"Hollywood Unlocked" mogul Jason Lee has never minced words, and for our "12 Days of Christmas" series, he chats with us about expanding his brand with Fox Soul as well as his new studio space. He also explains why he wants to clear the air with Doja Cat, speaking on mending fences with Kevin Hart, and hammers down his criticism concerning Ebro Darden and Karen Civil.
The battle of the blogs has existed for decades. Whether they are free-standing websites or created on social media platforms from their onsets, hundreds, if not thousands of entertainment-based publications compete by flooding timelines with information. There is a consistent battle of who can break exclusives, what platforms sit down with our favorite stars, and which outlet brings "the tea" faster than others. In 2015, Hollywood Unlocked emerged from the realm of Bossips and MediaTakeOuts as an alternative source for all things Black and Hip Hop culture, and it did not take founder Jason Lee long to become a leader in the space.
Admittedly, Lee didn't have dreams of entering the entertainment industry when he was younger. He faced several obstacles in his childhood, as detailed in his 2019 autobiography God Must Have Forgotten About Me, but as a teenager, his life shifted in a direction that would spell out a successful career. It was then that he met Queen Latifah when he attended one of the Rap icon's concerts, and after visiting her on the set of Living Single where he sampled just a taste of the industry, Lee was hooked.
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However, his start wasn't smooth. Prior to launching Hollywood Unlocked, there were other established "urban," or so they were called, blogs who, according to Lee, were trying to edge him out. Although he didn't want to get too far into messy antics like others in the entertainment blogosphere, Lee relied on that route in order to compete. He appeared on the second season of Love & Hip Hop to help with visibility, but as he evolved as a person, he realized that the legacy he wanted to create did not include being a stain on the culture he loved.
Hollywood Unlocked with Jason Lee has not only managed to thrive in an ever-shifting social media culture, but it has expanded into a radio show, podcast, Fox Soul series, and now, its own studio space. Lee took some time out of his schedule to speak with us candidly about his thriving brand while also sharing details about his industry relationships. He didn't hold back when discussing his ongoing tension with Karen Civil and regardless of his criticism about Nicki Minaj, Lee revealed he is open to having a sit down with the Rap icon.
Read more from this expansive interview with Jason Lee and watch a video of our interview on YouTube below.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.
HNHH: It's a pleasure to meet you. Watching the evolution of Hollywood Unlocked has been amazing. It's a driving force in the culture but how have you been able to transition, evolve, and grow into what you are today? Some similar blogs haven't been able to really move, especially those that tried to keep you down early on in your career. Many are still in the same place as they were years ago. How have you been able to grow in spaces where others couldn't?
Jason Lee: Well, that was a great question. And I love how you said that, you know, the thing about it is, for those who are still stuck where they are, it's just a reflection of the energy they were putting in trying to take away from everybody else. I never got into this game thinking I had to be better than anybody or be greater than or have bigger interviews. I got in as a person passionate about the culture, passionate about celebrity life, wanting to know more, wanting to strip away the veils and allow fans to see their favorite stars, be able to meet my favorite celebrities, and then just do the work.
I had to share a lot of my own personal stuff. I had been depressed through this journey. I have lacked confidence at times. I had to really do a lot of self-work. And then, I just think the working on myself has evolved into what you see in my career, right. And looking at the Obamas, and being inspired by them and wanting to talk to them, I'm not going to talk to them if I'm out here spilling tea all day, and I didn't even want to spill the tea, to be honest with you. Just, when I wanted to get in the game, nobody opened up doors for me. And the only doors that opened up were those that were messy. So, I took those. And then I shaped all that drama into a throne that I sit on now.
I'm thankful that people have grown with me. Sometimes, I go through this idea that if I change, I'm gonna lose a lot of people. If I don't do this, I'm gonna lose a lot of clicks. If I don't do [that], you know. But the reality is, is that when you build a solid foundation, the people who support you and believe in you and want to see you win, and you take them on a journey with you, they'll stay there. You may lose some, but you'll gain others. And I just think that I've been grateful to figure it out. I'm still figuring it out. I thank you for acknowledging that.
I just saw on your Instagram that you have Hollywood Unlocked Studios, and now you'll be nurturing others following in your footsteps. What do you have planned for this space?
Over the past year, I started working on developing my own courses, and the course is very simple: how to build a successful blog and podcast. There are a lot of people out there, especially in the pandemic, and with television changing and things moving online, the boom of digital and social media, that people want to learn how to be a premier broadcaster. They want to have access to the same opportunities that I figured out without a lot of handouts, if any. When I started, I had to just figure it out along the way. And as I was figuring it out, I was realizing like, as an entrepreneur, as a Black entrepreneur, as a gay Black entrepreneur, raising money was hard. The"nos" were loud, the "you're not good enough," "there's no space for you."
Every door they tried to shut on me, I kept kicking them down because I became excited at the idea that I can prove them wrong. In the development of the courses, when I started saying, "Hey, this is how you build your podcast, this is how you find your niche, this is how you market, this is how you protect your IP, this is how you license and all that." Then I started saying, "Well, where are they going to go and do all this?" You know, it sounds great. Knowing that we're coming out of COVID, I wanted to launch a space that people can rent and have the right high-quality equipment to do it, but also have a team that's done it that has proven success by taking a blog and turning it into a media platform like Hollywood Unlocked. And also our podcast has become a nationally syndicated show and TV show and, and I'm excited that on January 1, Hollywood Unlocked Studios will launch and people will be able to do that.
How about the next season of Hollywood Unlocked on Fox Soul. What can viewers look forward to in what you're going to present an offer to them there?
I've been doing a lot of work, building stronger relationships with people to build trust. I'm still Jason Lee, I'm still gonna ask hard questions, I'm still gonna have very blunt opinions, I'm still going to push the needle. I'm doing it though, from a perspective of being a fan of the culture, fan of celebrity life, as I said, but also having more compassion. Trying to see things from their perspective. I recently launched Season Three with Kevin Hart, where we talked a lot about our fallout and how we've been able to build a relationship through mutual respect, where I have to understand his perspective, but he also has to understand ours.
I've been a big advocate for treating Black media on the [red] carpets equally as our white counterparts, and him saying that he acknowledges where he could do better...he has been more aware. It made it all make sense. This season, I think you're going to see a lot more conversations with people, continuing to sit down with our people and go back to interviews in-person where we can like, really get into how we can move our people forward.
I think maybe it was a month or two ago, you spoke about having a conversation with Megan Thee Stallion and really coming to terms with whatever happened between the two of you. Is there anybody else that you have spoken about in the industry, or had some sort of run-in with in the industry, where you would say, 'I'd really like to have a conversation with this person so we can just have a meeting of the minds'?
Yeah, I think that Doja Cat is somebody who I was really critical of because of things that have popped up with her on social media that, you know, maybe I was a little harder on her than I should have been. Would love to [talk], doesn't mean that I don't believe what I said. It just means that I'm in a place now where I would love to have space to talk to her. [And] Jordyn Woods. I think that I was gaslighted by the Kardashians and made a lot of promises that didn't come to fruition, which I think may have driven some of my personal interest in that story that had nothing to do with me.
"I think that Doja Cat is somebody who I was really critical of because of things that have popped up with her on social media that, you know, maybe I was a little harder on her than I should have been."
But Megan, I was just very critical of different moves that she and other celebrities have made jockeying for white people's validation and not really going back to the culture that talks and pushes them every day. I was happy that when I ran into her at Cardi B's birthday party, when she turned around, I hadn't noticed her, but she turned around, I was standing there. I was a few cocktails in, so, I know where it was gonna go, but she turned to me and she said, "You know, I'm a good person." I said, "I know you're an amazing person and I love you. That's why I introduced you to Cardi and I want to build with you. But I also need you to see us and I need you to participate with us because we do love you. But you can't be afraid of us. And you can't be afraid of questions that everybody wants to know the answers to, because they're going to be asked somewhere. Well, why not give it to us?" We exchanged numbers and we have been in contact and talking since then. Things seem to be cool.
"Megan, I was just very critical of different moves that she and other celebrities have made jockeying for white people's validation and not really going back to the culture that talks and pushes them every day."
It's rarely personal for me. I think that when my credibility is attacked or questioned or I'm personally attacked, like what went down with [Nicki Minaj] then yeah, then it becomes personal. I'm willing to roll up the sleeves and get in the dirt. But I'm also in the space now where I believe instead of getting in the dirt, let's get in the room and put some microphones on and let's talk about it.
Not to delve too deep into the Nicki drama, but you've definitely been the brunt of intimidating fan bases. How do you find that balance of 'I'm trying to do my job and I'm trying to just be objective and not play industry politics,' but 'I'm also not trying to get doxxed and have people threaten my life'?
[Smiles] Just can't give a f*ck, you know. I mean, like, you just can't get—if you're going to come and kill me because I criticized your song or you being married to a man who's been convicted of rape or murder, and I have criticized moves that you made or uncovered where you lied, or...if your fan base wants to try to do all that, listen, I'm not really worried about that. I think that there are innocent people being hurt every day at work, at home, on the bus, in the streets. There are Black people being killed for simply being Black. So, death, violence, abuse, all that is just a part of life, and it's going to happen.
When it comes to doing my job, I try to stay true to what I believe and true to what I see online. I try to be thoughtful when I speak about it. There are times that I fall short of that and I've been apologetic when I've done it, when I've crossed the line. Very few times. But look, ultimately, Nicki Minaj, I still listen to her music. I'm not a Barb by any measure, thank God, but I do like Nicki Minaj. I think she's one of the many queens of Hip Hop, but she's not the only queen. I think that we have to get to a place where we can set our differences aside, for the sake of the culture moving forward. I know she reached out to me to talk, [but] we never did. And that's okay if we never do but ultimately, one day I hope to sit down and talk to her, too.
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Because you have this successful media brand and make yourself so visible, do you ever feel an added pressure by other media professionals to make space or create opportunities for them?
All the time I'm confronted by friends who started earlier or I started when they started and then they didn't grow and I did. And it's like, hey man, I put in the work I got all the nos you're getting, I got all the "you're not good enough." I got Black people telling me I'm not Black enough. Don't speak on the culture. I got white people telling me that they don't have time to invest in it. I got brands giving to Karen Civil when she's robbing the culture blind. I have so many different things happening. But you know what I did, I put my blinders on and I poured into spaces that wanted to pour into me.
James DuBose over at Fox Soul saw me, saw an opportunity, poured into me. He got me one hundred percent. Nick Cannon saw me, poured into me, brought me on Wild N Out. One hundred percent. [Charlamagne Tha God] saw me and brought me to iHeartRadio. One hundred percent. I can spend my time focused on those who don't see their value and don't want to invest in themselves, I can get into arguing with them about that, or I can just keep pouring into those that do, and that was when I started living with the quality-based approach to life over the quantity approach to life. Look, I'm okay with figuring out how to help my people. We have small business discounts for advertising and all that but I'm not into giving handouts because I didn't get any, and we shouldn't want a handout because, as they say, anything that comes easy is not worth having.
Touching on the Karen Civil stuff that happened this year. You know there's the saying in journalism, you don't become a part of the story, but that was your story. And very explosive. I do remember when your Instagram got shut down years ago, and now knowing that Karen Civil was behind it, that has to be a very weird place in the industry because you both know the same people. You have people that want you to thrive and want her to thrive, as well. I know that you had that conversation with Charlamagne about the situation, and you've talked about how [Ebro Darden] approached the situation. Where are you now with all of that?
I still want her to be held accountable. Unfortunately, when it comes to the statute of limitations on the legal front to sue her, I'm not going to be able to sue her. So, that's that. I feel like people see her now. If they choose to work with her, you see it and you get what you get. I think that the damage she did to herself by admitting what she's done to me and to other people is—it's out there for people to see. Those receipts will never go away. Millions of people watch the interview, they heard the Clubhouse chat. They heard her say she has no problem wearing orange because she likes orange. She's been who she is and the world sees it now.
"I still want [Karen Civil] to be held accountable. Unfortunately, when it comes to the statute of limitations on the legal front to sue her, I'm not going to be able to sue her. So, that's that. I feel like people see her now."
I always say to people, pick your partnerships how you want. When it comes to me, what I can control is Hollywood Unlocked. I can control my voice. I know that she doesn't have the partnership with Facebook that she used to have, she doesn't have the access in some areas. And that's great for us because ultimately, when you have cancer like a Karen Civil, you got to cut it out. As far as Ebro goes and his poor journalism, you know, Ebro doesn't take any food off my plate. I don't wake up and go to sleep thinking about Ebro. He'll still have his Apple show or whatever, he'll still make fun of African names, and he'll still do whatever he wants to do, and people will still subscribe to that if they want. We're all not perfect and we're all not a monolith, but ultimately, what I will say is that I thank God I'm not an employee like Ebro. I thank God that I'm in control of my voice. I thank God that there's not one partnership that tells me that I can't say how I feel.
Speaking of having your own platform and being able to move how you want...in casting vision for 2022, what does life and overall business look like for Jason Lee and Hollywood Unlocked?
So, for Jason Lee...launching the courses on how to build a successful blog and podcast and really promoting that globally for people to be able to start their own Hollywood Unlocked. I want to share the voice of the culture. I don't think the three of us at the top, or wherever the perceived top is, should be dominating that [space]. I think everybody should have a stake in it because ultimately, all of us have to receive a dividend at the end of our investment. I think that the launch of the Hollywood Unlocked Studios, to be able to provide a space for podcasters or bloggers to come and create, or do photoshoots or whatever they want to do there, is important. Also, my next book, How I Stopped Giving a F*ck and Started Winning, I'm writing that now, probably going to be shocking, but also going to be some tea to sip on while you read and learn how to be, you know, to be great.
Just continue to grow at [Fox Soul]. I want to start producing content behind the scenes and just kind of put my thing in it. But also, I was just with Tiffany Haddish recently in Colombia for her birthday, and we were talking about how we can help each other. I told her I'm bringing back the Hollywood Unlocked Social Impact Awards in 2022. She's agreed to host it and produce it with me! So, you know, being able to continue to provide more spaces for us to show up. That's what I'm about.
That's awesome. And this is my last question, I ask everyone I interview. I know that you have been a person who has been very raw, open, honest, and unfiltered. Yet still, I know that there are many people who view Jason Lee in a box because all they can see of you is someone famous with a platform. What is something about yourself that the veil of celebrity masks or hides that you wish the public could see about the heart of who you are as a person? Just a heartfelt part of who you are.
Well, first of all, I don't see myself as a celebrity. I see myself as a public figure that people recognize. I still gag when the Rihannas or the Mariah Careys text me. I was recently at a gay club in New York. There's this hot bartender that I want to date. He won't date me, but he's a huge Mariah Carey fan. So, I took a picture with him and I texted Mariah and she responded. Now he's in love with me [laughs]. You know, listen, I use my relationships and resources the way that I do. I will say that I wish that people would just understand that I'm human and I'm growing, and I'm not perfect.
No matter what success I have in my business, I still am going through my personal evolution as a human being. I have to fall in love with myself every day, I have to continue to wake up with purpose every day, I have to wear all of the drama, from being an employer to being a public figure to being a son or an uncle, just like everybody else. And I think that I wish that people would see that side of me. The other part of that, though, is that as much as I give it out, I can take it. It doesn't hurt my feelings when people say whatever they say about me, because as long as you're talking, I'm winning.
I appreciate you taking the time today. I look forward to seeing what else you come up with in the years to come.
Thank you. And I appreciate all the support I get from you all. HotNewHipHop always supports us and I see it. Anytime we break something and I go to the search, I always see HotNewHipHop covered it. I'm like, yeah, I really appreciate that.