Madison-based illustrator created a book of besties

Peggy Panosh built a career marketing for Oprah and others before discovering her own artistic talent.
peggy panosh sitting at a desk
Photo by Chris Hynes

One day in June 2019, marketing consultant Peggy Panosh was driving from her apartment in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, to hang out at a friend’s pool in New Jersey.

On National Public Radio, actress Beanie Feldstein was promoting the movie “Booksmart” and talking about the friendships she had studied for her role.

“I started thinking about my own friendships,” Panosh says.

Still driving, Panosh’s thoughts moved to famous friendships, like that of Oprah Winfrey — with whom Panosh has worked — and the broadcaster Gayle King, and fictional duos like Mary and Rhoda from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

“I wanted to be both of them,” Panosh says of the duo from the classic 1970s sitcom.

On arrival, Panosh told her New Jersey friend, Susie Arons, that she envisioned a book, an illustrated volume for adults highlighting exceptional friendships.

She even had a title.

Sixteen months — and one pandemic  — later, “Billions of Besties” by Panosh and Arons, with illustrations by Panosh, was published by Simon & Schuster imprint Tiller Press last October.

By then, Panosh, a Wisconsin native who has traveled to 70 countries and lived most of her adult life in New York and Chicago, had relocated to Madison. She has a sister and brother-in-law in the city who have a second home in Door County, where Panosh stayed alone last year while working on the book.

cover of the book billions of besties

Photo by Chris Hynes

Panosh was born and raised in Green Bay and attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison, majoring in communications and graduating in 1985. She served as vice president of programming for the Wisconsin Union Directorate — a student programming and leadership board — and says the experience “gave me the confidence to go out into the world.”

“It taught me about collaboration,” she says. “Marshaling people and resources to get things done. Learning about deadlines and budgets and approval processes.”

Upon graduating, Panosh moved to Chicago and landed a job as a temp at the Hyatt Development Corp. working for Penny Pritzker, daughter of the Hyatt co-founder. After moving to New York City to work for the comedy club Catch a Rising Star, Panosh was in a meeting when expansion was being discussed.

She spoke up: “Have you ever thought of going into Hyatt Hotels? I can introduce you to the Pritzkers.”

sketches done by peggy panosh

Photo by Chris Hynes

Panosh helped open clubs in Hyatts in the Chicago area, New Jersey and California. She moved next to radio, based in New York. As promotion director for K-ROCK radio, Panosh helped roll out Howard Stern’s show to 90 stations across the country. Later, as a top executive for CBS Radio Networks and Westwood One, Panosh marketed major sports and entertainment events like the NCAA Final Four, Super Bowl and Grammy Awards.

“It was about connecting the people, programming and events to the widest possible audience,” she says.

Travel has always been a passion. One memorable trip took Panosh and a lifelong friend, Robin Wong, to Africa, where they climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Guides were required — “gentle, beautiful souls,” Panosh calls them.

The guides kept repeating something to the women: “Pole, pole” — Swahili for “slowly.” Ascend too quickly, you get altitude sickness. But Panosh found a deeper meaning: “Savor the experience. That has stayed with me. A great lesson in presence.”

Peggy drawing poet Amanda Gorman

Photo by Chris Hynes

In 2007, Panosh volunteered for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign. While in Chicago she signed on with Winfrey’s vast media empire, again in a top executive marketing position. That association continued after Panosh left in 2015 to open her current consulting business. Panosh served as head of marketing and partnerships for Oprah’s 2020 Vision Tour, a sold-out, nine-city arena tour that began in January 2020.

Panosh, whose illustrations are a highlight of the new “Billions of Besties” book, came relatively late to art. She was on a retreat in New Mexico with Wong and another friend in 2016.

“I kind of got cracked open like an egg,” she says, and began drawing. “I was open to whatever might happen.”

Panosh kept at it after leaving Santa Fe, drawing for an hour a day, and got good enough that in 2019 she sent some sun drawings to “CBS Sunday Morning,” which uses sun illustrations between segments of the show.

A few months later, she got an email from a woman whose title was producer-sun coordinator: “We’re using one of your suns tomorrow.”

Peggy panosh looking off at a desk

Photo by Chris Hynes

In summer 2019, just a few weeks after her poolside epiphany about a book on best friends, Panosh was showing her illustration portfolio to Simon & Schuster in New York. “Just to get feedback,” Panosh says. “To see if I had game.”

The publisher said, “Your stuff’s good. Do you have any ideas for a book?” Panosh mentioned the best friends idea. “I’d greenlight that book right now,” the publisher said.

It didn’t happen quite that easily, but it happened.

The first friendship featured in “Billions of Besties” is that of Winfrey and King. “They have captured the ideals we all look for in a best friend,” the text reads. “Pure love, boundless joy and unwavering support. … It is truly inspiring.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.