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08.11.10

How Desiree Landed Her Gig

After flaming out at the White House, Desiree Rogers has a plum new job at Johnson Publishing. Sandra McElwaine on her miraculous career turnaround.

For the chattering classes on Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Mount Desert Island, and Southampton, Wednesday was a good summer news day— Desiree Rogers found a job.

For months the high-profile former White House social secretary, who was bounced last winter when two social wannabes crashed the Obamas’ first White House state dinner, has been on the prowl. Rogers has been utilizing her Rolodex, networking furiously and turning up at trendy New York restaurants in her signature Louboutin stilettos in an effort to find work. She made no secret of her arduous search, relentlessly pursuing A-list New Yorkers and employing her social connections for a tip, a boost, a contact. (The media world is a small enclave, and word quickly spread that Desiree was avidly available.)

Rogers’ first aim is “to shore up the brand. I’ve grown up with it and we need to get back to basics. We’re the grande dames of the business and we’ve got to push forward.”

Several people made calls and gave high-powered dinners in her honor. Richard Plepler, the co-president of HBO who had become friendly with Rogers during her brief White House stint, gathered a collection of interesting folks.

“She’s a great connector in the various worlds of politics, business, and culture,” he says. “Very few people can move comfortably in all those areas. She can. I was happy to introduce her to some of my friends in town, and everybody who met her through me both liked her and was happy to help.”

According to the buzz, others who were approached found Rogers clever and energetic, creative, and eager to talk about the 330 events she staged during her 13 months at the White House, plus her ambition to recreate Camelot. But despite her allure, her assiduous assault on New York produced no results. Now the glamorous Harvard MBA is back on her home turf, Chicago, as CEO of the troubled 88-year-old Johnson Publishing, the largest African-American publishing company in the world. Actually, she’s been there since June, working as consultant to her close chum Linda Johnson Rice, daughter of the founder who will stay on as chairman, lending her cachet in an effort to re-guild and revivify both Ebony and Jet magazines, whose advertising revenue and editorial content have slumped considerably over the last few years.

“Ebony was nifty. It was regarded as a good magazine,” says former Vogue editor in chief Grace Mirabella. For years it was a hallmark for black news and culture, and its stylish traveling Fashion Fair made millions for black students. But now, like so many newspaper properties and magazines, it has hit the skids. On Tuesday, Rogers became the boss. “It’s a big job and they’ve got some trouble,” says a longtime observer. “But maybe with all her business experience she can work it out.”

Her résumé includes stints as director of the Illinois lottery, president of Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, and president of social networking at Allstate Finance.

Rice welcomed her friend with this statement: “Desiree has a proven track record of successful business leadership. She’s a longstanding confidante and a savvy businesswoman.”

Rogers, for her part, says she’s delighted to be back in Chicago, but with an office in New York she will be commuting between the two cities. “I got to know a lot of publishing players over the last few months and I’ll have that luxury,” she tells me. Her first aim is “to shore up the brand. I’ve grown up with it and we need to get back to basics. We’re the grande dames of the business and we’ve got to push forward.”

She voices pride over Ebony’s September education issue, with Obama on the cover, which deals with a variety of teen problems and is geared to help children achieve. One topic asks, Should Chris Brown be forgiven? “It’s a pulling-in dialogue, not a preachy one,” she says. Then she gets back to branding, acknowledging it’s her “specialty.” “I’ve done that everywhere I’ve gone,” she says.

She’s right.

“We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand,” she told The Wall Street Journal magazine early in her Washington career. “Our possibilities are endless.” It was this remark, along with her over-the-top personal publicity and extravagant wardrobe, that irritated senior Obama adviser David Axelrod, among others, and laid the groundwork for her dismissal from the White House.

Now the 51-year-old self-styled “generalist who loves the creative process” is back in her element, but can she resurrect the faltering marquee label? In conversation, she seems upbeat about the challenge. “Basically you need to understand what your customers want and need,” she once explained to The Wall Street Journal.

Maybe this time around she can.

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.