NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ A year after leaving her job as White House social secretary, Desiree Rogers is back on the party-hosting circuit, this time with a new agenda.
Rogers in August was named chief executive officer of Johnson Publishing Co., owner of Ebony and Jet magazines and Fashion Fair cosmetics. As the new public face of the brands, the New Orleans native has been hosting cocktail receptions, dinner parties and events in New York, Chicago and New Orleans, clinking glasses and creating buzz for the magazines and for a new Ebony Fashion Fair retrospective clothing exhibit at Macy's stores.
“Who knew my time at the White House would prepare me to take on this role?'' said Rogers, who left Washington last February with a track record filled with both successes (the much-praised White House music series) and scandals (wannabe reality TV stars crashing a state dinner).
On the phone one recent afternoon from Johnson headquarters in snowed-in Chicago, Rogers called her new position a “perfect fit.''
“I enjoy business and the creative process involved in the magazines and, of course, the social aspect. And I'm getting to do it with my best friend.''
Johnson Publishing, the nation's largest African-American-owned media company, was founded by John Johnson in 1942. His daughter and Rogers' friend, Linda Johnson Rice, is chairwoman.
The Macy's exhibit, “For the Love of Color,'' honors the legacy of Rice's mother, Eunice Johnson, founder of the Ebony Fashion Fair, a series of traveling runway shows. The exhibit, which has been on display since Thursday at the Macy's at Lakeside Shopping Center, closes Monday.
Eunice Johnson, who died last year at 93, moved in elite fashion circles. Rogers does as well.
A striking, 5-foot-10-inch woman, Rogers, 51, is a regular at New York Fashion Week. Since leaving the White House, she's been spotted, gabbing on the front row with Vogue editor Anna Wintour, having dinner with the model Iman and hugging Calvin Klein creative director Francisco Costa.
But her glamorous style was noticed early on in her time in Washington. Just two months after moving to the Capitol, Rogers was named Washington's Best Dressed woman by the Huffington Post, with Jill Biden coming in second and Rogers' boss, Michelle Obama, coming in third.
In her Galliano gowns and Chanel heels, her designer wardrobe was much chewed over in the blue-suited Beltway. Robin Givhan, The Washington Post's former fashion critic, even pondered whether Rogers' friendships with fashion insiders made her a target.
“Fashion's myth-makers certainly did their part in shaping the outsize reputation that left Rogers open to criticism within the Beltway,'' Givhan wrote last spring. “Indeed, as news of Rogers' exit reached the American fashion establishment, which was convened in Milan for the fall 2010 collections, some editors began to ask: Did we cause this?''
But such criticism and hand-wringing now seem as tired as an old dress pushed to the back of a closet. In her new role, Rogers' friendships could turn into advantages.
Take the collaboration with Macy's. Rogers hopes the exhibit, filled with fancy frocks from the 1950s to contemporary times, will introduce Ebony to younger readers who didn't grow up with the whirl of the Fashion Fairs. The traveling runway shows were annual highlights of social calendars for more than half a century, raising more than $55 million for charity.
With the exhibit, “we've had tremendous excitement from young fashionistas who maybe didn't have an understanding of Eunice Johnson and what she did for women,'' Rogers said.
“It's a way to create new interest.''
Rogers, herself, generates plenty of interest. A past Zulu queen and the daughter of former New Orleans City Councilman Roy Glapion and Joyce Glapion, Rogers is a celebrity as well as a serious businesswoman, with a Harvard MBA and a resume that includes a former office in the East Wing of the White House.
Growing up in New Orleans' 7th Ward, Rogers graduated from the Academy of Sacred Heart, went to Wellesley College and then Harvard University business school.
After graduate school, she moved to Chicago, where she held top executive positions with the Illinois lottery and utility companies. Moving in business circles, she became friends with a Chicago power couple, Michelle and Barack Obama.
When the Obamas moved to Washington, Rogers was tapped as the first African-American to hold the post of social secretary at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Right away, she shook things up. For an early term sit-down dinner for the nation's governors, Rogers booked the band Earth, Wind and Fire. For an Easter egg hunt, she scheduled Fergie and Ziggy Marley.
Quickly, she was getting almost as many headlines as her events. Looking back on her tenure in the East Wing, CNN anchor Don Lemon dubbed her “the most famous White House social secretary ever.''
In her 14 months in Washington, Rogers' office hosted 350 events, including the ill-fated state dinner that was crashed by Virginia socialites. Though the Secret Service took responsibility for the botched security, she eventually resigned from her job.