Remarkable Woman Linda Johnson Rice

Remarkable Woman Linda Johnson Rice (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

Linda Johnson Rice remembers flying to Paris at age 7 for the couture shows with her mother, Eunice Johnson, on a buying trip for the Ebony Fashion Fair.

Around age 9 she was getting to know Michael Jackson, also 9, because her father, John H. Johnson, was on Michael's finance team.

Such exceptional experiences, though she doesn't flaunt them, groomed Johnson Rice for the family business.

Johnson Publishing Company, which her father founded in 1942, launched Ebony and Jet magazines, as well as Fashion Fair Cosmetics for women of color. For 50 years, the company sponsored the Ebony Fashion Fair, a traveling runway show that featured designs by Christian Dior, Karl Lagerfeld and others, modeled by African-American women and men, and raising $55 million for charities.

The sum of those ventures advanced the way African-Americans were portrayed — and how they viewed themselves — in society. Those contributions are celebrated in the exhibit "Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair," which the Chicago History Museum just extended through May 11.

She had a lofty legacy to honor when, at age 23, she joined the company as vice president and fashion coordinator. Her stature soon grew. She accompanied first lady Hillary Clinton's delegation to Nelson Mandela's inauguration as South Africa's first black president in 1994. She and her parents were at Mandela's home a year later for the launch of Ebony South Africa (it has since ceased publication).

Now chairman of Johnson Publishing, Johnson Rice upholds its mission as "curator of the African-American experience, past, present and future." In two conversations that have been condensed, she talks about carrying out that mission in the modern world.

Q: What are the company's latest ventures?

A: We're expanding Ebony and Jet on the digital side to attract and maintain a younger audience.  We have more than 1 million unique visitors (per month) to Ebony.com and Jetmag.com, and our publication is on Kindle, Nook and iPad

We've put over 2,500 photos from our archives online that you can purchase and have sized and framed for wall art. There are some great photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and the various people we've chronicled — James Brown, Lena Horne.

Q: What is your proudest accomplishment?

A: I'm very proud that the company is still standing. We've weathered a lot of storms; we've seen a lot of magazines fold and we're still standing. I'm also proud that the company has maintained its majority African-American ownership.

Q: Fashion Fair Cosmetics is a big growth focus for you?

A: It is. All women want to be beautiful internally and externally, and there are women of color all over the world, so there's a great opportunity.

Q: In the History Museum exhibit, the messages from your parents really stuck with me, including your mother's belief that well-groomed glamor signified success.

A: What you take away from that show is it's more than just about clothes. It's about how you feel about yourself. It really reflects my mother's vision, to show how beautiful African-American women and men are. There's nothing you can't wear. You should never walk out of the house and not feel good about you.

Q: Do you share your mother's passion for fashion?

A: The apple didn't fall far from the tree. I know most people say they are just clothes, but some pieces, by Alexander McQueen, for example, really are works of art. Azzedine Alaia is my favorite designer.

Q: What are you wearing now as we sit in your office?

A: Let's see. A fur vest by Carolina Herrera. A Tom Ford turtleneck. Piazza Sempione pants. Boots, Ferragamo — comfortable. And a Roarke leopard beaded kerchief from Ikram.