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 Time.com, 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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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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