Iconic Show Host Ready to Provide Culturally Conscience Content with or Without Viacom
Jason Lee’s grit, determination and unwavering passion have made him one of Hollywood’s most sought-after entertainment visionaries.
The entrepreneur has been CEO, event producer and brand ambassador for more than a decade. His sideline as celebrity relationship connector for The Conglomerate Group included big names like Chris Brown, Kris Jenner, Rob Kardashian and Jamie Foxx.
The California native has begun to question the motives of mass-media powerhouse Viacom, the company that kept him on contract through Love & Hip Hop and Wild ‘N Out!
He’s not shy about his distaste for the company and wants to remake his brand into a venue for “conscious” content. Lee hopes his cultural journey opens up avenues for African-American employment.
Zenger’s Percy Crawford spoke to Jason Lee about Viacom, Fox Soul, weight loss and much more.
Zenger: How is it going, Jason?
Jason Lee: I’m good. How are you?
Zenger: No complaints. Thanks for asking. Congratulations on your recent weight loss. What made fitness and health a priority for you?
Lee: Thank you. When I turned 42, I said I wanted to make myself more of a priority. I had just come off doing my book, God Must Have Forgotten About Me, and I was going around and doing the tour and talking about it.
I realized that I hadn’t really focused on a lot of my past and the healing from my past, so I gave myself a year to try and lose it. I did everything I could, and it wasn’t working. So, I took more aggressive steps to do it, and I’m glad that I did it. I lost 86-pounds so far, and I’m still going.
Zenger: Where did the concept of Hollywood Unlocked come from, and did you think it would be at the level where it is now?
Lee: I mean, I always believed that I would be successful because I just had a pattern of, any job that I’ve ever had or wanted to be a part of, I always have done my best to be the best. So, I always knew I would be successful. I didn’t see a lot of the different verticals that have happened like a nationally syndicated radio show or whatever. I always knew I wanted to write a book because I love books. I always knew I wanted to have a talk show or TV show of my own because I wanted a talk show ever since I created the brand. I knew it would be successful, but with all the different twists and turns and experiences that I had getting here, I never saw a lot of that stuff, but throughout the good and the bad, it’s been a great journey.
Zenger: How have you dealt with the different beefs? I don’t want to say threats, but the type of energy that comes along with putting out the kind of information you put out on your platform?
Lee: I don’t really wake up every day and think about how people feel about what I’ve written or what the staff has written on Hollywood Unlocked. I really don’t. I feel like we’re a truth-based platform. We don’t partake in fallacious gossip. I sometimes think the delivery of my opinions kind of piss people off. Of course, you know that I know how to f**k with the internet and how to get people talking, but we don’t do anything malicious. There’s no plot over here. I think people are just out here doing reckless s**t in the culture that we talk about…but people are doing great stuff, and we talk about that. But people have to learn how to be less sensitive and take the good with the bad because, at the end of the day, that’s what the world is. It’s good, and it’s bad. And some people do more bad than good, and we talk about that, and if they did more good than bad, we talk about that. I don’t really live in what people feel about what I do. I got a job to do, and we do it well.
Zenger: How did you discover that this was the lane for you?
Lee: As a kid and growing up, I fell in love with pop culture. I talked a lot in my book about Michael Jackson, Prince and just different people who inspired me. Just loving music and film. And with the boom of social media and the paparazzi and really getting interested in celebrity life and celebrity culture as well as pop culture as a whole. I just really felt that I wanted to be in it. But I felt that I didn’t really have the talent. I wasn’t a singer, I wasn’t a rapper, I wasn’t an actor, so I felt like with the boom of social media and tech that I could become a tech-entrepreneur. And that I would launch a platform to allow me to do everything that I want to do. I want to be an entrepreneur and make millions of dollars. I love the industry and entertainment and music. Why not create something where I can do both? So, that was the birth of Hollywood Unlocked. The name came from really wanting to open up Hollywood’s veil for people to see what was actually happening. If you think that these people are dating, let’s talk to them and see if they are. If you think this person is doing something good, let’s talk to them. If this person is doing wrong, let’s talk to them. That’s really where the name Hollywood Unlocked originated. I would unlock Hollywood, and then, the podcast came as a way of me really not liking how I was portrayed on Love & Hip Hop (seasons two and three), so I wanted to create my own platform so I could have my own voice where it was unfiltered, not controlled by anybody. So I created that podcast, which evolved into a nationally syndicated show that I own, and then that evolved into the Fox Soul Show that I also own.
Jason Lee, Hollywood Unlocked with Jason Lee. (Courtesy Hollywood Unlocked with Jason Lee)Zenger: You recently voiced your distaste of Viacom and the way that they have not only pigeonholed you but how they also won’t either release you or let you change creatively. Could you elaborate on that situation?
Lee: Yeah! Let me be clear. I don’t hate Viacom. I think they have been good to me; they’ve been great to the Hollywood Unlocked brand. They’ve provided me a platform to launch Hollywood Unlocked, and to evolve into Wild’ N Out! But you know, what they did with Nick Cannon and the fact that that show still lies in the balance and we don’t know what’s happening there, and I contractually have one more season with them, that’s just kind of lingering. And then, Love & Hip Hop is not shooting because of Covid-19, and they are extending the shooting schedule and not giving the pickup orders. You have me in two contracts that I don’t know when I’m filming, and you don’t want to let me out. And I’m saying, one, that’s unfair because during Covid we should all be able to do whatever work we need to do to make money. Although I’m not hurting for money, I still want to be able to create. And two, I don’t think we’re in a climate right now or a vibe where a show like Love & Hip Hop can make any sense. You can’t come off the cusp of Black Lives Matter, say Breonna Taylor’s name, and stand for George Floyd and the fact that he couldn’t breathe. You’re squeezing the breath out of black families on a show like Love & Hip Hop when all we’re expected to do is beat each other up and cuss each other out and destroy the perception of the black family and black relationships for people to consume. I just said, ‘Hey, I want to go away peacefully. It’s not worth it, let me go.’ They don’t want to let me go, so now, we’re talking about it.
Zenger: How important is it for you to be culturally conscience now when you are creating content as opposed to just doing the drama and gossip stuff?
Lee: I think when I came into, Love & Hip Hop, I always knew, regardless of what I was doing, Love & Hip Hop, and then, Wild ‘N Out, I knew that I would have to diversify my audience and who Jason Lee was. I’ve always had the passion as a content creator on the Hollywood Unlocked platform to create more content, to create shows. My relationships are vast, my creativity is very big, and if Ryan Seacrest and Andy Cohen and all these other people can do it, why can’t I? Why do I have to be pigeonholed as the gay, messy blogger on Love & Hip Hop? I’m much bigger than that. I’m here for a bigger purpose than that. I’m a Black employer who has created many jobs for Black people, and I want to make more shows for people of color that can move with the times. I just feel like my new show on YouTube, Gagging With Jason Lee, is funny, it’s reckless, I’m not throwing drinks, I’m not fighting with anybody, there is no combat. It’s highly entertaining, it has a lot of support from fans online and would do well somewhere. But the fact that Viacom doesn’t want to allow me to grow as an executive director and content creator who owns his content or a collaborator on their platform shows me that they really want me to show up and be this monkey that fights with people on their show. I’m not with that anymore. I’m over that. I’ve grown out of it. If we’re not going to get into the business together, real business, then we separate and go our separate ways.
Zenger: What we do is a lot harder than it looks from the outside looking in. Who we interview, the who, what, when and why’s matter. How do you determine what you want to cover or who you want to interview?
Lee: For me, it’s all about my gut. They ended their partnership with Big Fish Entertainment so they can take their production in-house, and they blamed it on what happened at A&E TV where a black man died as a result of their interaction with a police officer that aired on one of their shows and that they destroyed the tape. Big Fish followed their protocol and the networks protocol or whatever protocols in place on how to handle content they did not quote using. They participated in the investigation, they were more than available to participate in any investigation they wanted, and they were told they didn’t need them to. As a result, Viacom ended their relationship. It took all of its shows, Black Ink, Love & Hip Hop, in-house, well guess what, I kept my relationship with Big Fish. Big Fish believed in me. Big Fish allowed me to come back to Love & Hip Hop and tell my brother’s story. The real story to the black audience to where Viacom felt that the conversation about my brother’s death was too sophisticated for their audience. I just knew they are going into a direction that I’m not going in, and while they figure out what direction that is, I want to move on and create real content that people wanna see, and with partners who can value the black experience of being more vast than just throwing drinks and cussing each other out.
Zenger: Hypothetically speaking, what would be the ideal situation for you in ending or resolving this whole situation?
Lee: I mean, I’m very simple. They can either A: Let me out of my contract so I can go to their competitive networks and build real programming, or B: They can come to the table and have a real humble conversation about investing in black content creators, and we can figure out a deal to work together. I never had any problem working with Viacom in a real capacity. I have a problem with them trying to control me or control other black creators and not invest in real programming for people that have dedicated themselves to their network. So, I’m down to walk away and create, I’m down to stay and create, but I’m not down to be pigeonholed or feel like I’m working as part of a plantation. And that’s what it’s starting to feel like right now.
Zenger: Good luck with everything, Jason. I hope it all works out for you. In the meantime, keep doing your thing. You have a great thing going. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Lee: Just make sure that you do support Fox Soul and the new show that we have over there, Hollywood Unlocked. They gave me my first executive producer credit, and they are giving me an opportunity to continue to grow and create programming for their network. And that’s the relationship that I would like to have with all the networks, honestly. But shout out to Fox Soul for giving us that chance.
(Edited by Andre Johnson and Daniel Kucin Jr.)