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BET cofounder Sheila Johnson writes her Cinderella story was really a nightmare

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An abandoned child who becomes a successful teacher, musician and entrepreneur, the first African American female billionaire, part owner of three professional sports teams and also an emotionally abused wife who must overcome years of trauma to find her voice. It sounds like a melodrama you might watch on one of your favorite cable channels.

SHEILA JOHNSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But as Sheila Johnson, the cofounder of BET, tells it in her new memoir, it is the all-too-true story of her remarkable life. The memoir is called "Walk Through Fire." And Sheila Johnson is with us now to tell us more about it. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOHNSON: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: You know, I just have to say it. This book, while very uplifting and inspiring in many ways, is very painful to read. And it has to have been painful to write. So I just have to ask, you know, why this book and why now?

JOHNSON: You know, there are so many people over the past five years saying, Sheila, it's time for you to tell your story. They have watched me over the years and the trauma that I've been through, especially during the BET years. There was so much written about what was going on. There was so much where I was literally erased out of everything that was going on at BET, where I was there and was in the background making sure that I could really promote my ex-husband at the time because that's what I wanted to do. And because I suppressed this for so long, the pain got worse. And I'm still, to this day, suffer from post-traumatic stress. It'll never leave me, but I'm learning how to deal with it.

MARTIN: Bob Johnson, you and he cofounded BET together. He loomed so large in this book and in your life. What was the attraction?

JOHNSON: He just struck me as a person that had high-achieving goals. I came out of Maywood, Ill. I didn't meet young men that were like that. And that's what kind of attracted me to him. I admired his intelligence, just his presence around other people. I've learned later that that presence was a smokescreen.

MARTIN: What was the dream for BET at the beginning?

JOHNSON: Well, you have to understand that was the birth of all of cable. That's when CNN was born, Nickelodeon, you name it - every cable network. But no one was paying attention to the African American voice. And we saw that as an opening to be able to start a cable network. But I also wanted to really take on smart TV watching. And that's what really concerned me and that's why I started Teen Summit.

So whatever programming we were putting on - and I had my Teen Summit posse that met on Friday evenings. And we would put a show together that we would shoot live. But to talk about the issues or whatever they saw on television, how could we talk about that and really educate these young people about smart TV watching? And that was the whole thing. We struggled with programming. We really did. And the reason is we could not get advertisers. We just couldn't unless they were - it was the video market that kind of blew it open.

MARTIN: The picture you portray of BET is almost like the same picture that you present of your former husband, Bob Johnson. It was almost like a Jekyll and Hyde situation.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: BET could be this place where people were having these raw and real conversations about real issues. And then there's this - I mean, people have said, look, it's Black Entertainment Television. It's not Black Uplift Television. It's not, you know, Black Church Television.

JOHNSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's entertainment. But it almost seems like it had this split personality, and it also seems, in a way, that so did your former husband. On the one hand, he could be incredibly charming. And on the other hand, you portray him as just being demeaning to you and, frankly, abusive. And I just - I don't - I mean, look, it's not a popular question, but how do you understand that?

JOHNSON: Yes, I understand it now. And I remember going into some group therapy. And I said, why do people operate like this? And they said, because they can. You let them do it. This is a lesson for so many women. You don't understand what you're going through at the time unless you really pay attention and get some help. I understand what's been going on now. Anything that I was doing that people thought was a good idea, I was put down. And I knew for certain that I knew what I was doing. And I just wanted him to listen to me to help make the network even better, but he wasn't giving me that bandwidth to do it.

MARTIN: One of the things that I thought was really striking about the book is where you talked about, like, walking in the halls of BET and having employees come and whisper to you, I'm praying for you...

JOHNSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...But on the other hand, going out in public and going to these glittery events and having people basically tell you that you had to stay in the marriage because we need both of you, because you were a symbol to them.

JOHNSON: Exactly. Oh, you have no idea. Now, what was going on at BET is because everybody else knew what was going on about the affairs, and especially the final affair, whereas people will read in the book how Bob nudged out all of his executives except for one because there was a situation going on there that was just unforgivable. It was betrayal. It showed poor leadership skills, which was not good for the company at all. And when they said they were praying for me, it's because they were fully aware of what was really happening. I was suppressing it. I was thinking, oh, no, that wouldn't happen. This woman would not do that to me. And what I found out? They did do it.

MARTIN: Has writing this book been therapeutic in some way?

JOHNSON: Yeah, it was therapeutic. I'm glad I wrote the book because I want it to be a lesson for anyone who's trapped in this kind of situation with a strong narcissistic personality that you don't have to put up with it. You need to get some help on how to deal with this person and to get out.

MARTIN: Sheila Johnson is the author of "Walk Through Fire: A Memoir Of Love, Loss, And Triumph." Sheila Johnson, thank you so much for this. It's been a bracing conversation.

JOHNSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But thank you so much for talking with us.

JOHNSON: You're so welcome. And thank you for having me on your show.

MARTIN: As you might imagine, we did reach out to BET cofounder Bob Johnson to see if he wanted to respond to what's in the book, but we did not get a response before airtime.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMMERSON AND CHILL MOON MUSIC'S "EDGE OF THE UNKNOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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