It was widely known in the TV industry that former BET Chief Executive Officer Debra Lee had an extramarital affair with BET co-founder Robert L. Johnson.
What many people didn’t know about was the fallout from the affair.
Lee, 68, discussed the relationship with her ex-boss Tuesday morning during an appearance on Good Morning America, while promoting her new memoir, “I Am Debra Lee.”
“I wanted to give advice to those coming behind me because that’s always been part of who I am,” she told GMA co-host Robin Roberts. “I was a counselor in college, in law school, did hiring at the law firm, built a great team at BET. And I’ve always thought I was pretty normal. I wasn’t the smartest kid in class … I went to an all-Black public high school and I just want young people to know if I can do it they can do it too. And they should dream big.”
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Lee detailed the portion of her memoir about power dynamics in the workplace and the potential pitfalls of dating your boss.
“I worked for Bob Johnson for 10 years before we had a personal, romantic relationship,” she explained. “He was a mentor and he pushed me. He was responsible for a lot of my success.”
The two eventually grew closer.
“We did have a relationship while we were both married, we ended up both divorced. And then people knew about the relationship. The company knew, we started going places together,” she said. “The downfall of a relationship like that is if you want to get out of it. That’s the part where it came, and I wanted to break up. I saw it wasn’t a long-term relationship. And my job and my career was held over my head.”
Lee said Johnson told her if she wanted to end the relationship, she’d have to leave BET the next day.
“That was 20 years into my career at BET, so I would’ve lost everything,” she said. “I would’ve lost my career, my job, my ability maybe get another job because if I couldn’t get a reference from the person I worked for, for 20 years, how do I explain that? By that time I was a single mother with two children. So it was a tough time and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it because I didn’t have female role models. There weren’t a lot of women ahead of me. I was embarrassed to talk with my family about it. So it was a dark time.”
Lee said therapy “saved” her.
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Johnson sold BET to Viacom in 2001. He remained CEO of the company until moving on in 2006, and Lee was promoted to chief executive.
“I was CEO for 13 years without him being here,” she said. “I was able to live my dream without any form of harassment. So I guess after #MeToo and Time’s Up, I wanted women to know there’s other kinds of harassment. It’s not all a man coming to the door in a robe. That’s not the kind of relationship I had. It was one that grew into a relationship. At times it felt consensual, you know, because we were out in public. But after #MeToo and Time’s Up came back, I sort of reevaluated the whole thing and said, ‘Was this really my choice?’”
Lee told Roberts she left BET about three years ago.
“I was supposed to ‘retire,’ but you know that never works for those of us who are used to working so hard. And I always wanted to write a book,” she said.
The former business executive added that she wrote “I Am Debra Lee” so people would know her “whole story.” The book went on sale today.
Watch the interview below: