Everywhere Denise Hunter goes, she's mistaken for Michelle Obama.
“I was in San Francisco at a meeting,” she says, perched in a fine Sunday pantsuit on a couch in a back room of the First African Methodist Episcopal (FAME) Church in South Los Angeles. This office belongs to her husband, Rev. John Hunter, but her presence transforms it into the set of a spunky women's talk show.
“And as I came out of the hotel and got into a cab,” she continues, “the cab driver freaked out, because he couldn't figure out where my security was. So I had to calm him down and tell him, 'No, that's not who I am!' ”
But she's clearly tickled by the comparison.
Hunter has made various public appearances with Michelle Obama over the last two years, ever since FAME's “first lady,” as her husband's congregation calls her, was chosen to help lead Mrs. Obama's national “Let's Move” campaign for healthy living. And while the reverend came with her to the White House Christmas party last year, “I was the primary,” says his wife.
The couple's public relationship is an intriguing mix of old-fashioned and modern. In his rousing sermons, Rev. Hunter makes '50s-era cracks about their marriage. “Denise and I don't always perceive things in the same way. Amen,” he tells a sea of fancy hats one Sunday in March. The punch line: “Sometimes she's wrong!”
Yet there's no mistaking that Denise Hunter is the star of this show. The crowd adores her. Throughout her husband's sermon, titled “We Really Do Have Choices” (“He got that from me,” she says later), two big-screen TVs above the pulpit often zoom in on Hunter's regal face in aisle two, as if she's a celebrity at a Lakers game.
“I'm an oddball,” she says. “I don't wear hats; I don't play the piano; I don't sing in the choir.”
Not once during a two-hour conversation with a reporter does she mention God.
The Hunters arrived in 2004 from Seattle, where Denise (who gives her age only as “40-plus”) got her start in nonprofit work. Now, just down the hill from their church, at a stately brick building on West Adams Boulevard, she runs FAME Corporations, an affiliated, nonprofit organization formed in the painful aftermath of the L.A. riots to plant seeds in the ashes.
While her husband has faced scrutiny for charging $122,000 in personal expenditures to the church credit card — and a lawsuit from a former FAME employee claiming she was forced into a sexual relationship with the reverend because it was “God's will” — Hunter has become a darling of the Democratic Party. After helping run Kamala Harris' campaign for state attorney general in 2010, Hunter hints she's even been approached to run for office herself.
For now, though, she's focused on Los Angeles. In one of her most controversial initiatives, Hunter has brushed aside the abstinence-only approach to tackle South L.A.'s chlamydia problem head-on — by running an STD-prevention campaign. Organizers hand out testing kits and hold sex education classes for young people.
“We know the kinds of things that are going on. Hormones are raging!” says the first lady of FAME. “So we have to move beyond what our tradition has been, and what our conservative views might be, and do something about this.”