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After Salahis attend state dinner, questions center on White House's DesirÃ©e Rogers
There was a new social sheriff in town and, for better or worse, she was one like no other.
The 50-year-old Rogers arrived in Washington this year to great fanfare, no small amount of it of her own making. She entered the East Wing in a whirlwind of media exposure. She was featured in the glossy pages of Vogue -- beating the first lady's appearance in the fashion bible by a month. For a profile in WSJ, the Wall Street Journal's slick magazine, stylists outfitted Rogers in luxury fashions from Prada and Jil Sander and she posed in the first lady's garden tossing a flirtatious smile over her shoulder.
Early in her tenure, Rogers made a trip to New York City during February's fashion week. She sat in the front row of runway shows such as Donna Karan and smiled for the flock of photographers who descended on the striking Obama gatekeeper with her pixie cut, stylish wardrobe and high-altitude heels. She dabbled in a world of hipsters and art scene know-it-alls in her attempt to bring a contemporary gleam to the White House. And she seemed to thrive on all the attention. She has come across as a big-picture manager, not one focused on details.
That's in contrast to her reputation at Peoples Energy. There, says her former boss Thomas Patrick, she was so intent on learning the customer relations business from the ground up that she put on a hard hat and went out into the field with the workers who managed the pipes.
None of this was surprising to longtime friends who knew her from her Chicago days, when she was a mover and shaker in the city's high-culture society circles, and who worried that Rogers was putting herself out in front of the public too fast and too furiously. They warned her of the ways of Washington, its desire for discretion, and urged to keep her profile low. In the nation's capital, no one need know whether the social secretary wore Nina Ricci or Halston, just that she was appropriately clothed.
But Rogers has never been an introvert. The New Orleans native has waved to the crowds from a perch atop a Mardi Gras float. In Chicago, she was known for her eclectic mix of guests at her dazzling parties. She has stood up to dance by herself in cocktail bars, as friends sat by and watched in amusement. She is a coquettish life-of-the-party.
She came to the White House having known the Obamas for two decades, an introduction precipitated by her ex-husband, who played basketball with Craig Robinson, the first lady's brother. Desirée Rogers was a prolific fundraiser for Obama's presidential campaign and had donated to his Senate run, though she did not contribute to his early campaigns for the Illinois state legislature.
Of all those inside the Obama inner circle, she is closest to Valerie Jarrett. Rogers, Jarrett and Linda Johnson Rice of Johnson Publishing, which owns Ebony magazine, were the three musketeers in Chicago, profiled by a local magazine as a fearsome threesome. It's the connection to Jarrett that is Rogers's protective cocoon as she straddles the line between the East Wing and the West.
"All this talk about Desirée being lifelong friends with the Obamas is bunk. She's there because of Valerie," says someone who has known Rogers for years but didn't want to be identified so as not to upset her.
Rogers is having to negotiate a new relationship with the Obamas, one made difficult by her own heat-seeking personality. She arrived at the White House as a friend and peer of the first couple. But her own social stature and wealth exceeded that of the Obamas for many years. Long before their ascent, she was a star in Chicago society, running with the city's elite.
"She and her former husband, and then she alone, were very important social figures in Chicago. She belonged to all of the A-list clubs and charities and certainly had a great understanding of how that world operated," says Patrick, retired chairman of Peoples Energy. "She was my tutor in that world."
The Obamas were the nice couple from the South Side. She was a cut above. And now she has a job in which she is expected to serve at their pleasure.
Staff writer Roxanne Roberts and staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.