Former BET chief executive Debra Lee details challenges she faced


“What salary do you see yourself making in life?” When Debra Lee, then a young general counsel at BET, was posed this question by Robert L. Johnson, the network’s founder, she sold herself short. “‘A million? That’s it?’ he said with a smirk,” she writes in her new memoir. But to Lee, making it in the media business was about more than making money. It was about lifting “an entire people” or, as she was often told, doing it “for the culture.”

In “I Am Debra Lee,” out Tuesday, the former chief executive of BET shares deeply personal stories, with a dose of advice, on how she learned to know herself and her worth as a Black woman while climbing the ranks of the network throughout her 32 years in leadership positions.

“I want women to understand that they don’t have to find their voice, they have their voice,” Lee told The Washington Post. “They just have to learn to use it. And that takes awhile.”

As Lee writes, she was often the one whom audiences blamed for negative depictions of Black people on BET, particularly in explicit music videos.

Lee also reveals that she and Johnson had an affair when both of them were married to different people. However, she said it took the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements for her to realize that Johnson used their workplace relationship to “control and manipulate [her] in the office and at home.”

We spoke with Lee about her evolution as a leader, the pressures of BET setting the standard for Black programming and what happens when business gets personal.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your book details your professional evolution. How did you find your voice as a leader?

I talk a lot about being an introvert and being a shy girl. So when I started getting in leadership positions, it took me awhile to really be able to use my voice and tell especially the men in the room: “No, we’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to do it my way.” For a while, I tried to act like a judge and go away and think about things. But you don’t have time to do that when you’re a CEO.

You write that over the years, people would thank you for what you did “for the culture.” What does that phrase mean to you?

For me, that means understanding the culture and wanting to produce authentic programming for the culture, which means not negative or positive programming, but truthful, authentic programming. … It was about reflecting the community in a way that was helpful. In fact, our mission statement was “respect, reflect and elevate the community.” If a program didn’t do all three of those things, we wouldn’t do it. I think the type of programming I greenlit really did that, and I think we set the standard early on for what Black programming could be. The night we got 7.7 million viewers for “The Game,” the next day I got flowers from Tyler Perry.

You write that as a CEO you had to learn not only who you were but also what you meant to people as a public figure. What did you discover?

I learned very early that I might as well make the best decision I could and have it be my decision because they weren’t going to blame anyone else. They were going to blame me. So when Lil Wayne’s daughter and her friends came up on the stage in the middle of an inappropriate song, they were like, “Well, why would Debra Lee do that?” Well, Debra Lee didn’t know that they were going to come out. That wasn’t part of the rehearsal. That was a spontaneous thing. But I took my decisions very seriously, and I wanted them to reflect my values and what I thought our viewership values were.

Explain the standard that Black viewers held BET to during your tenure.

Well, I think there’s always been some criticism of Black programming, whether it’s reality or scripted, because there was so little of it. The programming that existed, it had to try to showcase all different types of Black folks, but it could never do that. … Our viewers had a very personal relationship with BET. And anything that looked like it might relate to the race in a negative way, they didn’t want to see it on BET, which is more of a burden for us than it was for a Bravo who was doing “Real Housewives of Wherever.” But I thought, in the end, it was a positive thing, that they wanted more from us. We just needed the resources and the talent to be able to deliver it to them. And when we did, they showed up by watching them in the millions.

Why was it important for you to share your personal relationship with Bob Johnson in the book?

I felt like I had to include it or people would say: “Everyone knows they had a relationship. Why didn’t she put it in the book?” So, one, I knew I had to. And, two, I wanted young women to know that there are forms of harassment and abuse that don’t look like a Harvey Weinstein. We’ve heard so much about the guys who come to the door with their robe open and they come out naked. That wasn’t the kind of experience I had. … It turned into a situation where my job was at issue anytime I thought about breaking up the relationship. That’s very much sexual harassment, but it’s a different kind of sexual harassment. I wanted young women to know that if you’re in a relationship that’s uneven in terms of the power structure, that it can turn abusive.

You believed your career was at risk if you walked away from the relationship?

Oh yeah, I was told that many times. It’s like, Okay, if you’re going to break up with me, let’s get on the phone and tell people you are leaving right now. And as a working mother, how does one recover from something like that? How does one say, “The man I worked for for 20 years won’t give me a recommendation and fired me because we were in a relationship and now it’s over.”

As you reflect on your life and career, would you have done anything differently?

That’s a hard question, but it’s not to say I like every decision I made or that things worked out all the time in the best way possible. But I dealt with the challenges, I worked hard, I tried to make the best decisions I could. [I] tried to be a good mother, and I raised two amazing kids, so I’m very proud of that. So I would have to say no. I would live my life as I did.

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