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Former BET CEO Debra Lee details affair with co-founder: ‘I would’ve lost everything’

A woman with short curly hair with her hands clasped stands onstage
Debra Lee accepts the Ultimate Icon award at the BET Awards in 2018.
(Richard Shotwell / Invision / Associated Press)
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Former BET Chief Executive Debra Lee is getting candid about her tenure at the cable network in her new memoir, “I Am Debra Lee,” sharing advice for women who want to succeed in corporate America, details about her extramarital affair with BET co-founder Bob Johnson and how she stood up to the likes of Aretha Franklin and Oprah Winfrey during her tenure at the company.

“I wanted to give advice to those coming behind me because that’s always been part of who I am,” Lee told ABC host Robin Roberts Tuesday on “Good Morning America.” “I was a counselor in college, in law school, did hiring at the law firm, built a great team at BET. I always thought I was pretty normal — I wasn’t the smartest kid in class ... and I just want young people to know if I can do it they can do it too. And they should dream big.”

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The 68-year-old executive began her career with the network as its first vice president and general counsel in 1986 and was promoted to president and chief operating officer 10 years later. She was named chairman and CEO in 2005 and stepped down in 2018 after a 13-year tenure, during which she shepherded the launch of the Black entertainment network’s hit shows “Being Mary Jane,” “The Real Husbands of Hollywood” and “In Contempt.”

“I stepped down from BET about three years ago,” Lee told Roberts. “I was supposed to ‘retire,’ but you know that never works for those of us who are used to working so hard. And I always wanted to write a book.”

Lee’s memoir, published Tuesday by Grand Central Publishing imprint Legacy Lit, is billed as an “intimate and eye-opening tale about the triumphant and tricky moments of a career in entertainment.”

Lee told Roberts that when she stepped down, she “realized there’s still very few Black female CEOs.”

“It’s not anything I dreamt of. But now that I’ve done it, I loved it and people come up to me and thanked me for doing it. And I wanted them to know it is possible,” she said.

She said that she wants to help women succeed in the workplace with her book, also opening up about “potential pitfalls” and how her personal and professional relationship with her boss affected her career.

Paramount Global, which owns BET, is looking to sell a majority stake in the Black-themed programming division.

March 6, 2023

Recounting a passage from the memoir, Lee told Roberts on Tuesday how she worked for Johnson for 10 years before they began a personal romance.

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“He was a mentor and he pushed me. He was responsible for a lot of my success,” Lee said. “We did have a relationship while we were both married, we ended up both divorced. And then people knew about the relationship. The company knew ... we started going places together. The downfall of a relationship like that is if you want to get out of it. It came, and I wanted to break up. I saw it wasn’t a long-term relationship. And my job and my career was held over my head.”

She shared how at that point she was 20 years into her career at BET and was told that if she wanted to break up with Johnson, she should leave the company the next day.

“So I would’ve lost everything. I would’ve lost my career, my job, my ability to maybe get another job [if] I couldn’t get a reference. ... By that time I was a single mother with two children. So it was a tough time and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it because I didn’t have female role models. There weren’t a lot of women ahead of me. I was embarrassed to talk with my family about it. So it was a dark time.”

The former TV executive said that therapy “saved me.” Johnson eventually left BET in 2006 and Lee became chief executive, clearing a new path on her own terms.

The executive-level turnover at BET Networks continued on Thursday, with the top boss at the Viacom-owned network stepping down after a 13-year tenure.

May 24, 2018

“I was able to live my dream without any form of harassment. So I guess after Me Too and Time’s Up, I wanted women to know there’s other kinds of harassment. It’s not all a man coming to the door in a robe. That’s not the kind of relationship I had. It was one that grew into a relationship. At times it felt consensual, you know, because we were out in public. But after Me Too and Time’s Up came back, I sort of reevaluated the whole thing and [asked], ‘Was this really my choice?’”

Elsewhere in the book, Lee opens up about the death of her son, who became depressed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and details her interactions with some of the entertainment industry’s other high-powered women, including Franklin and Winfrey. Lee said that she declined Franklin’s outlandish requests at a benefit concert and wouldn’t let Winfrey advertise her competing network OWN on BET.

Lee emphasizes that she “wanted to be an example.”

“People see me come out onstage once a year at the BET Awards, and I didn’t like doing that. I also talk in the book about how I’m an introvert and pretty shy. That was always a struggle for me ... but I came out [during the ceremony] so that our audience knew that a Black woman ran the network. And that was making a huge statement,” she told Roberts.

Lee’s memoir lands during another transitional period for BET, as its parent company Paramount is trying to raise money by shedding assets to pay down debt and to invest in its 2-year-old streaming service, Paramount+. Producer Tyler Perry and L.A.-based media mogul Byron Allen have both expressed interest in buying a majority stake in the TV network, possibly setting off a bidding war for the Black-entertainment monolith.

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