Media mogul and Hollywood Unlocked founder Jason Lee opens up about being an important voice in media and working with Kanye West.
When looking at the life story of Jason Lee, you wouldn’t expect him to be where he is now. Growing up in Stockton, California, Jason came from a fractured family that saw tragedy hit when he was young. He lived in foster homes, his mom battled drug addiction, and he got shot in a drive-by shooting when he was just 15 years old to name a few. However, despite all that and then some, he came out stronger in the end and pursued his dreams of a better life in Los Angeles. Even though his first job in LA was a director of a labor union representing healthcare workers, Jason was already hustling on the side, making connections in the entertainment industry and building bridges with those in the glitz and glamour of it all.
His journey in the industry was anything but conventional, but he realized one of his biggest achievements to date when he founded Hollywood Unlocked half a decade ago. Today, the black owned entertainment platform has expanded beyond celebrity news and boasts millions of followers across all their platforms. It has become a favorite go-to source for many, especially among the black community. Taking their name to heart, Hollywood Unlocked is seen as a platform that goes directly to the celebrity source whenever news breaks.
Jason himself has been described as a confidant of the rich and famous, having A-list stars like Tiffany Haddish, Kanye West, and Rihanna see Hollywood Unlocked as a friendly platform. Just don’t call it a gossip site, and Jason a journalist for that matter, because as he sees it, it is so much more than a stereotype. In an interview with NYLON Manila, the blunt talking media mogul opens up about building Hollywood Unlocked, the entertainment industry, championing black voices, and more.
You didn’t really have the easiest time growing up. Could you talk a bit about that?
I grew up in a single family household with my mother, who was a Thai and in Greek descent, my father was African American. He was married to his wife, and then my mother was his girlfriend. And so she got pregnant with me, and then boom, here I am. But I ended up in foster homes and group homes. And then, you know, ultimately, my mother, she fell on hard times. Got into drugs. Then I went into the system. And then five years later, I came out of the system and reunited with my mom, and, you know, continue to figure life out from there.
So, how did you manage to overcome all the difficulties you faced growing up?
I really feel like for me, all the things that I’ve been through in life were, in my mind testaments of my own strength, like how much will that I have to push through, I never looked at an obstacle was as a reason to be paralyzed, and not being able to move forward. I had to always figure it out. So, my life has been a testament of figuring it out. And once I survived some of the most difficult things, everything else that was also maybe not the best thing to experience wasn’t anything worse than the worst of what I experienced.
So, in my mind, I was constantly telling myself like, “Okay, this happened, how do we navigate through it? What’s the lesson? How do we come out on the other side? How do we prevail?” And I’ve taken all of those life skills and just applied it to all the careers that I’ve had.
And then where do you think this fire comes from?
I’m a dreamer in the sense of what possibilities are out there. And I do believe that possibilities are endless. I think that my whole life was people telling me what I wasn’t going to be, that I wasn’t going to accomplish, what I would never be. And I always felt like I love to challenge. So, anytime somebody said that I wasn’t going to be successful, I wasn’t going to make something or I wasn’t going to have this relationship with that. I just prove everybody wrong by proving to myself that anything is possible.
And my drive, you know, I have this motto, “If I’m if I’m awake, I’m working…” I really love what I do to the extent that it doesn’t feel like work. And so every time I build a new partnership, or I add another win to my roster, it’s almost like, it’s just proof that hard work and dedication will make anything happen.
When you started in your career, you started from like the lowest rung, but you worked your way up. Out of all the things that you could have done, why did you want to pursue this kind of career?
I think ultimately, if you think back to my childhood, foster care kid, you know, somebody who was discarded, abandoned, who has no voice, to be able to grow up in the world and find a way of taking my love and affection for celebrity culture and the boom of social media and creating a formidable business that can grow into something that I can say I’m building Hollywood Unlocked. And I love the journey of learning the nuances of building a media company along the way.
I just finished my courses where I’m going to teach people how to build their own media company, whether it’s a blog or podcast, or both. And every business needs to have a way of controlling its narrative and amplifying its message or selling its product or bringing their products to a visual form. I just fell in love with all of the extensions of where Hollywood Unlocked could go.
And speaking of Hollywood Unlocked, when you started the company, did you expect for it to grow this big?
Well, I’m very humble. But I will say that if I take on anything, my drive, my tenacity, my unwilling to lose my ability to figure out solutions to problems. I always know no matter what I’m going to do, I’m going to be successful at it. I didn’t know all the specific extensions of how the business would evolve. But I was doing parties before Hollywood, like I was doing parties when I was a kid in Stockton as a promoter. You know, I did the Trayvon Martin campaign in 2012. I was also the organizing director for a non-profit, teaching parents how to get involved in their children’s education and reforming the educational system.
I’ve always been the type of person that knew I was going to be successful at anything I did. But I didn’t know that the company would grow as fast as it’s growing. I mean, now, it’s growing to the extent that I’m trying to keep up with the growth because once it becomes a thing where more people attached to it and feel like they own it, it grows beyond your control in some regard. I knew that I’d be successful. But no, I didn’t know that it would grow this fast.
As you said, Hollywood Unlocked has grown to be this like juggernaut that is like touched upon different aspects of society. But maybe for some people out there, they just see it as like a gossip site. So what do you have to say for those who are like, ‘oh, it’s just another TMZ?’
Well, I think it’s easy to label or mislabel black media, black people in media, because it’s easy to do that. Many people would call me a blogger, maybe people will call me a journalist. And some people would say that I have no credibility. There’s all the all these things, but you know, I really look at everybody who has something to say, but isn’t spending anything with me, their opinions don’t matter to me. I don’t get caught up in the distracting forces of haters or people who are looking for clout and seeking attention from me by bashing me or discredit me.
I think black people in media in general have a hard time with being looked at as legitimate or validated, unless they’re a part of the whole infrastructure of mainstream. And I actually feel honored that I built a voice outside of the construct of mainstream. And you know, I will say, though, that the tide is turning where a lot of people have been looking beyond the perception of what they see black people immediately be gossip mongers or whatever.
What do you think it is about Hollywood Unlocked that makes it a go-to destination for many?
Well, I think what makes it different is that we’re actually unlocking Hollywood. We’re not on the outside talking about what’s happening. We’re on the inside figuring it out, you know, when things are posted about celebrities, I call them and try to get to the heart of what’s happening. So we can put out a narrative that’s more in line with the truth. We don’t always get it right, but nobody always gets it right. But you know, what I love about Hollywood Unlocked is that we don’t look at our competitors as people that we’re racing against. We look at our competitors as collaborators. We look at our competitors as people that we can learn from that we can help answer questions for. We’re creating content for the purposes of our fans and our communities. Sharing it and helping to draw in more people to our platform.
How do you manage that dynamic of being close with a celebrity but still reporting news about them?
Well, I never say to a celebrity that I want to be their friend, you know, because that word is used loosely in Hollywood. At the end of the day, you have a job to do, I have a job to do. And sometimes they’re on the other end of that job. And, you know, all of these pictures up here are not a me wanting to be their friends. But literally just memories of moments I’ve had with some of the biggest celebrities in the world, building this company, to a place where it’s built trust, but also has been able to keep it extremely bluntly real.
I can criticize somebody on Monday, run into them on Tuesday, have a conversation about it, and Wednesday, they’re on my show, or we’re having a conversation to level set perception. Because again, perception is based on proximity. So if I don’t know you, and I don’t have access to you, I’m going to say what I see. And unless I have that access to you or ability to have a conversation, then you come and share it on my show, then then I don’t know the other side of what’s happening. We do have boundaries; I think boundary setting in every relationship is important.
Over the past couple of years, there’s been this shift between how we talk about celebrity culture in general. That being so brutal towards celebrities is not acceptable anymore. So as one of the big players in the industry, where do you see celebrity culture in moving forward from here?
I don’t think that it’s impossible to be critical of celebrities. I think that when you’re a public brand, including myself, I’m a public figure people see me, you can say whatever you want. That’s within the confines of fact, that’s not illegal or not hurtful. And you can say whatever you want, as long as you don’t make it up, you know, if you do something to defame my character, or I do something to defend somebody’s character, then I expect for them to be upset and take action.
But, you know, I think that it’s important, the media, for me is more of a balance of what we actually see and experience versus what’s actually happening. And I think that I’m a person that has opinions about everything. And they don’t always align with everybody and sometimes they’re hurtful, but they’re at least coming from a pure place as I see the world and my followers sometimes agree and sometimes they don’t agree. I don’t do it for them always to agree. I just do it based on what I feel is necessary and it works so far.
So recently you began working with Kanye West as head of media and partnerships for Donda Media. And obviously a lot has been said about him over the years. As someone who knows and has worked with him personally, what is something that you would like to say to people who may not have that kind of access to him?
Yeah, I mean, I think with everybody, whether you’re a celebrity or not, you know, again, proximity changes perception, or at least proximity will add to a perception. He’s a human being like me, like you. He has feelings like me, and like you, he has desires and dreams, like me and you he’s a creator. And his art is fashion, music, culture. So in many ways, I think what I’ve learned from him is just the ability to humanize somebody that I don’t always agree with.
And I know that there’s a lot of stuff out there that people believe. With him. I’m very intentionally honest. And so far he’s, he’s really appreciative of it. You know, there’s, things that we’re going to disagree on. But if he asked me my opinion about something, regardless of what I think his opinion is, I tell him, and he respects that.
And the other thing I admire about him is that he’s brought a lot of people of color around in his group to lead on different parts of his business. Typically, when a celebrity gets to that level, people don’t look like us that are sitting at the table with them. And I think he does a great job of making sure that women of color are there and black men, gay black men, like myself, are there. And I’m not restricted to be myself or expected to be anything else. The other thing I would say is, I do love the fact that as a black man, he’s very visibly in love with being a father and wanting to be present in his kid’s life. And he’s doing everything to do that.
From your point-of-view, as a black gay man in a position of power within the entertainment industry, what do you think has changed in the industry for the better?
I think it is moving in the right direction, because I’m entering into a lot of rooms that a lot of us aren’t in, and I’m very much black, proud to be black and proud to be gay, in every single room. I don’t care who’s in the room, I don’t shrink around anybody. In fact, I have a very large presence, no matter what room I’m in, I make it a point to intentionally have that presence. Because, you know, when I was on the rise in media, a lot of people were trying to put me in a box or trying to discredit me or tell me where I didn’t fit in the equation. And now I find myself in rooms with some of the most powerful people in the industry. And they asked me my opinion, and I give it to them.
What advice would you give to young creatives who are hoping to make it big and interesting?
Don’t allow intimidation of how big or perceivably big or impactful we all are to hinder you from following your dreams because we all started somewhere. Everybody started with no followers. Everybody started with no support. And everybody started with no subscribers. And you just build it one at a time, one person at a time, one group at a time, one city at a time, one state one country, and then hopefully have impact around the world. I think the greatest lesson that I’ve learned in everything in every aspect and every experience of my life is just get up and keep going, like get up and keep going. And eventually you’re going to get where you want to go.
What’s next for you?
Oh my God, so much. I’m looking at I’m definitely excited about the metaverse and NFT’s and crypto. I’m excited to see what Elon Musk does on Twitter. I have products dropping like another book. I’m working on a show. I’m developing different partnerships and expansions in multiple places. There’s a lot going on. I just want to keep creating and keep showing up and hoping that people show up for me.