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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Swampland, a political blog on, delivered a harsh epitaph of her stint in D.C.: “Rogers had come to make waves, she made waves, and she wiped out.” But was it a bad mix from the beginning—a forceful, upfront personality thrown into a tradition-bound and misogynistic town? Or was she simply too headstrong and flashy to be a good team player in a political arena? It has been noted that before she went to Washington, Rogers’s social status and wealth had exceeded that of the Obamas for many years, yet suddenly she was supposed to be working for them. That may have been a collision in the making.

At the beginning of the Obama administration, Rogers was—outside of the president and the First Lady—the most enticing member of Team Obama. As The Washington Post noted, the Creole beauty arrived in town “to great fanfare, no small amount of it her own making.” Stylish and accessible, Rogers quickly surfaced as the least dowdy political appointee in town—possibly ever. She was featured in Vogue a month before Michelle Obama appeared on the cover. In the WSJ. profile, Rogers modeled three outfits provided by the magazine (Viktor & Rolf, Jil Sander with Prada, and Calvin Klein) with three different sets of jewelry (Cartier, Fred Leighton, and Hervé van der Straeten). The WSJ. reporter described Rogers as unsure whether to wear an Oscar de la Renta ball gown provided by the magazine for a photo shoot in the First Lady’s garden. “With a negative from the deputy press secretary, Rogers demurs,” wrote WSJ. Soon thereafter, The Huffington Post named her the best-dressed woman in D.C.

Around the same time, Rogers began churning out a busy schedule of social events at the White House. Her first week on the job, she met with Sharon Percy Rockefeller, CEO of D.C.’s public television station WETA, to map out a series of concerts—including performances by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney—that would be broadcast. “She had very high standards, and she brought a special degree of sophistication and polish,” says Rockefeller. For St. Patrick’s Day, Rogers had the White House fountain dyed green. For the traditional Easter egg roll on the South Lawn, she squashed the decades-old ritual in which D.C., Virginia, and Maryland residents camped outside for tickets, instead creating a pre-event ticket application online, thus opening up the event to any citizen in the country willing to come to the White House. Her emphasis on bringing in outsiders contradicted the reputation she held in some Chicago circles for being occasionally standoffish. There were movie nights, music nights, and congressional cocktail parties. The First Lady’s gardening project involved local schoolchildren. Overall, in her role as social secretary, Rogers supervised approximately 330 White House events in 14 months; if her job was, as she often said, “to make the White House the people’s house,” she succeeded.

Still, there were missteps even before the state dinner security breach. The White House social secretary is traditionally a quiet, in-the-background job, dominated by protocol and lists. From the beginning, the Obamas were clearly asking more from Rogers, and she herself was quoted in WSJ. as saying she didn’t want to be “caught up in linen hell and flower hell and list hell.” Yet for someone with such a pitch-perfect sense of style and taste, she displayed startling levels of tone-deafness at times. At an event in the White House kitchen with students from L’Academie de Cuisine, Rogers openly corrected Michelle Obama on the name of a china pattern. She allowed Vanity Fair to photograph and annotate the social secretary’s East Wing desk. Then there was her high-profile visit to New York during Fashion Week. And she was quoted talking about the president, his wife, and the administration’s goals in business jargon, saying, “We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand.”

Rumors floated that some in the West Wing, including people Rogers knew from Chicago—Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel—were becoming increasingly frustrated with her attention-grabbing diversions. “You always want to present yourself well, but it can be a fine line,” says Robin Givhan, Pulitzer Prize–winning fashion writer for The Washington Post. “The interest in Desirée Rogers’s style began to overwhelm all the other things she was doing here.”

The Secret Service ended up accepting full responsibility for the state dinner fiasco, but the incident highlighted the fact that Rogers had traipsed into the ball past the throng of photographers like the other guests, wearing an avant-garde Comme des Garçons evening gown. By then, she had risen so quickly and so high on the Washington scene that a fall hardly came as a surprise.

Rogers lowered her profile while overseeing the lavish White House holiday entertaining. Perhaps she was counting on her long-standing connection to the Obamas or her stellar fundraising skills (she bundled more than $200,000 for the presidential campaign) to smooth the way. Or maybe she thought that all her hard work turning the White House into the people’s house through noteworthy social events would counter the security kerfuffle. But the controversy, fueled by custom-bound D.C. society, refused to die down. As one Washington-based observer says, “The one thing you never want to be here is a distraction. And she had become a distraction.”

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Several people close to Rogers say she thought leaving the White House three months after the state dinner would be a rather graceful and low-key exit. It didn’t turn out that way. “Surprisingly, she wasn’t prepared for how the media can turn—how one minute you’re the darling, and the next you’re the dog,” says one of her friends. As a high-profile member of Team Obama, Rogers found herself besieged with media requests, even after she had settled back home in her Astor Street condo. “This was hoopla she didn’t enjoy,” says one of her confidantes. Still, she took comfort in the familiarity of Chicago and a strong circle of close friends. “She remains part of the power elite here,” says Bill Zwecker, the Chicago Sun-Times entertainment and society columnist.

On Friday nights, Rogers began joining Linda Johnson Rice and the Gold Coast salon owner Leigh Jones for dinners out. She was spotted at Gibsons and at the School of the Art Institute’s May fashion show; a breast cancer survivor, she agreed to emcee the Lynn Sage Cancer Research Foundation benefit in October. In June, she hosted an exclusive reception at her home for Ichiro Fujisaki, the Japanese ambassador to the United States. He had held one of the only going-away parties in D.C. for Rogers, and she was happy to be gracious in return. It was a small but dazzling fete, with elite guests including Maggie Daley, William Daley, Jerry Reinsdorf, and the real-estate mogul Judd Malkin. Then she took a long trip to Italy with her mother and her college-age daughter.

Privately, with some friends, Rogers acknowledged the painfulness of her Washington departure; to a very select few, she hinted that she would have liked more White House support at the time. She has remained close with the Obamas, speaking with the president since her departure and with Valerie Jarrett. Recently Obama met with Rogers’s brother during a trip to New Orleans, and Rogers enjoyed a convivial dinner with Jarrett’s daughter. In Chicago, a number of acquaintances have found her to be more open and down to earth now. “She was hurt by the experience in Washington, and who wouldn’t be?” says a friend. “She’s learned from it.” But not everyone is convinced of that. “After she moved back, I asked her, ‘Why did you go to the runway shows in New York? Why did you get photographed sitting next to Anna Wintour from Vogue?’” says another Chicago friend, who has known Rogers for more than a decade. “And Desirée said, ‘I am always associated with the best.’ Now that’s the same attitude that eventually backfired on her.” (Several of her friends asked to speak anonymously out of concern she would be offended by their candor.)

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All of Rogers’s life, her brother, Roy A. Glapion, has said to her, “You are a tough one.” What he means is that she isn’t easily categorized and her style often distracts people from her substance. Growing up in New Orleans, the daughter of Roy E. Glapion Jr., a city councilman, she helped out as a young hostess for her father’s guests. But she wasn’t only about style and manners. She excelled at school, and she talked about someday living in a place where it snowed. Her brother (who became a civil engineer and entrepreneur) and her mother still live in New Orleans (her father passed away there in 1999), but Desirée moved on, first to Wellesley, where she earned a degree in political science, and then to Harvard for an MBA. She married John Rogers Jr., the chairman and CEO of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based mutual fund company. The two divorced in 2000, after 12 years of marriage, but remain close friends. (Their daughter now attends Yale.) Rogers first got to know Linda Johnson Rice and Valerie Jarrett through her ex-husband (he went to the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools with them), and it was also through him that she first met the Obamas (he played basketball with Michelle’s brother, Craig Robinson, at Princeton).

In Chicago, Rogers’s life operated on parallel tracks: She worked at high-level jobs (head of the Illinois State Lottery, president of Peoples Energy, an executive at Allstate Corporation) and served on the boards of various cultural institutions. “When she comes into a room, you can feel the energy,” says David Mosena, CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry. Rogers served as a director on the museum’s board and, according to Mosena, “knows how to get things done.” Plus, she became a social engineer extraordinaire. With her exquisite taste and access to the most powerful and interesting people in town, her parties were sensations. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the Obama team offered tickets to a reception hosted by Rogers as a fundraising incentive. Her social and networking skills no doubt prompted Obama to name her White House social secretary—and now they are an integral part of her appeal to Johnson Publishing. It hasn’t been unusual for Rogers, since her return, to be asked by African American women for an autograph. That’s the kind of star power the publishing company hopes to harness.

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