The Danish Prime Minister made headlines all around the world this week when she was caught taking what some have called “the selfie to end all selfies”. It's a fair assessment of Helle Thorning-Schmidt's impromptu snap of herself, a beaming Barack Obama and a neck-straining David Cameron — “Get me in it!” — taken as the world's heads of state stood together at Nelson Mandela's memorial in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
What caused most of the media frenzy that followed was not the selfie itself, but the unamused grimace on Michelle Obama's face for the duration of what looked like a most enjoyable and mutually appreciative little chinwag between Helle and Barack.
A photograph does not always tell the full story, but there are times when a series of photographs do seem to be striving to communicate. And in this case, when it comes to Michelle and her husband, the photos do scream “Doghouse”.
As is so often the case with Obama, the American president shines among a crowd like an old-school Hollywood star, his easy manner, megawatt smile and effortless charisma dazzling everyone caught in his ray. Helle, it appears, is not possessed of the kind of steely defence needed to resist. And so she giggles like a schoolgirl at his every word. David Cameron, noticing, can't help weaselling in to the feelgood vibe beside him, even if deep down he knows he's going to come out looking like the wedding guest who ruined numerous photos by popping up uninvited in the middle of a carefully composed scene.
I don't hold with the po-faced critics who say Obama, Cameron and Thorning-Schmidt were being disrespectful to Mandela by smiling, laughing and taking photographs; the mood of the service was joyful, celebratory and informal, just like the man in whose honour it was. And from what we know about Mandela he would have been right there in the stands with them, sharing jokes and effortlessly charming women. In fact, he's one of the few heads of state who could have rivalled Obama in the charisma stakes, right up to the end of his life.
I do, however, feel for Michelle. Any woman who's ever been attached to an attractive man knows what it feels like when your partner is basking in the glow of a pretty woman who can't imagine that he might leave regularly his dirty underpants in the middle of the bedroom floor (why oh why do they do that?) or fill the living room with aroma of Parmesan when he takes his shoes off.
While most sensible wives understand that there's barely a man on the planet who doesn't enjoy a brief flirt with a rapt blonde, regardless of his deep and genuine love for his wife (and Michelle is nothing if not sensible) it's still not great fun standing off-field while it happens.
It's not resentfulness or jealousy, it's the toe-curling awkwardness of being the excluded plus-one which smarts, especially if there are lots of witnesses (in this case, make that the world media). And there's nothing you can do to avoid embarrassment for those few minutes — an attempt to push in would make you look as desperate as David Cameron and Michelle is much too cool for that. The only thing you can do is look straight ahead and plan your next move.
In the end, Michelle made her presence felt. Later pictures show Obama swapping seats to place his wife between him and the pouting Helle.
There's no question who's the boss between Barack Obama and his wife, and it ain't the leader of the free world.|‘While most wives know there’s barely a man who doesn’t enjoy a flirt, it’s still not fun to watch’