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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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