Former BET CEO Debra Lee gets candid about her tenure at the cable network in her new memoir, “I Am Debra Lee,” which shares 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 against the likes of Aretha Franklin and Oprah Winfrey during her tenure at the company.
“I want to give advice to those behind me. Because that was always a part of me,” Lee told ABC host Robin Roberts Tuesday on “Good Morning America.” “I was a college counselor. in law school hire a law firm BUILD A GREAT TEAM AT BET I always thought I was pretty average — I wasn’t the smartest kid in my class… and I just wanted the youth to know if I could do it. They can too. And they should dream big.”
The 68-year-old began her network career as First Vice President and General Counsel in 1986 and was promoted to President and Chief Operating Officer 10 years later. Named president and CEO in 2005 and stepping down in 2018 after 13 years in office, during which time she oversaw the launch of the black entertainment network’s hit show “Being. Mary Jane”, “The Real Husbands of Hollywood” and “In Contempt ”.
“I quit BET three years ago,” Lee told Roberts. And I always wanted to write a book.”
Lee’s memoirs, published Tuesday by Grand Central Publishing’s Legacy Lit, are billed as “the most literal of all time.”
Lee told Roberts that when she stepped down, she “realized there were very few black female CEOs.”
“It’s not what I dreamed of. But now I’ve done it. I really like it. People come to me and thank me for doing it. And I want them to know it is possible,” she said.
With her book, she said she wants to help women succeed in the workplace. and also opened up about “Potential pitfalls” and how her personal and professional relationship with her boss affected her career.
Lee recounted a message from Tuesday’s memoir: She worked for Johnson for 10 years before they started their romance.
“He was my mentor and pusher. He is responsible for a lot of my success,” Lee said. “We were in a relationship while we were both married. and both ended in divorce And then people know about the relationship. The company knows that … we start to go anywhere together. The downfall of that kind of relationship is if you want to get out of it. It’s coming and I want to separate. I see it as not a long term relationship. And my work and career are over my head.”
She recounted how she was in her 20s at BET and was told that if she wanted to break up with Johnson, she was told. She should resign from the company the next day.
“So I will lose everything. I would lose my career. My ability to get a new job (if) I can’t find references … At that time I was a single mother with two children. So it was a difficult time. And I don’t have anyone to talk about. Because I don’t have a female role model. There weren’t many women in front of me. I feel embarrassed to talk to my family about it. It was dark time.”
Former TV exec says therapy Johnson eventually left BET in 2006, and Lee became chief executive. Clear a new path on her own terms.
“I can live my dreams without any threats. I guess after Me Too and Time’s Up, I want women to know that there are other forms of harassment. Not everyone came to the door in robes. That’s not the kind of relationship I have. It’s what grows into relationships. Sometimes I feel consent But after Me Too and Time’s Up came back, I reevaluated the whole thing and[asked]’Is this really my choice?'”
elsewhere in the book Lee opened up about her son’s death. who became depressed during the outbreak of COVID-19 and details her interactions with other powerful women. in the entertainment industry including Franklin and Winfrey Lee said she rejected Franklin’s strange request at a charity concert and would not let Winfrey advertise her own competitive network on BET.
Lee emphasized that she “Want to be an example”
“People see me out on stage once a year at the BET Awards and I hate doing that. I also mentioned in the book that I am an introvert and quite shy. That was always a struggle for me… but I came out (during the ceremony) to let our audience know that there was a black woman running the network. And that makes a big statement,” she told Roberts.
Lee’s memoir comes at another turning point for BET, as parent company Paramount is trying to raise money by shedding assets to pay off debt and invest in the 2-year-old streaming service Paramount+, producer Tyler Perry and mogul Byron Allen. LA-based media have expressed interest in acquiring a majority stake in the TV network. which may launch a bidding war for Black-Entertainment Monolith