Canceled Estée Lauder exec John Demsey is back, with big support

Peel away the facade of fabulousness and the life of even the most powerful style star is often far more fragile than it seems.

Take John Demsey, the former Executive Group President at the Estée Lauder Companies. A three-decade Lauder stalwart, Demsey helped steer the company from a mid-sized privately-run family concern to a publicly-traded cosmetics giant worth, at its peak, over $100 billion.

Last winter, as his father lay gravely ill and his mother began battling cancer, the rest of Demsey’s world unexpectedly imploded. In early March 2022, Demsey was forced to retire from Lauder after he reposted an Instagram meme that contained the N-word.

Demsey insisted he’d misinterpreted the meme, which was initially shared by the rapper Chingy.

Despite removing the post within hours, pressure from both Lauder employees and “call-out” accounts like Estee Laundry saw Demsey’s 31-year career at Lauder end in barely a week. Branded a racist — and quieted as part of a legal agreement with his former employer — Demsey had been canceled.  

John Demsey at home
“I made a mistake and I corrected it. But the life I had before this happened simply does not exist anymore,” Demsey said of being canceled.

“It felt like I’d been the victim of an identity theft,” Demsey, 67, told The Post in an exclusive interview, his first since the Instagram fiasco 18 months earlier. “I made a mistake and I corrected it. But the life I had before this happened simply does not exist anymore.”

The mementos of that life cover nearly every surface of the six-story East Side townhouse, which Demsey, who’s divorced, bought in 2018 and shares with his 14-year-old daughter, Marie-Hélène, eight dogs, and a pair of cats.

Demsey has spent the majority of his post-Lauder existence here — sometimes angry, sometimes depressed, often exercising (he’s dropped 35 pounds), but mostly cooped-up and clearly contrite.

Leonard Lauder, John Demsey, Sean Combs and William Lauder
Demsey (second from left) with Leonard Lauder, Sean Combs, and William Lauder. Two decades ago, Demsey brought Combs to Lauder, which developed the rapper’s highly lucrative scent Unforgiven.
WireImage for MAC Cosmetics

“I almost feel like I’ve been under house arrest,” he deadpanned. “And when I do go out, people act as if they’ve sat shiva for me.” 

In the multi-billion dollar world of luxury and beauty, few stars cast a wider shine than Demsey. Tall and imposing, the Stanford-educated exec was equally adept at creating buzz and making money.  

“Demsey has always had a deep sense of what consumers want before they want it,” said Professor Thomai Serdari, Director of the Fashion and Luxury MBA Program at New York University, of Demsey’s tenure at Lauder. “He is very good at commercializing brands … while providing the glue that makes ventures work.”

John Demsey and June Ambrose at his home
Demsey in June at home with stylist June Ambrose, who describes his departure from Estée Lauder as “disheartening in every way.”
Joe Schildhorn/

Demsey’s presence at Lauder was particularly potent in two areas: far-sighted advertising campaigns and his chairmanship of the MAC AIDS fund, which has raised $500 million for HIV research over the past 25 years. 

In the ad world, Demsey is best known for the decades of VivaGlam promotions he oversaw for MAC Many of their stars were black — RuPaul, Rihanna, Diana Ross, Missy Elliott, Nicki Minaj. And Demsey’s intimacy with African-American artistry provided him with a level of racial maneuverability rarely afforded to white execs. 

“Long before the era of George Floyd, John was one of the most culturally attuned people when it came to inclusivity,” longtime former Wall Street Journal fashion reporter Teri Agins told The Post. “John was accepted by black people because it always felt like he was in the culture.” 

John Demsey with Diana Ross
Demsey with Diana Ross in 2005 during the debut of her Viva Glam campaign for MAC. Ross is one of many notable African-Americans to be featured in the brands’ decades of advertisements under Demsey.
Getty Images

John Demsey with Rihanna
Rihanna, seen here with Demsey, also appeared in a MAC campaign.
Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Dressed in a tan suit and Zegna sneakers, Demsey displayed both incredulousness and humility as he recounted the events of the past year. He freely described his actions on social media as “stupid and impulsive” — a casualty of the near-manic Instagramming which overtook him during Covid.

“I was posting like 20 or 30 times a day,” he said. “People really responded to it and it just became this sort of a thing.” 

The Chingy meme, Demsey explained, appeared randomly in his feed — a Covid-era Big Bird tending to a bed-ridden Snuffleupagus accompanied by the phrase “My n***a Snuffy done got the ’rona at a Chingy concert.”

John Demsey at home
“Just because you’re privileged doesn’t mean you’re racist,” Ambrose said of Demsey.

Demsey insists he read n***a as “nanna” — a nod to Snuffleupagus’ grandmotherly get-up.

“I’ve never used that word in my life,” Demsey said of the racial slur he’s accused of promoting.

Even though Chingy himself went on Instagram to defend him, no one else will ever really know what Demsey was thinking when he pushed that share button. 

Branded a Lauder liability — and a poster boy for “white privilege” — Demsey’s demise reflects both the punitiveness of this current cultural climate along with a misguided belief in his own indispensability. 

Richard Parsons at a Time Warner podium
Former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons (above) calls Demsey “one of the good guys.”
Corbis via Getty Images

Teri Agins on the red carpet
Veteran fashion journalist Teri Agins said, “John was one of the most culturally attuned people when it came to inclusivity.”
Getty Images

“I was a bit of an impresario,” he said. “And those businesses and people that I supported were very successful because that’s the way I was.”

Indeed, what does matter, say longtime Demsey admirers, is his track record of hiring African Americans.

Take Sean “Puffy” Combs, who Demsey brought to Estée Lauder in 2004 back when other beauty groups were reluctant to sign the rapper for a fragrance deal. Barely a year later, Combs’ scent Unforgivable had achieved $1.5 million in sales per week, according to The New York Times. 

John Demsey with three dogs in front of his blue door
Demsey lives on the East Side with his teen daughter and eight dogs. His blue door has inspired a new design book.

“John is one of the good guys,” said Richard Parsons, the former Time Warner and Citigroup CEO and Chair of the Apollo Theater Foundation on whose board Demsey served for a decade. “As far back as the ‘90s he was a leader in putting people of color in magazines and photo shoots — he made a difference.” 

Years before DEI mandates became standard, Demsey was providing exposure and paychecks to many African-American singers, stylists, and makeup artists.

“For someone who’s contributed so much to black culture, to hip-hop culture — to have his career end like this is disheartening in every way,” said stylist June Ambrose, whose clients have included MAC campaign stars such as Missy Elliott and Mary J. Blige.

John Demsey's home
Demsey’s home is a riot of highly-curated global art, design, and especially photography — he has more than 600 photo works in total.

A white man who earned nearly $10 million in 2021, Demsey is certainly privileged. “But just because you’re privileged,” Ambrose continued, “doesn’t mean you’re racist.”

Demsey concedes he’s disappointed by the friends who failed to publicly support him after he left Lauder. Harder still was the loss of the Lauders themselves, whom he had considered an extended family.

“I loved the family, particularly [chairman emeritus] Leonard Lauder because I felt that their values were so contrary to what other companies were about,” Demsey said.

Agins, for one, never imagined the company would actually let Demsey go. “Sure, John’s actions were sloppy, but I figured he would be suspended and then Lauder would move past it,” she told The Post.  

John Demsey, Tom Ford, Aerin Lauder
Demsey brought fashion designer Tom Ford (center, next to Aerin Lauder, style and image director of the Estée Lauder Companies) to Lauder for highly successful fragrance and beauty lines. Earlier this year, Lauder bought Ford’s fashion brand for $2.8 billion.
WireImage for Estee Lauder

Yet as the very public face of a very public company, Demsey stood little chance of surviving the scandal.

“You cannot earn enough accolades to divorce yourself from racial sensitivity,” says Earnest Owens, author of the book “The Case for Cancel Culture.” “This is about impact — not intent.” 

Still, Owens concedes that Demsey was impacted by the corporate house cleaning that followed the murder of George Floyd. “Had this happened before summer 2020, [Demsey] might have had a very different outcome,” he said.

Mary J. Blige and John Demsey
Mary J. Blige, with Demsey, was a MAC star.
Getty Images

Nicki Minaj, John Demsey and Kim Kardashian
Nicki Minaj, seen here with Demsey and Kim Kardashian, worked with Demsey in a MAC campaign.
Getty Images for EJAF

Yet while Demsey was hardly the only style leader charged with racial insensitivity — Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, for instance, issued a mea culpa for “publishing images or stories that have been hurtful or intolerant” during her career —  he was one of the few to actually wind up unemployed. 

But with Estée Lauder stock down nearly 50% since his departure, Demsey may have actually been more indispensable than the Lauders realized.

Indeed, two years after he brought Sean Combs to Lauder, Demsey also convinced the company to launch fragrance and beauty lines for Tom Ford. Last November, Lauder snapped up Ford’s fashion label for a cool $2.8 billion — the company’s first foray into the apparel arena since it was established nearly 75 years ago. 

RuPaul in one of the first Viva Glam campaigns for MAC
RuPaul in one of the first Viva Glam campaigns for MAC dating back to the mid-1990s.
MAC Cosmetics

Demsey’s home is a dizzying assemblage of art, furniture, and especially photography. There are nearly 600 photos in total — from historic prints by Henri Cartier-Bresson to outtakes from Demsey’s many MAC campaigns. 

It’s from here that Demsey is readying his next acts. He has no other choice, he said.

“I don’t want to be known as the ‘canceled guy’ — for my legacy to be defined by just three hours” on social media. 

"Behind the Blue Door" book by Alina Cho and John Demsey
Demsey’s new book “Behind the Blue Door” will be released on October 17.

The book features a forward by Demsey and was written by fashion scribe and CBS Sunday Morning-contributor Alina Cho (above with Demsey).
The book features a foreword by Demsey and was written by fashion scribe and “CBS Sunday Morning”-contributor Alina Cho (above with Demsey).
Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Still bound by his reported Lauder non-compete, Demsey has taken on a senior advisory role with L Catterton, the private equity group tied to LVMH chief Bernard Arnault, where he’ll help identify and grow new business opportunities. Although the headlines accompanying Demsey’s appointment made note of the Lauder saga, NYU’s Serdari believes the business world has moved past it.

“People make mistakes,” she said, “but that shouldn’t take away from his expertise and intellectual ability.”

There’s also “Behind the Blue Door,” a hefty coffee-table book detailing the museum-like treasures throughout his home, which he co-authored with “CBS Sunday Morning” contributor Alina Cho and is inspired by the vintage blue door fronting his townhouse. The book will be released on October 17th.

"Cancel Culture" book
“You cannot earn enough accolades to divorce yourself from racial sensitivity,” Earnest Owens, author of “The Case for Cancel Culture,” said of Demsey. “This is about impact — not intent.” 

Demsey is also returning to the social swirl he once dominated. In June he hosted a birthday party for stylist Ambrose at his home where folks like actor Zachary Quinto and Bergdorf Goodman exec Linda Fargo appeared to have moved on from the meme.

And, so has Demsey — whose father ultimately passed away in June 2022, while he moved his mother from Ohio to New York in order to look after her. “I’m not done — not at all,” he said. “I’ve got a lot more in me, a lot more to say. The world is still a very exciting place.”

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