Sheila Johnson is using her riches from launching BET to raise awareness of the capital’s AIDS crisis with a new documentary. The billionaire talks to Lloyd Grove about the pandemic, why she’s “ashamed” of BET now, and how politics disillusioned her.
Black Entertainment Television, which Sheila Crump Johnson and her husband Bob started three decades ago with $15,000 in seed money and a $500,000 investment from media mogul John Malone, made her one of wealthiest women in America.
When Viacom bought them out in 2000, Sheila and Bob pocketed $1.3 billion—making them, pre-Oprah, the nation’s first African-American billionaires.
So today she must be extremely proud of her baby, right?
“Don’t even get me started,” says the 60-year-old Johnson, who has since divorced and remarried (charmingly enough, to the Virginia circuit court judge who presided over her divorce). “I don’t watch it. I suggest to my kids [a twentysomething daughter and a college-age son] that they don’t watch it… I’m ashamed of it, if you want to know the truth.”
“Society and government really believe [the AIDS] problem has gone away. People don’t know that this disease is still around.”
Johnson—who was at the Tribeca Film Festival this week for the premiere of The Other City, a searing, but ultimately hopeful documentary she produced about the AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C.—says BET is making matters worse, and potentially contributing to the spread of AIDS, by promoting promiscuous, unprotected sex in raunchy late-night rap videos.
It wasn’t always that way. “When we started BET, it was going to be the Ebony magazine on television,” Johnson tells me. “We had public affairs programming. We had news… I had a show called Teen Summit, we had a large variety of programming, but the problem is that then the video revolution started up… And then something started happening, and I didn’t like it at all. And I remember during those days we would sit up and watch these videos and decide which ones were going on and which ones were not. We got a lot of backlash from recording artists…and we had to start showing them. I didn’t like the way women were being portrayed in these videos.”
Johnson says she no longer has any connection with BET. “I just really wish—and not just BET but a lot of television programming—that they would stop lowering the bar so far just so they can get eyeballs to the screen,” she says. “I know they think that’s what’s going to keep programming on the air; that’s what’s going to sell advertising. But there has got to be some responsibility. Somebody has got to take this over. Because with all the studies that are out there, this is contributing to an atmosphere of free sex, ‘I don’t have to protect myself anymore.’”
The film—financed largely by Johnson and directed by Susan Koch (who also directed Kicking It, a documentary about homeless soccer players, one of Johnson’s previous Tribeca entries)—starts with the shocking revelation that in the nation’s capital, at a time when most of us have been led to believe that AIDS has been contained, fully 3 percent of the population is HIV-positive.
“It is pandemic,” she tells me. “And now that the movie has come out we’re starting to hear from other cities that they’re having the same problems. Our goal is to take this movie across the country so that other cities start looking at themselves a little harder… Society and government really believe this problem has gone away. People don’t know that this disease is still around.”
Johnson, a philanthropist who has traveled the world as global ambassador for the humanitarian organization CARE, says she was gripped by HIV as a subject “because it is disproportionately affecting women. There are the problems of gender-based violence, and women giving birth to babies and losing their children at a rapid rate because they have AIDS. We’ve got the same problems right here in the District of Columbia as they do in Africa. The sexy thing to do is to be able to travel afar and hold babies in our arms. [Hello, Madonna and Angelina Jolie!] I’m not demeaning that at all, but we have got our own problems, I just decided we need to come home and focus on our problems, because they’re getting worse here in our own country.”
The Other City—which is in search of a distributor (HBO would be ideal, Johnson says)—was inspired by the reporting of Pulitzer Prize-winner Jose Antonio Vargas, formerly of the Washington Post and one of the film’s producers. “It’s really bringing print to film,” Johnson says. “A lot of people don’t read newspapers, but they certainly watch movies.”
Johnson, not surprisingly, has a lot on her plate. She’s on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and chairs the board of governors of Parsons, The New School for Design. She is president and managing partner of the Washington Mystics of the Women’s National Basketball League, and also owns substantial stakes in the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals. The owner of several hotels and a PGA golf course, she is building a luxury spa and convention center on a 347-acre tract in horse country in Middleburg, Virginia, where she also has a farm and indulges her love of all things equestrian. She is also an accomplished violinist. Unlike her ex-husband Bob—who has been suffering the effects of bad investments and cash-flow problems—Johnson says she has not been forced to unload assets at fire-sale prices, though, she is quick to add, “I am not privy to his finances.”
Sheila Johnson has had a rougher time as a political activist. A major Democratic Party donor (who supported her good friend Barack Obama over her good friend Hillary Clinton in the presidential contest), she took a walk on the wild side last year and backed Bob McDonnell, the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, because of his business-friendly emphasis on job-creation. Her candidate won, but otherwise things didn’t turn out so well.
During the campaign, she got herself into trouble—and quickly had to apologize—when she spoke at a McDonnell event and mimicked the stutter of his Democratic opponent, Creigh Deeds. Then, after McDonnell was sworn in, she watched in horror as the new governor enunciated a variety of socially conservative policies, especially regarding a constitutional ban on gay marriage and other civil rights issues, and then declared a celebration of Virginia’s “Confederate History Month” without any mention of slavery.
“Politics, oh gosh!” Johnson says with a groan. “I feel like I was thrown under the bus on that one… The lesson that I’ve learned in all of this is I will never get involved in politics again.”
Although she was wildly enthusiastic about helping elect the first African-American president, Johnson is measured in her assessment of Obama’s performance thus far. “I think the jury’s still out,” she says. “He’s got probably the hardest presidency in the history of this entire country… I feel as though the health-care bill was a little bit rushed through—it was almost like we were force-fed this bill—and I would have liked to see more focus on jobs and the economy.”
She says she is especially worried by the anger abroad in the land. “What’s scary right now is just the atmosphere,” she says when I ask her what she thinks of the Tea Party movement. “I’m very nervous about the anger, the hostility, the racial comments. I have never seen anything like this.”
The good news is that she is happily married to Chief Judge William T. Newman of Virginia’s Arlington County Circuit Court, who asked her out on a date after finalizing her divorce decree. They met four decades ago in a Washington production of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. She played a prostitute trying to squeeze information out of a bootlegger by luring him into bed—and Judge Newman played the bootlegger’s son. “He’s wonderful,” Johnson says.
By: Lloyd Grove
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.