The first thing I notice about Michelle Bachelet as she enters the Manhattan restaurant Cibo is that she is wearing a shocking pink jacket. It is not a particularly elegant garment: The fabric looks cheap and the cut unfashionable—at least by New York's strict sartorial standards. But the jaunty shade suits her, lighting up the Italian restaurant. It also seems rather appropriate for her job.
Until last autumn, Bachelet, 59, was best known as the first female president of Chile. It was just the latest twist in an extraordinary life: A leftwing activist in her youth, Bachelet came from a family that was tortured under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s; she went into exile and studied medicine, eventually returning to Chile and entering national politics, where she held ministerial posts before being elected as president in March 2006 and serving a four-year term in power.
Last autumn, six months after stepping down as president, she was appointed undersecretary-general of United Nations Women, a high-profile U.N. attempt to put "pink" issues firmly on the global policymaking map.
As she sits down, I ask how she has settled in at the U.N. Uneasily, I confess that I feel torn between idealism and cynicism about her new mandate: Part of me loves the fact that the U.N. is finally doing something to coordinate female causes, particularly in poor, war-torn parts of the world; but my experience of the U.N. in the past, as a reporter and an anthropologist, leaves me skeptical about the bureaucracy and ineffective rhetoric that often plague the organization.
Bachelet listens, and gives a calm, sunny smile. Her demeanor provides no clues to her extraordinary life; her clothes are neat, albeit a little frumpy, her hair soberly cut; her face sports a smudge of purple eye-shadow, but is gently wrinkled. It is a face notable mainly for its normality: In New York, powerful women over the age of 50 often use surgery to make the years disappear; in Latin America, female politicians have tended to be doubly glamorous—courtesy of discreet "treatments."
"I would not have taken this job if I did not think I could do something," she says, explaining that the aim of her new post is to coordinate disparate initiatives that exist across U.N. bodies. This, she hopes, will galvanize governments to improve the position of women, not just where they are victims (say, in war), but also in a broader sense. "I want to build for U.N. Women a strong case for why women's issues matter, why improving women's lives is a good investment. …" She pauses; her English is fairly fluent, but the grammar is charmingly idiosyncratic and she often searches for words.
But, I ask, doesn't the bureaucracy at the U.N. make her want to scream? A few days before our lunch, I had met Bachelet for the first time, when I chaired a U.N. event on the plight of impoverished widows across the world. Two details stuck out: the arrival of the first lady of Gabon, who was overseeing the event, wearing an extraordinarily glamorous (and apparently expensive) outfit; then the impact of Bachelet (looking a bit scruffy), who quietly and tactfully intervened in the program to make it less dull, without offending the Gabon hosts. It underlined the kind of diplomatic challenges she will face at the U.N.
She laughs. "There are some formalities that any institution has, and that you respect. But I try to do it a little bit more interactive and dynamic ... if things can be rational and explained in a good way, things can change. You need to have a strong case. That's what I want to build for U.N. Women; a strong case [for change in the position of women]."
The waiter appears. The restaurant is charming, but basic, with dog-eared menus. Bachelet says she selected it for convenience and I observe that it is also cheap. "Well, I haven't noticed that," she admits, surprised. "But it's OK. It's a normal restaurant, it's nice, the food is good." After some debate, I order a chopped rocket salad and soft-shelled crab; Bachelet chooses two appetizers: another chopped rocket salad, and steamed mussels. She shuns wine, without a thought.
"Are you on a health kick?" I ask. New York women who want to stay rake-thin usually only order two appetizers. Bachelet sports a middle-aged spread; indeed, elements of the Chilean media nicknamed her "fatty" when she was president. "No. I should and I try, but ..." She says she has no idea how New York women stay so slim: "They drink! I have seen it myself! For me, I wake up very early, but I don't work out because I'm preparing documents and things like that. Any meeting ... I go walking, but it doesn't help much."
Her casual approach to ordering, like her indifference to the inexpensive restaurant, is another sign of Bachelet's apparent lack of interest in the trivial and material. Given the challenges she has faced in her life, this is perhaps unsurprising.