Jason Lee would prefer that you didn’t call his entertainment news destination, Hollywood Unlocked, a “gossip site.”
“When I think of a gossip blogger, and then I think of my influence, and all the verticals that I’m touching, I feel like ‘gossip’ minimizes that,” he said.
To Lee, gossip is for those on the outside looking in, and for decades, Lee has been fashioning himself as, if not yet a peer of the rich and famous, then at least their confidant. Over the past half-decade, the 44-year-old has built Hollywood Unlocked from an Instagram account into a multiplatform urban entertainment brand. A self-made entrepreneur, he’s expanded the company through a podcast and a TV deal with Fox Soul, Fox’s first streaming service, featuring interviews with bold-faced names like Floyd Mayweather and Tiffany Haddish.
In February, he leveled up again when he teamed with Kanye West for an invite-only media confab called the “Black Future Brunch” in a warehouse near the Arts District. The event featured a performance by Ye’s Sunday Service choir and an ambitious conversation among 50 leading Black executives, editors and journalists on the perils facing Black media and what must be done to overcome them.
“When [Ye] met everyone, he left so full of joy,” Lee said. “For the first time he could put faces with the people who write the stories and he felt like he was one of us.”
At its core, though, Lee and Hollywood Unlocked have made their name by trafficking in celebrity dish with a hip-hop twist: breathless coverage of Rihanna shopping for baby clothes, Kardashian beefs and plenty of Lee’s own video monologues holding forth on everyone from Jussie Smollett to Prince Andrew to Mase. Like competitors the Shade Room and Bossip, Hollywood Unlocked targets a traditionally underserved audience of Black consumers who’d rather read about the Real Housewives of Atlanta than their botoxed counterparts in Salt Lake City.
“If I want to speak to my people,” Rihanna said during a red carpet appearance for Savage X Fenty last year, “I have to come to Hollywood Unlocked.”
Lee broke into showbiz in the 2010s as an outsized personality on social media and TV, bringing raucous jokes to Nick Cannon’s “Wild ‘N Out” and appearing for two seasons on VH1’s long-running rap reality series, “Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood.”
“It was very hard” to get a foothold, says Lee, who grew up in Stockton, Calif. “It’s even harder when you’re Black and you’re gay. All the people who knew me, my relationships and talents, weren’t there when I needed their help. I lost a lot of people I thought were friends because of the industry I chose to be in.”
Now all in their 50s, the six members of New Edition have conquered their demons, worked out their differences and come together for an arena tour.
Sitting with Lee at a Hollywood coffee shop in February, not far from the Hollywood Unlocked offices, he told me that he doesn’t consider himself a journalist — “I’m respected, but I’m not a journalist,” is how he put it — but he struggled to put an accurate descriptor to his name.
His friend of more than a decade, radio personality Charlamagne tha God, offered a few suggestions.
“I don’t know what I would call Jason,” Charlamagne said. “Maybe a multimedia personality. ... I like the word cultural critic, but the word ‘critic’ has a negative connotation.”
“We’re one of the pulses of the culture for sure,” said Lee. “We’re talking about what people are talking about. But I want to get to a place where we’re creating the conversation, and people are saying, ‘Did you see what they said?’
“Kevin Hart said to me, ‘You mastered tea. When you gonna get to the cappuccino?’”
Lee makes his home in Hollywood, and as you’d expect with anyone who ties their brand to a city synonymous with bright lights and celebrity life, Lee parties hard and dresses to make a statement — be it with a royal blue Versace two-piece set at a rooftop party or the red-and-white checkered button-up he wore to his interview with The Times.
In conversation, he’s simultaneously contemplative and venom-lipped; calling YouTuber Tasha K “Trasha K” one moment and spending several minutes on his dissatisfaction with the current presidential administration the next (despite his vote for Joe Biden).
“I can’t vote Republican because some of their views are just so crazy,” he said. “But the Democrats aren’t doing enough for Black people.”
Fresh on his mind was the Sunday brunch and the feelings of abandonment that several journalists and editors mentioned. Black reporters spoke on publicists shooing their clients past them on the red carpet, and editors of Black-owned outlets described being left behind by the same celebrities they helped push to stardom.
Lee doesn’t want to follow that path as he builds his brand.
“It’s a privilege to be interviewed by the L.A. Times,” he said. “But I’m always going to go to the Breakfast Club. I’m always going to talk to Angie [Nwandu] from the Shade Room.”
“I don’t believe pro-Black means Black only,” he continued. “But we need to reach back and stay locked in with the people who helped us get there.”
Lee was born in Stockton, growing up with a white single mother before being sent into foster care as she fell into drugs.
At the age of 15, he was shot in a drive-by shooting by someone aiming for his brother, Link Rhodes Jr. The two were at a car wash when Link got into an argument with a friend’s girlfriend, whose brother pulled up and opened fire, striking Lee and two other people and killing another man.
“When I left the hospital, I ended up going to the guy’s house that shot me, because I was friends with his brother,” Lee said. “I didn’t know it was him who shot me until later.”
Four years later, his other brother Rodney was killed in front of him at Lee’s going away party, the night before he planned to move to Los Angeles. As he wrote in his memoir “God Must Have Forgotten About Me,” the loss of his brother sparked a dark period of alcohol abuse while shortening his temper and dialing up his anger.
In hindsight, though, he’s able to look at being shot as a catalyst that’s helped him navigate a confrontational landscape without fear.
“The fact that I survived that lets me know that no matter how many shots they fire at me in media, social media or anywhere, I’m going to be OK,” he said. “It didn’t make me naive to the fact that I could die, but it was another experience of survival.”
In 2006, he finally moved to Los Angeles and directed a labor union representing healthcare workers. In his off-time, though, he was outside: popping up in the mix, getting next to the right people and showing his face at exclusive events — whether he was on the list or not.
“Celebrities weren’t hanging out with people slinging what we call gossip,” Charlamagne said. “Jason’s able to talk about what’s going on in the industry, and then these industry people still want to be around him. To me, that’s a first. I’ve literally seen artists snatch their wives away from Wendy Williams, like ‘we don’t speak to her.’”
After leaving the union in 2009, Lee spent the next six years “hustling and making connections.” One of those connections was Alex Avant, an actor and producer and the well-connected son of music mogul Clarance Avant, who helped Lee see himself as a brand and put the battery in his back to “unlock Hollywood.”
The multiplatform outlet has grown significantly since then: Lee said the site brings in 1 million unique visitors each month, while 2.8 million people follow their Instagram page.
“He has a big personality,” said Avant. “He’s someone you’re going to pay attention to, whether you like him or not. There’s a skill set in that.”
While the personality has never wavered, his reporting came into question in February, as Lee made national headlines when he erroneously announced to the world that 95-year-old Queen Elizabeth died.
In the immediate aftermath of his misstep, he tripled down on social media, getting into a nasty spat with veteran journalist Roland Martin while tweeting “We don’t post lies” next to pictures of green juice and Miami nights in the club with Lil Kim. Eventually, after Buckingham Palace updated multiple outlets of the Queen’s ongoing activities, Lee and Hollywood Unlocked walked back their claim in a lengthy article titled “Fact Check: 10 Reasons We Believed Queen Elizabeth Was Dead.”
Lee spent most of that post outlining the circumstantial evidence he believed backed up his claim at the time, finally tucking in his apology at the end of the piece. In the aftermath of the incident, he feels the mistake was unfairly magnified in the media.
“I’ve taken a lot of time to assess how the world reacted to one story out of 127,000, versus how they responded to the Future Brunch and advancing the voices of Black media,” he said. “The platform where Kelis had an opportunity to share her previous abuse. The exclusives after exclusives after exclusives.”
The debacle sparked a larger conversation about the distinction between a personality and a journalist and how the internet had blurred the lines between the two. While some pointed the finger at Lee and Hollywood Unlocked, others placed equal accountability on the readers who take everything they see on social media as fact.
“Social media is out of control, and everybody is being brainwashed by it,” said a publicist familiar with Lee and Hollywood Unlocked. “He is human just like the rest of us and got caught up. What he did was not ethical, and as a journalist, you should know better than that. But is Jason a journalist?”
The rapper has been sending threatening texts and tweets to his ex Kim Kardashian, her boyfriend Pete Davidson and others.
Earlier this month, those lines became even more blurred when Lee announced that he was going to work for Kanye West as his head of media and partnerships.
“Ye is a genius,” he told Variety, “in tech with Stem Player, in product and fashion with Yeezy, Gap and Balenciaga, with Donda Academy and Donda Sports, and in all things culture. My goal is to amplify those stories and inspire the next generation with all that amazing work.”
Lee told The Times that he doesn’t see running Hollywood Unlocked and working for West as a conflict of interest, and said Hollywood Unlocked won’t stop covering Kanye — “we post everything he posts,” he said.
Although he hosts the podcast and TV show “Hollywood Unlocked with Jason Lee [Uncensored]” along with the weekly show “Gagging with Jason Lee,” the site’s 10 employees handle the majority of its day-to-day activities. In recent weeks, its coverage of Ye’s online outbursts against Pete Davidson and Trevor Noah has been more forgiving than that of competing outlets, which Lee says is an attempt to humanize the complicated star.
“I see Ye as I see anybody,” he said. “Some days are good and some are not so good, but those are not the ones that define us. As we navigate this world through a cancerous cancel culture society, we often forget that people are human.”
Lee calls himself “unapologetically imperfect” and he’s aware that not everyone will love him; he doesn’t particularly care if they do. He had a sharp disdain for “cancel culture” before his Queen Elizabeth-related misstep, and that disdain is no less foul following his turn at the stake.
“People expected a person who says f— cancel culture to be hung on the cross for a moment of imperfection,” he said. “I’m going to continue to be as great as I am.”
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