Writing a book had always been part of his recovery plan, newscaster Brandon Lee said last Tuesday. “I thought when I hit five years of sobriety, I’d have enough credibility to write about it,” he explained from a corner table in a midtown bar. He’d been sitting there nearly 20 minutes, but no waiter had stopped by to take his order. Lee wanted a club soda.
“Then I got to five years of sobriety, and I thought, 'I’m not ready to write about my journey.'” Four years further along, Lee felt he had something to say. He’d departed Phoenix last November after five years as news anchor at 3TV, had resettled in his hometown of Los Angeles, and launched a recovery podcast called Escaping Rock Bottom before settling in to write about drug and sex addiction and how he’d overcome them. His self-published memoir, Mascara Boy, was about to arrive on bookshelves everywhere. In fact, Lee said, it sort of already had.
“I don’t know what the hell they did,” he cheerfully admitted. “But Amazon made a mistake and started shipping the paperback version out a week early. It was supposed to come out on June 25, but 10 people have already read it.”
The book’s title refers to the assumption that Lee, who has unusually thick eyelashes, wears eye makeup. (“Never have,” he said with a little laugh. “Never will.”) Mascara Boy recounts the childhood sexual abuse that Lee said led to his adult drug and sex addictions. The book marks the end of an era in his life, he believes.
“It’s the beginning of the next part of a new journey,” Lee said as a waiter finally delivered a Perrier.
The day before, he’d visited old friends in the Channel 3 newsroom. “It was so interesting being back there,” he said. “Everyone kept saying to me, ‘You look so light. There’s a sparkle of life back in your eyes.’”
Restoring that sparkle had taken some time. Largely ignored by his wealthy parents, Lee had turned to sex with strangers as a teenager. Drugs and circuit parties became the hackneyed backdrop to a success story that included news anchor positions in Boston and Atlanta. Mascara Boy keeps Lee’s career in the shadows, focusing instead on bath houses and steroid addiction. In one especially harrowing chapter, he details his time as a “bugchaser” — someone who’s HIV-negative but attempting to seroconvert by having sex with men who are HIV-positive.
Recovery programs helped him clean up his act. Now, he said, he gets to really be Brandon Lee: “the most authentic version of myself I’ve ever been. What you see now is what you get. I’m not a liar or an addict or a manipulator. This is me, and these are my scars.”
Lee planned to continue his self-help podcast. Book promotions were going to be a thing for a while. And he’d told his agent to find him another newscasting job. That might be a challenge, he admitted. His Mascara Boy revelations and the tattoos that cover most of his arms and torso might frighten news directors who are otherwise impressed with Lee’s Emmy award and years of experience anchoring the news.
“There’s a true stigma, a scarlet letter on people who have addiction in their past,” he explained. “Also for people with as much ink as I have. People doing the hiring might think of us as a troubled lot. That we’re dangerous. I still have to deal with the repercussions. But if someone doesn’t want to hire me because of my tattoos and because of my past, I get it. I don’t want to work for those people, anyway.”
Lee thinks his tattoos are beautiful. “It’s angels on one side battling demons on the other,” he said of the illustrations that cover his side, chest, and back. “I wasn’t comfortable in my skin, so I created new skin. It was a cry from my inner demons, who were trying to leak out for the world to see.”
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But if there were a lotion he could spread on his body to remove the tattoos, he would. “I got the tattoos in the depths of my addiction, because I was so uncomfortable with being gay. I wanted to project a tougher image. I wanted to look like a tough guy, masculine, to keep people at a distance. When I look at my tattoos now, I see the trauma of my life. I also see the growth. I see a place I used to be.”
That place was populated by friends and family who don’t appear especially heroic in Mascara Boy. Lee wasn’t worried about their response.
“I don’t think any of them care enough about me to read it,” he said. “If they had, they wouldn’t have treated me so badly. My mom never once called me on my AA birthday to say congratulations. She never called once to check in after I told her I had been on my deathbed from drug abuse. What makes you think my mom is going to read this book?”
Everyone has skeletons in their closet, Lee believes. “But my closet is open and there’s not a damn bone in it. I shared everything in my book. There’s nothing left to come out about. It’s all moving forward from here.”