Desirée Rogers: ‘I Have Learned Who I Am’

HER NEXT ACT: After a sometimes controversial run as White House social secretary, Desirée Rogers is back in Chicago to tackle a new challenge. reviving Johnson Publishing and its Ebony and Jet magazines.

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Desirée Rogers relaxes at home
Desirée Rogers unwinds in her Astor Street condo. She says that “at 50, I have learned who I am. I am not going to change who I am. But I will work hard to make people feel more comfortable.” For more photos, launch the gallery »

 

Last February at the Casino, Chicago’s elegant private club tucked behind the John Hancock Center, an exceptionally festive party brought together Chicago’s A listers. The occasion was a birthday celebration for Neal Zucker, civic philanthropist and chief executive of Corporate Cleaning Services, a window-washing company. Guests included Mayor Richard M. Daley; M. K. and J. B. Pritzker; the investment management executive Joan Steel; Trish Rooney Alden, founder of a records management company; and Marko Iglendza, the airport concessions king. But the arrival of Desirée Rogers, then the White House social secretary, made the biggest splash with a crowd not easily stirred. Rogers is glamorous, charming, and, at times, even coquettish, and she used her considerable marketing skills to transform White House social affairs from low-key get-togethers to lively ones. She is also well known both for wrapping her five-foot-ten-inch willowy frame in fashion-forward luxury (the Rush Street boutique Ikram is her favorite place to shop) and for navigating through life using high-octane networking skills. So attention is nothing new for her.

But that night, Rogers’s presence was especially noteworthy. Several months earlier, she had fallen under intense and unwelcome public scrutiny when a pair of reality TV hopefuls managed to get past the Secret Service to crash the first state dinner of the Obama presidency. Suddenly Rogers’s spotlight turns as social secretary appeared more attention grabbing than brand building, particularly her front-row seat next to the editor of Vogue at a New York runway show and her luxe fashion posing in WSJ., the magazine of The Wall Street Journal. In the hubbub that followed the state dinner security breach, The New York Times declared that Rogers was a woman who, “like Icarus, flew too close to the sun.”

By the time she entered the Casino for the party honoring Zucker (who had hosted Rogers’s intimate 50th birthday bash in 2009), the central question about her was no longer who was she wearing or what was her next event; rather, it had become a variation of a pop song refrain: Would she stay or would she go?

The answer quickly became apparent. Arriving with her best friend, Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing, which owns Ebony, Rogers wore a sexy party dress a little too outré for a White House social secretary—even one whose wardrobe generated an obsession in the D.C. press corps. In contrast, Valerie Jarrett, White House senior adviser and D.C. neighbor of Rogers, arrived later, buttoned up in what one guest describes as “a Madeleine Albright–style suit” and flanked by security men. Though the three women had once been inseparable, Rogers and Rice sat together that night, while Jarrett remained on the other side of the room. (In 2000, I wrote about the friendship of the three women in this magazine. Go to chicagomag.com/sisterhood.) When the dancing began, Rogers took to the floor and cut loose, looking playful and carefree. “A whisper went around the room then,” says the aforementioned guest, “because it was clear to everyone that Desirée was leaving the White House.” Less than three weeks later, she was back in Chicago.

Now Rogers faces some daunting challenges. As the recently named CEO of Johnson Publishing, she needs to revamp the major African American company—her best friend’s business—before it tanks in a drastically changed market. She is also ready to polish her own reputation, rebranding herself as the dazzling power player she once was. Neither task will be easy, but Rogers thinks she’s harvested an insight from her time in the Washington maelstrom. “I think I confuse people,” she says. “In this country, there is a bias against people who have a certain look or style. I have fought this all of my life. People only see this package, and it’s a tall and vocal package. So people think, Wait a minute, you can’t be this stylish and intelligent, too. I take people out of their comfort zone.”

She adds that she has gained from the whole noisy experience. “At 50, I have learned who I am. I am not going to change who I am. But I will work hard to make people feel more comfortable. For me to change who I am would be the end of my soul. But I can keep this in consideration as I am talking, socializing, and enjoying other people.”

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Photography: Katrina Wittkamp; Photo Assistant: Amanda Barbato

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4 years ago
Posted by Garl

I was almost shocked by the open and repetitive arrogance of Ms. Rogers. There is no way she has climbed the ladder based on talent and intelligence -- none at all. A woman who had would never speak the way she does, about herself and others.

4 years ago
Posted by hiparchitectmomof3

Ms.Rogers's title while in tenure at the White House would more appropriately have been 'Social Spectacle Secretary'. How she managed to undermine the dignity of the office of President by making herself the object of attention is disgraceful. Letitia Baldridge would be horrified. Ms. Rogers certainly is an intelligent women, however her previous leaderships positions were mostly 'fluff.' Has she the broad and deep management experience to lead Johnson Publishing in the areas of complex human resource decisions, Mergers and Acquisitions, structured debt transactions, corporate valuations, legal concerns and the like? A more appropriate role would have been Exec VP of Creative development, in which she could use her love for fashion and design as professional strengths. Running a distinguished and revered company such as Johnson Publishing is a 100-hr a week job. Is Ms. Rogers prepared for this level of intensity, or would that get in the way of her personal social agenda?

4 years ago
Posted by mayogirl

Garl,
must agree with you on roger's arrogance.. Woman dont know #rap on how to run a business, only on how to cut departments and get her bonus. She's yet to learn who she is, and to say "there is a bias against people who have a certain look or style. I have fought this all of my life.in this country,:... PLEASE... do not put yourself in that category...not even close..
again, if it wasn't for her ex who gave her a push in Chicago, she would be .... NADA.... zip....

4 years ago
Posted by Chicago Rick

She did such a fine job bringing slime like the reality show trash Salahi's and such inside the white house, in fact ran things for her brief time just like the last dem who was there with the Slick *ick...as any slime with a million dimes can come inside for taxpayer paid good time.

4 years ago
Posted by Chicago Rick

Anyone as close to Obama as she is should be kept as far away from someone else's money as humanly possible. Another Affirmative Action product also like Obama who've been pushed through the ranks as Scranton Joe Biden once said "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Biden said. "I mean, that's a storybook, man."

Especially in a city full of African American shyster reverends up the ying yang leading their so called 'peeps' to wander in the wilderness with hands out and heads down and pockets empty while filling theirs.

I pray every day the many able but poor dems in the African American community wake up to take their waiting 'slice of the pie' that dems think they cannot earn by them realizing they're being used and abused by liberals who purposely keep them down in order to hold keep them enslaved to the dem vote through welfare addictions.

No one keeps them down more than the Triple J's Jackson's and Sharptongues and Farrakhans who they let 'speak' for them when they don't.

4 years ago
Posted by Bopcity

Whenever questions arise about the need for civil rights warriors like the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpon, a voice like Chicgo Ricks emerges to provide an unequivocal answer.

4 years ago
Posted by Apres Ski

I don't see how she can make me pick up a copy of Ebony or Jet! Now that she's the head, that's 2 more magazines I can do without unless someone gives them to me as a gift. I will not buy those magazines on my own.

She is really arrogant to presume we're going to follow her lead & buy those magazines or what she's trying to sell us in this article. She might have snowed the reporter who wrote this but not me.

As MAYOGIRL already wrote, she only knows how to cut & get her promotions and move on. She should have reorganized Ebony & Jet first, put out a couple of editions of each magazine and get a beat on what people think of the new magazines. She doesn't know how to stay out of the limelight. She's upstaging the magazines just like she did in the White House.

Here, the focus is on her & that's not where it belongs. She's supposed to be reorganizing magazines, not our attitudes towards her. And can't she just do the job without doing a photo spread? Editor is a behind the scenes job, not a photo shoot. She doesn't get it but she keeps getting jobs where she thinks she's supposed to be out front physically instead of behind the scenes and letting the magazines speak for her. She's clueless.

Again . . . she has failed big and in public!!

4 years ago
Posted by sdg

Right on Ms. Rice. You did good. Ms. Rogers is everything you know she is. She has nothing to hide from. As a woman and plus being a woman of color I am so proud. And you know that the Obamas appreciate her also, I feel it (smile). So you smart intelligent women have done well.

4 years ago
Posted by CAV1

"I think I confuse people,” she says. “In this country, there is a bias against people who have a certain look or style. I have fought this all of my life. People only see this package, and it’s a tall and vocal package. So people think, Wait a minute, you can’t be this stylish and intelligent, too. I take people out of their comfort zone.”


Gee, and so humble and modest as well. Ms. Rogers appears to be a reasonably intelligent woman, but unfortunately she chooses to get by using her good looks and marrying well, and taking fluff jobs like Lottery Girl, rather than utilizing the intelligence she claims to have in such measure...

4 years ago
Posted by Marcus Perry

Brava, Desiree! I think you're bright, well-educated, talented and beautiful. And oh-so stylish! And it seems most of the negative comments about you here are of envy, jealousy, if not outright hatred. Most of the women here probably wish they could BE you. And the men? They would love to date a woman of your well-trained and disciplined caliber. And a natural beauty, at that.

Ignore their squawking, please. And continue to by your FABULOUS self!

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