, Melania’s glare and occasional rebuff of presidential hand-holding have done nothing to put to bed speculation about marriage troubles between her and Donald.
Monocle comment: Hiding behind a pair of expensive sunglasses like a Californian actress hounded by the paparazzi, she looks uncomfortable and unhappy accompanying Trump abroad. And when she ventures out on her own, she tends to commit a giant faux pas. Staff around her should take some blame. But only some.
First man since: 2016
Career: Relationship manager with US financial services firm Capital International
Most memorable photo-op: Playing bowls with Melania Trump
Philip May is widely regarded to be a retiring sort, reluctant to be seen to be meddling in the affairs of his wife as he diligently plies on with his career in finance. Yet Philip appears to be well suited for the PM and it’s likely that his wife’s impromptu dance routines have an altogether different effect on Philip than they do on the rest of the nation: the pair met at a conservative party student disco in Oxford. They danced and afterwards bonded over a mutual interest in cricket.
But he’s also worked at greasing the wheels of diplomacy behind the scenes. Philip had his first official sortie at the g20 Summit in 2017, which involved a gala, a boat trip and a chance to hob-nob with world leaders, as well as his own counterparts. But his biggest public test came during president Donald Trump’s visit to the UK in July when he was tasked with escorting Melania Trump to the Blenheim gala dinner. Together they refrained from any major diplomatic snafus which, considering their respective partners, should be regarded as a victory.
Monocle comment: A wobbly prime minister needs a decent brick to support her. Amid a botched Brexit, cabinet woes and a constant fear of a political knifing, Philip is on hand with sympathy.
First lady since: 2015
Career: Designer for fashion label Awada, her family’s textile business
Most memorable photo-op: Walking with Spain’s Queen Letizia during a welcoming ceremony for a state visit at the Royal Palace in Madrid
Juliana Awada is the social-media-savvy first lady of Argentina who knows how to turn heads (last year she topped several “best dressed” lists at the g20 summit in Hamburg – sadly there are such things). More than a million Instagrammers follow the mother of two, who has been attributed with better style than Michelle Obama and Jackie Kennedy combined. She met her second husband, Mauricio Macri, while working out at the gym and presents a more domestic glimpse into their life – think sofa-selfies and gardening. Unlike her predecessor, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who took over from her deceased husband Néstor, Awada has few political ambitions. Instead, she’s better known for her poise and discretion, a trait accredited to her Syro-Lebanese parents who run a fashion business in Buenos Aires that she continues to design for.
Awada has made a selection of high profile trips as her husband looks to open up the Argentine economy to foreign investment. The Trumps, the Obamas, President Xi Jinping and Japan’s Shinzo Abe have all been checked off her list. Back at home, she’s welcomed royalty including the king and queen of Norway and Queen Maxima of Holland. Her biggest diplomatic test to date: playing host at the g20 Summit in Buenos Aires this November, a first for South America.
Monocle comment: Awada is praised for her impeccable sense of style but she favours Italian and French designers. She would do well to show off her Latin side by promoting the region’s design talent.
First man since: 2017
Career: TV presenter and radio DJ
Most memorable photo-op: Leaving the hospital with Jacinda Ardern and their newborn
When Monocle arrived to interview Kiwi prime minister Jacinda Ardern in March, her partner Clarke Gayford was the first to appear at the gate of their Auckland bungalow. Dressed in shorts and flip-flops, he offered a casual hello before ambling next door for a neighbourly chat.
Since then, New Zealand’s first bloke has become a global talking point. By September the doting dad was cradling the couple’s newborn baby Neve from the floor of the UN general assembly while mum made her first address from the stage.
The farm-raised 41-year-old Gayford won plenty of admirers for becoming a stay-at-home dad after Ardern gave birth in June (and for growing a beard). Yet he has not lasted long in the role or in the beard; four months later, freshly shorn, he announced he was returning to filming his popular fishing programme.
Monocle comment: Gayford has hardly put a flip-flopped foot wrong during his first year in the job. The big question for the former reality TV star will be whether he’ll shape the role of first man beyond being a dutiful dad.
First lady since: 2017
Career: Classically trained opera singer (retired)
Most memorable photo-op: Embracing North Korea’s first lady, Ri Sol-ju, at their husbands’ summit
South Korea’s first lady is a classically trained singer. She may have given up on a career to support her husband and raise a family but Kim Jung-sook is still a performer at heart.
Finally on the international stage, the 63-year-old has become cheerleader-in-chief for Korean soft power, from dancing to Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in the Philippines to singing along to BTS in France. Her musical background has also come in handy for nurturing relationships closer to home: the wives of Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping are both former singers.
On the domestic front, Kim’s friendly face and outgoing personality quickly earned her the nickname the “Jolly Lady”. Her natural affability stands in stark contrast to her predecessors, a largely stern bunch, who stare out of a photo gallery that hangs on the wall of the first lady’s official office space inside the Blue House. The convention-upturning incumbent, who defied society by proposing marriage to her husband, has been credited with reinventing the role of first lady.
Monocle comment: Kim Jung-sook was a powerful election asset on the campaign trail. But South Korean presidents only serve one term so Kim should use the next few years to champion her own agenda.
First lady since: 2017
Career: Former high-school teacher
Most memorable photo-op: Posing on the White House lawn as her husband planted a tree
The 65-year-old wife of France’s 40-year-old president hit the headlines even before her husband’s 2017 win due to the story behind their meeting (she taught the then-15-year-old Emmanuel in an after-school drama programme). But Brigitte Macron quickly embraced the role and is the most popular first lady in France since Bernadette Chirac. She has managed to charm everyone from Xi Jinping to Narendra Modi and Donald Trump.
Monocle comment: Brigitte has been a stable, but largely silent presence by her husband’s side.
First man since: 2013
Career: Associate architect at Belgian-Luxembourg firm A3 Architecture
Most memorable photo-op: Posing with the other partners of Nato leaders at a conference in Brussels
Luxembourg’s first man is one half of the world’s only openly gay political power couple. The always dapper and be-suited Destenay stood out at an otherwise routine Nato photo-op with other spouses of world leaders for all the right reasons last year. Grinning behind Melania Trump, a stern-looking Emine Erdogan and France’s Brigitte Macron, Destenay shone as the only male in the elite circle. It was a heart-warming sign of the liberalisation of traditional gender norms within the highest echelons of global power.
The pair keep their private lives private. But just being at Xavier Bettel’s side is a feat unto itself. Bettel has previously called out and eschewed invitations that were explicitly discriminatory against same-sex partners. Last April, Destenay and Bettel’s warm welcome by Pope Francis bowled the world over. Often, Destenay makes a statement just by showing up.
Monocle comment: Destenay could take up more visible causes to become a powerful global advocate for an oft-marginalised community.