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

Former BET Chief Executive Debra Lee gets candid about her tenure with the cable network in her new memoir, “I’m Debra Lee,” sharing advice for women who want to succeed in corporate America, details of her extramarital affair with BET co-founder Bob Johnson and how she took on the likes of Aretha Franklin and Oprah Winfrey during her employment with the company.

“I wanted to give advice to those who come after me because that’s always been part of who I am,” Lee told ABC host Robin Roberts on Tuesday. “Good morning America.” “I was a consultant in college, in law school, staffed 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 that if I can do it, they can do it too. And they have to dream big.”

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 oversaw the launch of the Black Entertainment Network’s hit shows “Being Mary Jane”, “The Real Husbands of Hollywood” and “In Contempt.”

“I quit BET about three years ago,” Lee told Roberts. “I would retire, but 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 of the triumphant and awkward moments of a career in entertainment.”

Lee told Roberts that when she stepped down she “realized that there are very few black female CEOs left.”

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

She said her book aims to help women succeed in the workplace, as well as opening up about “potential pitfalls” and how her personal and professional relationship with her boss has impacted her career.

Recounting a passage from the memoir on Tuesday, Lee told Roberts 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 were in a relationship when we were both married, we are both divorced. And then people knew about the relationship. The company knew… we went places together. The downfall of a relationship like that is if you want to get out. It came and I wanted to break up. I saw that it was not a long-term relationship. And my job and my career were held over my head.

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

So I would have lost everything. I would have lost my career, my job, my ability to maybe get another job (if) I couldn’t get a reference. … By then I was a single mother with two children. So it was a tough time and I had no one to talk to about it because I had no female role models. There weren’t many women before me. I was ashamed to talk about it with my family. So it was a dark time.”

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

“I was able to fulfill my dream without any form of intimidation. So I think after Me Too and Time’s Up, I wanted women to know that there are other forms of harassment. It’s not all a man who comes to the door in a robe. That’s not the kind of relationship I had. It was one that grew into a relationship. Sometimes it felt like consensus, you know, because we were in public. But after Me Too and Time’s Up came back, I reevaluated the whole thing and (asked) ‘Was this really my choice?’”

Elsewhere in the book, Lee recounts the death of her son, who became depressed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and describes her interactions with some of the other powerful women in the entertainment industry, including Franklin and Winfrey. Lee said she turned down Franklin’s bizarre requests at a benefit concert and that Winfrey would not let her rival network OWN advertise on BET.

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

“People see me on stage at the BET Awards once a year, and I didn’t like doing that. I also talk in the book about how introverted and quite shy I am. That was always a struggle for me… but I came out (during the ceremony) so 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 parent company Paramount tries to raise money by divesting assets to pay off debt and investing in its 2-year-old streaming service, Paramount+. Producer Tyler Perry and LA-based media mogul Byron Allen have both expressed interest in buying a majority stake in the TV network, potentially sparking a bidding war for the Black entertainment monolith.