NEW YORK (AP) — Who were those willowy young women with Barack and Michelle Obama — and where'd they hide little Sasha and Malia?
Four years is a long time when it's a half or a third of your life, and so TV viewers who hadn't seen the Obama girls much since 2008 might have been truly startled at just how much they'd grown when they appeared onstage with their father Thursday night.
After all, Malia, now 14, who started (gasp!) high school this week, was just about as tall as her already tall parents.
Relaxed and composed, in a purplish blue sleeveless dress from H&M, Malia laughed with her father onstage after his remarks, and earlier sat and applauded with her mom and her sister, Sasha, who wore a black-and-white print frock from Anthropologie. (Now 11, Sasha hardly fits in her parents' laps anymore, and even resists a cuddle, the couple ruefully told People in an interview last month.)
There was one sign, though, that the girls were still kids: "Yes, you do have to go to school in the morning," their dad warned them at the beginning of his speech.
What struck one former White House aide was the ease and comfort with which the girls were inhabiting their public roles.
"Their smiles were genuine and huge tonight," said Anita McBride, a former chief of staff to Laura Bush, as well as an assistant to Bush's husband. "There was no awkwardness. They clearly have adjusted to their life in the public eye." McBride said she was also stunned by how poised and grownup the girls looked.
One reason Thursday's scene was so striking is that the American public doesn't see the daughters regularly, especially on TV. "There hasn't been a steady stream of images to relate to," said Sandra Sobieraj, a correspondent for People who covers the first family.
So for many, the most familiar images are from four years ago. At the 2008 convention in Denver, Sasha, then 7, fidgeted in her purple children's dress, little white barrettes on either side of her head.
"Daddy, what city are you in?" she called out in a high-pitched voice as her dad appeared on a huge video screen the night of Michelle Obama's speech. "I love you, Daddy!" called out Malia, 10, looking a bit older in a two-toned dress with straps.
Then came election night in Chicago. There was Sasha in a black party dress, bounding gleefully up into her father's arms, planting a big kiss on his cheek — a reminder that young children were about to live in the White House for the first time since Chelsea Clinton, Amy Carter, and before them, the younger Kennedy kids, Caroline and John.
And of course there was the inauguration. Who could resist the sight of Malia, in a periwinkle-blue coat and fluffy black scarf, snapping pictures from her enviable perch on the inaugural podium?
Just the night before, she and Sasha, whose inaugural outfit was a light pink coat, had danced onstage with the Jonas Brothers — a perfect example of how, as much as her parents vowed to keep their lives as normal as possible, the girls were truly celebrities from Day One.
For the president and first lady, protecting their privacy was an evolving skill. Candidate Obama quickly regretted, for example, an all-family interview granted to the TV show "Access Hollywood."
Once the family arrived at the White House, strict arrangements were in place. The news media traditionally respects the privacy of a president's young children and doesn't photograph or report on them unless they are in a public setting with their parents.