BET’s Debra Lee speaks candidly about the case in new book

Former BET CEO Debra Lee opens up about her tenure at the cable network in her new memoir, “I Am Debra Lee,” shares advice for women who want to succeed in corporate America, details her extramarital affair with co-founder BET’s Bob Johnson and how she stood up to the likes of Aretha Franklin and Oprah Winfrey during her time with the company.

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

The 68-year-old executive began her career at the network as senior vice president and general counsel in 1986 and was promoted to president and CEO 10 years later. She was named president and CEO in 2005 and stepped down in 2018 after a 13-year tenure, during which she helped launch Black Entainment 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’ve always wanted to write a book.”

Lee’s memoir, published Tuesday by Grand Central Publishing imprint Legacy Lit, is described as an “intimate and poignant account of the triumphant and difficult moments of an entertainment career.”

Lee told Roberts that when she resigned, she “realized that there are still very few black female CEOs.”

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

She said 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.

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

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

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

“So I would have lost everything. I would have lost my career, my job, my ability to find another job [if] Couldn’t get reference. … At the time I was a single mother with two children. So it was a difficult time and I had no one to talk to about it because I had no female role models. There weren’t many women in front of me. I was embarrassed to talk to my family about it. So it was a dark time.”

The former TV executive said the treatment “saved me”. Johnson eventually left BET in 2006 and Lee became CEO, blazing a new trail on her own terms.

“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 that there are other kinds of harassment. It’s not just a man coming to the door in a robe. That’s not the relationship I had. It was something that developed into a relationship. At times it was consensual, you know, because we were out in public. But after Me Too and Time’s Up came back, I reconsidered the whole thing and [asked]”Was that really my choice?”

Elsewhere in the book, Lee talks about the death of her son, who became depressed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and details her interactions with some of the other powerful women in entertainment, including Franklin and Winfrey. Lee said she turned down Franklin’s outlandish requests at a benefit concert and wouldn’t let Winfrey promote her competing OWN network on BET.

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

“People see me go on stage once a year at the BET Awards and I didn’t like doing that. I also talk in the book about how I’m introverted and quite shy. This was always a struggle for me … but I got out [during the ceremony] so that our audience knew that a black woman ran the network. And that was a huge statement,” he told Roberts.

Lee’s memoir lands at another time of transition for BET, as its parent company Paramount tries to raise money by shedding assets to pay down debt and invest in its 2-year-old Paramount+ streaming service. Producer Tyler Perry and Los Angeles media mogul Byron Allen have expressed interest in buying a majority stake in the television network, potentially sparking a bidding war for the Black entertainment monolith.

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