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The Maximalist by Michaela Cordes | 29th February, 2024 | Personalities

After 30 years at Estée Lauder, the former group president made an unexpected pivot. Now he’s back – with a new job, the support of his friends and a book that explores his singular style and philosophy on life.

It’s a clear morning, and the sky over Manhattan wears the same blue as the front door of the man who had to start over at 67. “I was cancelled!” says John Demsey a few minutes later as we sit in his colorful living room over coffee. “It was a terrible experience. But now I’m back!”
For over 30 years, John Demsey was a highly regarded businessman, extending his influence far beyond the United States. During this time, the son of a painter and an industrialist from Ohio transformed the originally very classical and conservative image of the Lauder company with provocative beauty projects, especially with the MAC brand and later Tom Ford. He made diversity-promoting pop stars such as Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliott, and RuPaul celebrated brand ambassadors. As Group President, he achieved staggeringly high revenues, propelling the company from a mid-sized family business to a publicly traded global conglomerate, temporarily valued at over $100 million. John Demsey became a star in the beauty industry and was also a frequent and welcome guest in private circles. As Chairman of the MAC AIDS Fund, he raised a total of more than $500 million for AIDS assistance.When the COVID lockdowns began, the divorced father of a 15-year-old daughter started reposting amusing memes on his private Instagram account, gaining 73,000 followers. “It quickly became a large community. People from all over the world approached me and said, ‘Thank you! You made me cry, laugh, and feel.’” Until the day in February 2022 when he thoughtlessly reposted a comic image. “A meme that I didn’t fully understand was online for a few hours.”

Due to fallout from the meme, the top executive of Estée Lauder first took a leave of absence and later announced that he would be leaving the company. “The irony is that my career was built on inclusion and diversity,” Demsey says, “I have done more for people of different skin tones and genders than anyone else in the beauty industry.” In the 18 months that followed, his six-story townhouse became a saving refuge. He suddenly turned persona non grata, lost 15 kilograms and experienced additional drama in his private life. “Both my parents became very ill. My father passed away during that time. My mother also went through a very difficult phase, but I was able to bring her to New York, where she is thriving at 91. My daughter was also negatively affected, with cyberbullying and online issues.”

But John Demsey didn’t give up; he started as Senior Advisor at L. Catterton, a private equity firm connected with LVMH, and embarked on an unusual book project with Vendome Press after being persuaded by his friends, interior photographer Douglas Friedman and fashion journalist Alina Cho. The plan: a coffee-table book about his unique life, aesthetics and philosophy. “My friend Douglas said: ‘Your house has been seen in Architectural Digests around the world, but no one has really captured the personality behind it. You – who understands the art of collecting like no other and wants to live creativity without boundaries.’”

The photo production lasted 17 days. Together with Dutch stylist Mieke ten Have, Demsey showcased his masterfully decorated house. “The project became almost a physical manifestation of who I am, a creative passion project,” he recalls. The work “Behind the Blue Door – A Maximalist Mantra” was published just over six months ago. A glamorous book party in his house last September marked Demsey’s reentry into New York’s society: “I had a lot of support from the fashion world.” Demsey also highlights the exceptional friendship and mentorship of Leonard Lauder in our conversation, saying: “He remains a positive force in my life.”

John Demsey continues to run his Instagram account. Today he has 2.1 million followers. The advice from his crisis manager helped. Demsey: “When I asked him at the time if I should cancel my account, his answer was: ‘Absolutely not. The 0.01% who hate you will do so forever. But you have to stay optimistic. Don’t look back, only forward.’”

IssueGG Magazine 02/24
City/CountryNew York, USA
PhotographyDouglas Friedman