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BET's 25th Anniversary Show

Source: Michael Caulfield Archive / Getty

Former BET CEO talked to good friend Robin Roberts on Good Morning America about her new memoir I Am Debra Lee. In the interview, Debra Lee says her book sprinkles advice with her life story revealing publicly for the first time the personal impact of her longtime relationship with BET founder Robert Johnson.

“The power dynamics are so important in a relationship, especially if you’re having a relationship with someone you work for, and we all know the potential pitfalls,” she told Roberts.

“I worked for Bob Johnson for 10 years before we had a personal, romantic relationship. He was a mentor, and he pushed me and he’s responsible for a lot of my success. We were both married and then we were both divorced and people knew about the relationship. The company knew, and we started going places together.”

She continues, “The downfall of a relationship like that is if you want to get out of it. When I wanted to break up – I saw it wasn’t a long-term relationship, my job and my career were held over my head. It was like ‘well if you want to break up with me, you can leave tomorrow.’”

Lee says she was devastated when considering the impact on her career and her family if she was let go.

“That was 20 years into my career at BET. So, I would have lost everything, maybe my career my job, my ability to maybe get another job because if I couldn’t get a reference from the guy I worked for 20 years, how do I explain that? And by that time, I was a single mother with two children.”

Lee says that she lacked female role models in her position to talk to about it and was embarrassed to discuss the relationship with her family.

“I guess after #MeToo and Time’s Up, I wanted women to know there is another kind of harassment,” Lee said, writing that after reevaluating the relationship she now describes it as “mostly consensual,” but questioned whether it was always her choice.

After Johnson sold the company, Lee became the CEO and remained in the role for 13 years, from 2005 to 2018. During her tenure, BET was the No.1 channel with African Americans for 17 years.

She expanded on the channel’s original content, including developing the highly-rated series Being Mary Jane starring Gabrielle Union and bringing The Game to BET, which became the most-watched series premiere in cable TV history in 2014. (And still exists on Paramount today.) The New Edition Story, a three-part miniseries that aired in 2017, is the highest-rated TV biopic of all time.

Lee addressed the loss of her son, Quinn Coleman who died in August 2020. While no cause of death was given at the time, Lee explained further in the GMA interview.

“He died from depression,” she says. “He was such an outgoing young man and so social that it was hard for him to be inside. He was dealing with Black Lives Matter and George Floyd’s murder, so that really affected me.”

Lee says that one of the reasons she wrote I Am Debra Lee was to raise awareness of mental health. She says therapy helped.

“I still do therapy….sometimes we can lose the context of what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do it and how important family and friends are and having interests outside your career.”

Lee also reveals that she is “an introvert” and “pretty shy,” so giving her signature speech every year at the BET Awards was a big challenge.

“I came out so that people knew a Black woman ran the network,” she said. “That was making a huge statement. I have young girls coming up to me saying ‘You’re an example, Ms. Lee, thank you.’ I have young Black men coming up to me saying, ‘Ms. Lee, thank you for what you did for the culture.’ And it always warms my heart.”

See how Twitter reacted to news of the affair below.

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