Debra Lee is using her extramarital affair with BET founder Bob Johnson as a cautionary tale for women in corporate America.
Lee served as CEO of the multibillion-dollar company for over a decade after Johnson retired in 2005. She worked alongside the Black media trailblazer for 20 years.
However, in her new memoir, “I Am Debra Lee,” she opened up about the challenges she faced after becoming involved with her superior.
“Well, I wanted to tell that story because power dynamics are so important in a relationship, and especially if you’re having a relationship with someone you work for. We all know the potential pitfalls,” said Lee on “Good Morning America” on March 7.
The former attorney shared that her relationship with Johnson was strictly professional for a decade before their affair started. “He was a mentor and he pushed me, and he’s responsible for a lot of my success,” said the first-time author.
Both individuals were married at the time they began the affair, which led both of their respective marriages to end in divorce. Afterward, the two colleagues went public with their relationship.
“The downfall of a relationship like that is if you want to get out of it,” claimed Lee. “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 and it was like, ‘Well, if you want to break up with me then you can leave tomorrow.'”
By that point, the now-retired executive had invested two decades in helping to turn BET into a media powerhouse.
“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 with for 20 years, how do I explain that?” she said. “And by that time I was a single mother with two children. So it was a tough time.”
Lee explained that he had no “female role models” at the time and how “embarrassed” she was to even discuss the affair with her family.
“It was a dark time and what saved me was therapy, and eventually Bob left the company and I became CEO,” she stated.
The timeline of when Johnson and Lee ended their affair is unknown and will likely be addressed in “I Am Debra Lee.”
She stayed on at BET for 13 years after Johnson left, where she was allowed to “live my dream, and without any form of harassment.”
“So, I guess after Me Too and Times Up, I wanted women to know there’s other kind of harassment,” Lee said. “You know, it’s not all a man coming to the door in a robe. That’s not the kind of relationship I had.”
The socially driven movements to call out sexual harassment and its perpetrators in the workplace moved Lee to reflect on her past romance.
“It was one that grew into a relationship. At times it felt consensual …‘cause we were out in public. But after Me Too and Times Up came back, I sort of reevaluated the whole thing. I said, was this really my choice?”
During her reign, the multi-faceted woman led the network with iconic award shows and performances as well as popular tv shows such as “The Game,” “Being Mary Jane,” “The Real Husband of Hollywood,” and more.
Lee currently serves on the boards of AT&T, Burberry Group, Marriott International, and Proctor & Gamble.
Comments online range from those who believe “Debra Lee had a plan and knew what she was doing when she had an affair with Bob Johnson” to their affair being the reason sexual harassment laws and policies exist.
Lee’s book is out now. In it, she also talks about the triumphs and hardships she faced as a female CEO, as well as other noteworthy anecdotes.