Hollywood Unlocked CEO Jason Lee Spills the Tea on Life Before the Brand, His Journey to Becoming an Entrepreneur, Reality TV, and More
Jason Lee is more than just the guy serving up the latest celebrity tea and causing the most chaos on a hit reality show for everyone to see. The Stockton, California-made media magnate has industriously built one of today’s leading entertainment empires, and he only seems to be leveling up from here.
A bonafide businessman and tenacious entrepreneur, with his incontestable work ethic and steadfast ambition, Lee has not only managed to sustain an influential brand on the pop culture forefront but also become a paramount voice for people of color in such a broad, ever-changing business.
For nearly a decade, he’s been bridging the gaps between the public and the privileged, all while making lifelong connections and sparking social conversation along the way.
Now the CEO and editor-in-chief of the well-respected gossip blog Hollywood Unlocked, which brings in over 800 million impressions monthly and has attracted 1.2 million Instagram followers, Jason Lee continues to innovatively use his platform as a vessel to drive worldwide dialogue. Be it behind the mic of his very own podcast, or chopping it up on the sofa with the industry’s sweetheart or proclaimed bad boy, the former Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood star is here to stay, and he surely has a lot to say.
We recently sat down with Jason Lee to talk Hollywood Unlocked, his success in media, if he’d ever rejoin the cast of Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood, and his involvement in MTV’s Wild ‘N Out.
Check it out below!
Parlé Mag: Before we get into everything else, I wanted to delve into your background a little bit. What was life like growing up in Stockton, California?
Jason Lee: I was raised in Stockton by a single mother, who was Italian. My father was Black. He was already married to his wife, so I was a product of a single-parent household. Stockton is a pretty rough community that has a lot of challenges, but I ended up in foster care at the age of seven and stayed there until about fourteen, then I came home. Readjusting to the community was a little challenging because I hadn’t grown up outside of a foster care or a group-home setting, so it was very different to adjust. I ended up reuniting with my mother, and then I got shot at fifteen.
Parlé Mag: Oh, wow!
Jason Lee: It was really rough growing up, but I attribute everything I’ve gone through to who I’ve become today.
Parlé Mag: You went from a young boy in Stockton to literally this world-renowned media mogul. So, how did you get your start in the entertainment business?
Jason Lee: I met Queen Latifah at fifteen, once I came home. I was always a lover of music, entertainment, Michael Jackson, Prince, and just all of what the celebrity life entails–at least, from a thirty-five-thousand-foot level. Having come home and met Queen Latifah, I just really fell in love with her as a person. Also, with [us] becoming friends, [me] coming to L.A. early, at sixteen, and just seeing productive people of color really making it, I was just destined to figure out how to get out here. So, I had established that relationship [with Queen Latifah], and I’m a person who naturally loves to network, so over the years, I’ve met a lot of people and built a big rolodex as well.
Then, when I met Floyd [Mayweather], about four and a half years ago, I was just really inspired by how he was just so self-made and how he stayed true to his brand. Whatever he wanted to do, he did it; he didn’t accept sponsors, so he never had to do anything on anybody else’s terms. I was really inspired by that and believed that I could be the same successful individual in my own lane. So, I decided that the lane I wanted to get into was media, because I felt like there weren’t enough people of color with faces on their brands. I also felt like there weren’t enough people inside of the industry giving a perspective of what was happening and keeping it real as a fan.
Parlé Mag: Being that you are a part of the LGBTQ community, for you, would you say that it was more challenging to break into this industry because of that? If so, how have you managed to sort of overcome those barriers?
Jason Lee: You know what’s so funny? This may sound crazy, but I honestly don’t think about gay or straight in my everyday life, and I don’t think about gay or straight in my work life. I’ve always protected my personal business, just as a practice, because I’m in the business of making everybody else’s business my business, and I don’t want my business to be out there.
Parlé Mag: Right, understood.
Jason Lee: So, who I’m dating, or who I’m involved with romantically, isn’t something that I like to share, but not for the sake of trying to preserve my sexuality. I just chose to leave my introduction to the business and to my lane based on the credibility and ability of my brand, versus who I was involved with, you know?
Parlé Mag: Definitely, as you should.
Jason Lee: I didn’t get into the business with any thought that it was going to be easier or harder being a member of the LGBTQ community, nor do I feel an obligation to be a person spearheading everything related to the LGBTQ community. I am me, and Hollywood Unlocked is what should be first. Jason Lee is who you meet second. That, so far, has worked for me. I will say that I’ve learned that it’s harder as a person of color in this industry, when it comes to raising money versus being accepted for being a fan of pop culture.
Parlé Mag: What’s the best lesson you’ve taken from your career?
Jason Lee: Well, the biggest lesson I think I’ve taken so far is something that I have to go back and attribute to Floyd. It’s to own my own sh*t. I think that being on Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood was such a great springboard for revealing my brand to the world. It was great marketing, and the fact that it played [on TV] so many times, it was good advertising that I didn’t have to pay for. But I wasn’t in control of how my brand was perceived on that show, so because of that, I put a lot of faith in situations that I didn’t control, and the outcome wasn’t necessarily the way I would’ve wanted it to be. I will say that I’ve learned the importance of working really hard, locking into my audience, growing my fanbase, and being able to focus on opportunities to create my own shows, which I’m working on. So, I think just owning your own stuff and really having the drive to go for it is the best lesson I’ve taken.
Parlé Mag: As the editor-in-chief of Hollywood Unlocked, one of the leading media platforms in the game right now, how do you balance running a thriving brand and still find time for yourself?
Jason Lee: I have a really interesting rule! I work and vacation almost equally the same. Let me explain that. So, before I got into entertainment, I was the director on SEIU, which is a labor union. I used to negotiate healthcare worker contracts inside of Kaiser Permanente across the state of California. The one clause that they had in their contract, that was important to them and important to us, was work-life balance. So, when I launched my company, I tried to find a way to work and enjoy my time as equally as possible. It’s really hard because even when I’m on vacation, I’m still consumed with it, but I’ll go and shoot Wild ‘n Out, and then after Wild ‘n Out, I’ll fly out of the country. Or, I’ll do campaign or something, and then I’ll go to Miami. You know? I try to keep a balance, because if you’re going to be a successful entrepreneur in anything you do, you have to be consumed with it… more than anything!
Parlé Mag: Most definitely.
Jason Lee: So, yeah, I try to have a balance.
Parlé Mag: What’s something that you wish you would’ve known when you first started out? Any regrets?
Jason Lee: No, I don’t have any regrets, but one thing I wish I would’ve known earlier is that the fear of being a self-made entrepreneur is normal. It’s still all possible! I wish I would’ve gone for it earlier, but I don’t regret that I didn’t because, over the years, I’ve acquired so many failures that have prepared me for the success I’m enjoying now. I don’t regret any of the lessons that I’ve learned. Every single thing that I’ve gone through–whether it’s a personal relationship, business relationship or friendship, meeting random people, fans, production, social media, TV–it has all been a lesson that I feel has just continued to fuel me to be as aggressive in reaching my dreams.
Parlé Mag: What do you think is the biggest misconception about yourself?
Jason Lee: Ha! That’s funny. I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that I’m mean, or I’m just messy all of the time. I’ll be honest with you, I have a messy job at times! [laughs]
Parlé Mag: [laughs]
Jason Lee: I can definitely play into it. Sometimes the conversations are really far left and really wild, and I participate in those. But when I’m not on camera or interviewing somebody, reporting the news, or throwing an opinion out there on Instagram, I honestly don’t care. I’m not living this messy stuff twenty-four seven. So, again, I think one of the biggest misconceptions is that I’m just super messy, and everything I do is messy. [laughs] And It’s really not the case. Sometimes I do play into the narrative for entertainment and kicks-and-giggles because it’s funny to watch people go wild on Instagram. I just sit there, laugh, and read all of the comments!
Parlé Mag: Switching gears, let’s talk about your latest endeavor, going from Love & Hip Hop Hollywood to becoming a cast member of MTV’s Wild ‘N Out. Tell us about your experience and how that came about.
Jason Lee: So, I did Love & Hip Hop to launch Hollywood Unlocked’s show. Because I had a rough season during my first season of [Love & Hip Hop Hollywood], I came back and did a second season. Once I felt like I had at least normalized myself, within the show, I decided to walk away. I then launched my podcast, Hollywood Unlocked UNCENSORED, and just started calling friends and asking them to come and interview. I wanted people to see me outside of Love & Hip Hop. As I felt like the fanbase was starting to get me and grow with me, I interviewed Nick Cannon, and I was like, ‘Hey! Nick, I need a job. I need to be back on TV. I ain’t going back to Love & Hip Hop. What’s up?’ He called me a couple of months later and offered me the opportunity. I had to go there and find myself because I’m not a comic, I don’t dance, and I don’t rap. But I knew I could be messy, for sure. I knew I could be funny, and I knew I could rap… if I had to. So, I was like, ‘Let me figure this out!’ I struggled at first, but I’m happy with the final outcome.
Parlé Mag: If given the opportunity, would you ever consider joining the Love & Hip Hop franchise again?
Jason Lee: It’s so crazy you asked that because I go back and forth. Some days, I hate it. Some days, I like it. Last night, K. Michelle called me, and we had a long conversation about Love & Hip Hop. I don’t ever want to say ‘no’ and ‘never’ to anything, but where I am right now, for me to go back to that show, they would have to be able to display more layers to me than showing up and blowing up a scene. You know what I’m saying?
Parlé Mag: I totally get it.
Jason Lee: I have no interest to talk to any of those people about anything that’s not going to elevate my brand, or elevate me in some type of way. I just won’t be in anymore shows used as a tool to drive conflict. I appreciate what Love & Hip Hop has done for so many people, but for me personally, where I’m at, happiness and longevity is a priority over instant fame and chaos. So, it just depends on the storyline, how it works, and the money, of course. All of that would have to factor into it.
Parlé Mag: Do you still watch the show, even though you’re not on it anymore?
Jason Lee: I don’t watch the show as much, but I do watch when there’s something that people are talking about. If we’re talking about it on Hollywood Unlocked, I will pop in to see what’s happening. When I interviewed K. Michelle, of course I needed to know what was going on with her story, so I did get caught up with that. But, I’m not invested in the franchise at all.
Parlé Mag: What’s next for Jason Lee and Hollywood Unlocked?
Jason Lee: Well, Nick Cannon and I shot a pilot for a show called Wild ‘N Out Unlocked. The idea is for it to be a hybrid of our two brands that sort of serves as a Watch What Happens Live type of production. So, I’m hoping that MTV picks that up in October, when we go back to shoot season thirteen [of Wild ‘N Out]. I’m also looking to sign with an agent this week, to really start taking my television career to the next level–working on my own projects. And, of course, I have aspirations to create my platform through being an author. Lastly, we are now working on a really good project with Hollywood Unlocked that I can’t talk about right now, but I’m excited to see it roll out! Hopefully in the next year.
Photo Credit: Brian Christopher
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