Cultivating a Survivor’s Instinct with Jeanette “the Black Widow” Lee (Part 1 of 3)

April 5, 2024

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Jeanette Lee is an American professional pool player. She was nicknamed the Black Widow because, in spite of her sweet demeanor, she would “eat people alive” when she got to a pool table and always wear black when playing pool.

The Black Widow: A Memoir

A candid and moving autobiography by the ‘Black Widow’ of billiards. Pre-order your copy on Amazon today and be inspired by the definitive tale of a true icon.

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John: Welcome to another edition of The Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and this is a very special edition. We’ve got with us today. Jeanette Lee, a legendary and iconic sports figure from the last 30 years or so, and she is one of the top athletes on this planet. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Jeanette.

Jeanette Lee: Thank you very much, John. I’m so excited to be here and it’s a real honor too genuinely.

John: It’s really my honor being a second generation child of Armenian immigrants growing up in New York, you were one of my heroes. As soon as you hit the scene, given that I’m a native New Yorker, you’re a native New Yorker. It’s just really wonderful to have you on today and your story is beyond incredible and inspiring and that’s why we wanted to have you on. You grew up in Brooklyn, New York in the Crown Heights section, is that right?

Jeanette: Yeah, Crown Heights Flatbush, right near Kings County Hospital, Brooklyn Avenue, near Flatbush. There was Wingate Park, I don’t know if you know that area, but it was a little bit in the hood.

John: Right.

Jeanette: But it was all I knew and there’s good and bad people everywhere.

John: Learning your story along the way, it was a different time in American history and in terms of many ways, it was different in many ways as I guess we could say it was similar, but you grew up and there was, back then the Korean American community was kind of new to the United States, both in, it was very new. I grew up in little neck, Flushing was just becoming a big thing with the Korean Americans.

Jeanette: Exactly.

John: So talk a little bit about what you felt as a child growing up in terms of the racism that existed back then against the Asian community.

Jeanette: Yeah. I’ll tell you, just being from, and I don’t want to be racist myself, but I was in a completely black neighborhood. All my classmates were black, and you’ve got good neighbors and good friends that are black, but you also had a lot of people that on the street on my way to school, Ching, Ching, Chang, Charlie Wong, or as my children today, my girls in school today come home complaining because people will go up to them and say, do you eat dog or China girl Ching, Chong? Oh, it’s all the same thing.

Oh, I’m Korean. Oh, whatever, it’s the same thing. These kinds of comments where in New York I got it, but I don’t think it’s as common today in New York the way that it was because there’s a lot more Asians in New York than when you and I were younger because it was just starting… I think I was 14 or 15 when my mom finally took the courageous jump and went from a co-op building and Flatbush, Brooklyn to a nice house in Bayside near Springfield Boulevard off 77th Avenue. Nice neighborhood, all Jewish neighborhood.

It was all white Jewish neighborhood and I got from the white community a lot less racism, just as much ignorance as to the differences because a lot of white people, all the Asians look the same and they are the same. I could say the same thing for white people, I could say, but to me, an Italian does not look like a Russian. Does not look like Irish does not… even though they’re all white. But once you look a little bit closer, you can tell things from their country if you pay attention. So I can tell usually a Korean from Japanese or Taiwanese, but a lot of people can’t tell what I am. I am not a typical Korean look, but I am Korean. But I also know in Brooklyn, I learned the difference between a woman from Haiti or Trinidad or Africa. They had their groups and even a lot of the black people were racist against the Haitians more than even, and me being the only Asian right there. So…

John: Does your mom still live in Bayside?

Jeanette: It was all I could do, so there was nothing I could do about it. I would get into fights and then my mom eventually moved me out of Brooklyn to a private school in the village for middle school.

John: Then where did you go to high school?

Jeanette: I went to Bronx Science High School. It’s a school for the gifted. You have to take a test and there’s a rivalry between Stuyvesant and Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech, which is the best. Of course Bronx Science is the best, but.

John: Bronx Science, Jeanette, let’s be honest, you’re being humbled. Bronx Science was for the real smart kids growing up in New York City. The real elite went there. I went to private high school in Manhattan, but we had to pay our way. You earned your way. So I give you credit. Yeah, I

Jeanette: Yeah, I just took a test. I got texted, I qualified, I guess. So yeah, I was one of the brighter kids, but I don’t know, I just had this emptiness inside as a youth. I think just between the racism and always being under my sister’s shadow. I have an older sister, Doris, who’s two years older, and in my opinion, she was the most beautiful girl in the world.

I really looked up to her, and while I was smart, she was valedictorian. I went to Bronx Science, she qualified for Hunter High School, which is even more elite, and it’s like no matter what and to her, she did our school Spelling Bee and then our county and then the New York City Spelling Bee and then the Daily News Spelling Bee, and she just broke all records. So my intelligence really didn’t mean much, but it wasn’t jealousy. It was more like I really admired my older sister.

John: Right.

Jeanette: Of course, for her, I was the tag along little sister that she always annoyingly had to have around.

John: Is your sister live in New York?

Jeanette: No. She eventually, she went to school, graduated from UPENN, got her master’s I think at Columbia University with international, I can’t remember, international trade or something like that, international Asian studies and she decided that before she settled down to a job after going to school for 16 years, she… I’m exaggerating. It was probably, well, I don’t know, at least 16 years.

But anyway, she decided she’s going to visit all the different people that she’s met over the last five years through her foreign exchange programs and different foreign clubs. So she’s met people from different countries. Now, she was going to stay with each one of them for at least two weeks, maybe a month, and travel for a year and then settle down and work. Her first stop was Hong Kong, and the friend ended up being her husband and never left. She’s never left. She literally went to first and never continued on. She married him and had kids and… lives

John: And lives in Hong Kong? Kidding.

Jeanette: Yeah. So they live… Their base is in Hong Kong.

John: Wow. Is mom still in Bayside?

Jeanette: Bayside, Queens with my dad.

John: Oh, that’s great. That is awesome. That is just wonderful. So now you’re growing up, you had to endure and overcome the racism that was very, very overt back… Not that to say that your girls don’t go through overt racism today. We’ll get into that a little bit, what’s going on in America today, but now when you’re 12 or 13, you’re diagnosed with something that is called scoliosis.

Jeanette: Yes. It’s a double curve.

John: You had surgery at 13 to help fix the scoliosis? The beginning of…

Jeanette: Yeah. They implanted two 18 inch metal rods called Harrington rods. So one long one to fix the first curve, and right next to its side by side was the other rod to fix the bottom curve. But I think that’s part of why I started wearing black is because, and I rarely wear necklaces because one collarbone sticks out much more than the other and when I wear stripes or any kind of button down within five, 10 minutes of walking, my shirt will completely become… the color will be here and the buttons will be down here and it doesn’t, but I hide it very well if I had a swimsuit on and you would be able to see the curve.

John: Oh, understood.

Jeanette: But I hide it very well with the black clothing, you can’t really see a lot of it. I can’t say that I’m really ashamed of it. I would say I was ashamed of my scar, and that’s why I grew my hair long to cover the scar and it was like my security blanket. But now I’m not really ashamed of it because each one of my scars represents a battle that I won. Each one of them were not part of my plan, I think it’s part of God’s plan, but it wasn’t part of my plan and yet with each one I learned so much. I really did. Then I learned later it was meant to inspire people.

John: I agree with you.

Jeanette: You can’t inspire people, if you have never worked hard in your life. You can’t inspire people if everything’s always been handed to you because nobody cares. No one’s going to respect that. But when you worked so hard and you put up a thing after thing after thing, and you still find a way to get out of bed, that’s inspiring,

John: That’s inspiring and that’s why we all fell in love with Rocky Balboa. That’s why we all fell in love with all the great underdogs, Rudy Rudiger. That’s why your story is so compelling and inspiring itself. So now you got the scoliosis surgery, and now you’re in your teenage years in New York, if I’m not mistaken, 86 or so ish, I might be off by year, color of Money comes out. As I remember, the big pool hole craze in New York comes out with Chelsea billiards. So how did you fall into being now Crown Heights to Bayside? How did pool become part of your, something that was even an opportunity for you, that you saw as an opportunity?

Jeanette: I think it was 1989, I just walked into Chelsea Billiard Tonight, I just saw, alright, there were all this noise, clack, clack, clack. You could hear all the balls going. It was crowded, it was full. It was the biggest pool room I’d ever seen. It had 55 pool tables and it had four snooker tables, six by 12 snooker tables and four three cushion billiard tables, which are five by 10 tables with no pockets and it was amazing. But in the far corner, there was a man that was so graceful, so beautiful, and I felt like he could make the cue ball dance. It was effortless.

By watching him, I became so mesmerized that I felt like I could feel him breathing while he’s playing and I could feel his tempo and I copied the bridge that he made and I looked at the back swing. From that point, when I’m in the subway, I’m trying to line up my arm and make sure my wrist is under my elbow and I’m not cockeyed and make sure that I can make a nice bridge with both hands and I just started going to sleep and visualizing pool. Every time I couldn’t play pool, I was laid up in bed and I would picture myself making balls. I just became completely obsessed.

John: As a teenager, you were 16 or 17 at this time, 17, 18?

Jeanette: 18, 19.

John: 18.

Jeanette: Yeah, 18, 19.

John: So you were obsessed with it day and night?

Jeanette: Yeah. This is when I became completely obsessed with it, is from 18 on. I was completely dedicated at that point.

John: Now, I’m not a pool player, Jeanette, but if I was just as an outsider, I’m a fan of yours. I’m a fan of pool, I’m a fan of sports. You had already at 13 very serious back surgery. Give me the, whatever you call, you are now bending 1000 times a day playing pool isn’t that hard in terms of creating friction and I mean bending over all you have to bend over to play pool. Wasn’t that one of the toughest things you could have chosen to do in terms of your physicality?

Jeanette: Yes. When you start playing pool, when I started playing pool, I thought, oh, this is something I can do. Because with my surgeries, after the recovery of the scoliosis surgery, the spinal fusions, when I was 13, I was told that I could no longer do sports. So give it six months to a year. Six months to a year goes by my back is still killing me. There’s problems. Give it two years, two years later, I’m still having these odd spasms, but the scoliosis healing up. But I think I developed some kind of towards the bottom.

It didn’t heal quite correctly. So I was still getting these stabbing, slicing pains periodically. So that would just stop me from playing pool. But man, I would play 20, 30 hours easily every day. It didn’t matter what time I ended, whether it was four in the afternoon or four in the morning, it was until my body just could not bend again. I didn’t realize, even though I’m not running and bumping into people, it’s not an active sport like that. It still takes… if you can’t just think your way through the game. You have to have that perfect timing and the perfect swing, the tempo, hand-eye coordination. So it’s most similar to golf because your shoulders, I think golf, you’re not supposed to move and you take a slow back swing, pause the golf ball, right? Slow back, swing, pause, and then on the final swing you take a slow back swing, pause, accelerate through the shot, right?

Don’t yank it at the top, but accelerate through. So it’s so very, very similar. I ended up reading a lot of golf books when I wanted to read more about pool, but there really wasn’t a lot. There wasn’t a lot about the mental game and for me, because I couldn’t play pool, I felt like that’s all I could work on is how can I be more focused? How can I be tougher mentally? So I sought to get more control of my mind, get better practice with mental imagery And also, I know I’m getting off topic. I’m sorry.

John: John. No, It’s not off topic. It’s fascinating.

Jeanette: I would have, you know those post-it notes. I had them everywhere. I had them on my oven, I had them in my bathroom mirror, and they all had positive affirmations. I was surrounded by it. There’s a guy named John Lewis who was my first friend in pool and I still remember because when I started winning championships, he said, ”By yourself, something nice after you want all that money, but for each win, buy yourself something nice.” I said, ”Why?” He said, ”Because you’re going to end up being surrounded by your success.” Memories of all these championships by, because I love shoes, what girl doesn’t? So she’s going to get a nice pair of shoes.. I’m like, those are my US open shoes. That’s when I won the US Open. That’s when I won the, so it was kind of neat. But I did make some tapes back when we had little video tape.

John: Yeah

Jeanette: No video cassette tapes.

John: Right.

Jeanette: I would make those that I would listen to and, I stuck stock the table on the occasion. I stay in the moment and push forward. I’m waiting for any opportunity and these are the kinds of things so that if Allison Fisher missed and left me nothing, I don’t come up to the table with this attitude like, oh my God, she got so lucky. Instead, it’s like, how do I whip this around and take advantage of this opportunity? How do I show her and everyone else, I’m a champion, let’s go Black Widow. We don’t naturally do that. As we grow up, especially women, we’re constantly criticizing ourselves. We’re constantly learning how to be better, kinder, doing all this stuff. Whereas competition is so different. Competition is very selfish. You have to focus on you, your mind, what your body is doing, and you have to dedicate yourself to that and stay in the moment and not let all these distractions come popping in your head.

John: It’s so fascinating because you we grew up in an era, but you became a professional and honed your skills and yourself to become who you became. But this was before it was the era of moms and dads paying lots of money to have coaches. You didn’t have a coach, you were coaching yourself.

Jeanette: Okay? Yeah. I didn’t have a coach, but I will say that I was lucky because out of all the places, I just happened to work nearby at the time, and when Chelsea Billiards opened up, which was on 21st street between fifth and sixth Avenue, now it’s been changed into kind of a nightclub called Slate. I don’t know, but it was a beautiful place. But because it was creating in the Chelsea and Midtown area, there were a lot of businessmen in suits that would come in for lunch and we had all these, what the regular pros called fish, all these fish in the ocean, let’s catch some of them. So we had all these pool sharks. I got the term, oh, that’s what pool shark comes from.

John: You were hustling back then. That was a hustle, right?

Jeanette: Yeah. We would have our regular fish and that’s Jeanette’s fish or whatever, and they would come and we would gamble cheap. And I didn’t have a lot of money. I had to earn everything I had. My mom always gave me credit for that, Jeanette, you did it on your own. I can’t believe you did it on your own. But even when I had very little money was I would play them for table time. So because table time was expensive, so eventually I got enough of reputation that the pool rooms said when the black widow’s there don’t charge her anything, which is kind of a respect thing. But when I was starting, there was no respect. There was just some young kid just being a geek, but I was improving so quickly and I would always outsmart them. It’s not that I played better, it’s how you make the game. When people say, well, did you go out hustling?

No, I didn’t hustle. I never laid down. I always wanted to rip someone’s throat out when I played. That’s really how aggressive, however, me being a woman was the hustle. Because no matter what, when I negotiated with a guy, I would convince him to give me more than he could really afford to give. So a handicap, I mean. So let’s say we’re playing eight ball. He would let me, right after the break, let me remove any three balls off the table, so then I only have to make the four other. He still needs to make all of his stripes and I only have to make four other solids, things like that. I was always making the game in a way that I would win. I got a lot of free table time, and I did learn a lot because when you had all these puppies coming in, you had all these pool sharks coming in and now these guys can play. Sadly, by the time I left, that place was like a shell of just old time hustlers and not a lot of fish coming in. Everyone, their pride had gotten hurt. They lost enough to where they just didn’t even show up in their.

John: It couldn’t to lose it anymore. It was too much.

Jeanette: No. They always had some kind of steady following, but it used to be packed. But I did get so many great players from there, so I learned from watching them.

John: But again, this was, again, we’re going to get into this later because I want to talk about the New York Times just had a huge article on the Connie Effect, and I call what you’ve done, the Jeanette Effect, but we’re going to get into that later. I want to go back now. You were 18 or 19 when someone nicknamed you, the Black Widow or someone gave you that?

Jeanette: I think I was 20.

John: Okay. Then when did you realize you were good enough that you were going to transcend the sport and become a pro, the first woman, Asian American woman, to actually get into the WPBA and make her mark? When did that thought come to you?

Jeanette: I never thought about, I’m saying back then about transcending the sport. It was all about being the best, becoming number one, winning rank, number one, the world. It was all about the height being the best of the best of the best. And I think even in my documentary, someone had mentioned that while other people were trying their best to become a great player, I cared more about becoming a famous player, which I felt was really untrue. Just because I became famous doesn’t mean that that was my top priority, my top priorities.

I wanted to be number one, I wanted to be the best, but my body failed me. There was so many times I would’ve kept playing, but then my back would go out or I’d have to have another surgery and I would just have so much pain. Because what happens is if you look at, I’ll just take my hand instead of my whole wall. This is my spine, so this is my waist, so this is my head, this is my spine, my waist, and my pants. Normally if somebody’s, let’s say laying down, normally they can do a curl to get up, right?

John: Right.

Jeanette: I have to do a straight plank with no arch in my back and come straight up like a board. So what’s happening is I’m only using these bottom two or three vertebrae and just these muscles right here. When normally everyone has all these vertebrae and everything’s mobile, everything moves. I was completely fused. This was one piece. So I’ve always had perfect posture. If you ever see me, I have great posture and it’s because I don’t have a choice. It was when I was 12. It ended up being a really good thing because I now have ankylosing spondylitis.

John: I’m sorry. What’s that?

Jeanette: It’s kind of like a rheumatoid arthritis. It’s an autoimmune disease that’s like an arthritis that starts in your neck, in your spine. I’ve seen other people with more ankylosing spondylitis that are older than me, and they’re like this. Their whole head is bent.

John: I’ve seen that.

Jeanette: They stay that way because the neck, everything just fuses. Well, I’m already fused, so it can’t deteriorate like that because it’s already one piece. I got lucky because I don’t think I’m going to end up the way I would’ve had I not already fused my entire spine.

John: Let’s go back to that point that you made about famous versus being the best. They thought you wanted to become the most .,

Jeanette: That was not. I did that because no matter what, being in a sport that is so small, it’s a giant participation sport, probably the biggest in the world. Billiards is more common than golf and tennis combined when it comes to activity. People played at Boys and Girls Club. They played in mansions, they played in basketball players. Every kind of family at every level Boys and Girls Club, YMCA, you have a pool table anywhere and everywhere. So everyone’s played pool, golf is a close, I mean, no, not golf. Bowling is a close second.

John: Oh, okay.

Jeanette: More people play pool than bowling, but they’re very, very close and they’re both more than golf and tennis combined, in terms of participation. But Commentating, no, there was nothing. There was no pool and I mean, you would barely rarely see pool on ESPN. When I tried to go on tour, well, it costs, let’s see, now it’s like a $500 or $700 entry fee, but back then it was like a $350 entry fee. That’s a lot for me. I was only 19, 20 years old, and I was not asking my mom for that. I was making my own.

I would work, I would save. So anyway, I just knew that if I wanted to steadily be, you have to pay for your own hotel and you’re gone for five days, you have to take off work, your hotel, your airfare, the $350 entry fee, figure out your way around. I’m young. I’m traveling by myself to figure it out and look at the directions of where to go to this pool and where they’re going to have this big tournament. So it was a lot and I knew that if I wanted to play pool for a living, I needed sponsors.

John: Wow. You already got that back then, but did someone coach you on that or is that just a self realization? You just did it yourself?

Jeanette: I knew that I needed sponsors, period, the very first time. So this is what happened. I started playing all around the area and somebody put me in a women’s tournament and I said, ”I’m not good enough to play in the tournament. I’m just starting.” They’re like, just go here. It’s five dollar entry fee, go play. Then I won it, and I’m like, that was just easy cash. Where’s another women’s tournament? I realized that even though the men played at such a high level, the women were not there. There were a lot less women playing pool. If you have a much smaller field of, it’s like a bunch of black beads versus red beads, it’s not necessarily that the back was superior, but black winds more because there’s a whole lot more of them. But in any case, I don’t know. That was a terrible example, but.

John: No, it wasn’t. I get it. So you decided you had to become famous. But the real funny part is…

Jeanette: No, I had to become valuable…

John: No. They thought you wanted to become famous. You wanted to be the best, but really the truth is being the best then fed the fame. But they didn’t realize that you can’t become famous just because of who you are if you weren’t winning. So you were focused on the right thing, the other stuff came along the way as you promoted yourself.

Jeanette: Yes, exactly.

John: Got it.

Jeanette: So my hunger to this day, I mean to this day, I love this sport. I love it. I love the game. I would play it forever and my body has let me down, but I’ve still experienced so much traveled all around the world. I’m not done. Having stage four ovarian cancer was just a hiccup. It was good because I thought I had my priority straight, but I made it even straighter and even more prepared and I’m spending a lot more precious time with my girls, which is super important. But I knew that I had to get sponsors, so I saved enough money. I looked in the Yellow Pages and I looked for a resume writer.

John: No kidding.

Jeanette: I paid a man $30 to make a resume for me and I showed them little newspaper clippings and stuff like that because a pool room would have a grand opening or something, and I would be there and playing pool, and I’d be all dressed up and somehow I would make it in there because I was starting to get known as one of the better female players in New York, because there were tournaments in certain pool rooms, and the players would regularly go there. Every Tuesday night was a big level tournament for five dollar, and then other place was $75.

John: So the resume really was, let’s just use an analogy. If you were an aspiring Hollywood star, you get a headshot. This was your headshot. The resume was your headshot to go get spots.

Jeanette: I got a pool room player was a professional photographer.

John: Oh, perfect.

Jeanette: So whenever he had his next photo shoot, he called me and said, come down and would have his makeup artist and everything, because he was doing Victoria Secret, the Angels or something brought stuff. But the makeup artist in the set he gave me access to, he just had me come towards the end and he just put a little bit of makeup on, took some headshots. So I had some headshot, I had this resume. I bought myself a few nice pieces of clothing and I found out when the next biggest billiards trade show.

I remember wearing a white dress, I can probably find a picture, a white dress and heels, and being very professional, I have a stack of my resumes and my photos was in a folder and I just click clocked and walked from booth to booth to booth looking for sponsors, telling them, hi, I am Jeanette Lee. I am at a semi-pro level. I’m about to go pro, but I know I’m going to be number one in the world and I really need some support and is there any way you could just even cover my entry fee every month, like $350 or, anyway, by the end of that week, I had $29,000 in sponsorship that I was getting.

John: Wait, step back, $29,000?

Jeanette: Yeah. Annually.

John: But still, wait a second.

Jeanette: That was as a semi-pro.

John: You were a kid. You were literally 20 or 21 years old.

Jeanette: Yep, 20 or 21. Yeah, exactly.

John: Nobody else had ever done this before and for sure, no young woman, Asian American woman, had ever done this before. So you were like on Virgin territory on every level here.

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Jeanette: Exactly. I will say I was scared. I was scared. I had no experience. I did make it to a pro tour. They were all white, and they had the long silk blouses and the pleated slacks. Here I am from New York, dressed in all black and just being me. Actually the clothes I wore then are still appropriate today and now a lot of the women that play on the pro tour dress in clothes that are just like mine but back then it was different and so that one stood out.

John: When I turned on The Deuce, I don’t even remember the woman’s name as much as I remember. Okay, one’s from England, one’s from Ireland, one’s from, right. But you were the memorable one because of not only your will to win, but just your whole… you were the role model for Maggie Q, before there was a Maggie Q really. When you think about really the genetic effect goes way beyond Cool. But we’re going to get into that. Talk about now you go from semipro with $29,000…

Jeanette: Oh, wait, more importantly, $29,000 plus full medical and dental.

John: What? But how did get…

Jeanette: So, I got one company, Imperial International, to put me in as an employee rather than as an independent contractor. So they were paying me as an independent contractor. All these sponsors, they would send me 500 a month or a thousand a month or 220 a month, or a case of T-shirts or whatever that I could sell. I didn’t care. But I had gotten all these people to just take a chance on me. What they said to me was, they’ve never seen a pro, which I didn’t know the other pros, but they hadn’t seen somebody work so hard. So they could see me coming from booth to booth to booth. Also I was prepared. My first sentence is, here’s what I think I can do for you.

John: What a great sales approach. That’s brilliant and I don’t know how you came up with that without being taught that, because that’s literally what you’re supposed to do as in any sales industry.

Jeanette: Yeah, I think that that’s what’s important is I started thinking, why should these people bet on me? Why should they just hand me money? So I told them, I said, ”’You’d be taking a chance on a rookie, but I know I’m going to be the best and I want you there for the rise with me.” I said, ”But if you have a trade show or anywhere where you need some entertainment, I will come there and I will do some tricks and I’ll challenge people and I’ll draw people to your booth. Or I want a win-win here.

I want to under promise and overdeliver. I feel like that’s what I’ve always tried to do, hasn’t always worked, but that was always my intention. So it just worked out that people are like, you know what I normally pros come and go asking for sponsorship and we always say, no, but you know what, I think you are different. So this is what I’ll do. I’ll give you blah, blah, blah. I’ll send you two queues a month that’s worth over $600 that you could sell. And then I would have the retail store here, can I get all back? I just think whatever it took, but it wasn’t thinking fame, fame, fame. It was money, money, money. So I can play, play, play. It’s all about being able to compete without having to work a regular job. I didn’t want to spend 40…

John: No distractions.

Jeanette: Yeah, I didn’t want to spend 40 hours a week doing something other than pool. I wanted to be practicing pool for my regular job. So I had to do that with sponsors.

John: That’s incredible. It reminds me really of when you think about Arnold Schwarzenegger and what he did…

Jeanette: I’m so sorry, but that barking would’ve went on forever.

John: That’s okay. I got you. So your story, now that you relate, you share it that way, reminds me of so much of when you watch Pumping Iron and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rise in his teenage years and younger years in his early twenties, he talks about exactly what you talk about, a solitary focus on being the best and everything else will come from it. Then that’s what you created yourself. You created for yourself this almost a world with blinders on where you were just going to be the best at what you chose to be and you created them the opportunity to do that by going out and getting sponsors.

Jeanette: Yeah, because really, I just didn’t see another way. I tried being a live-in Nanny, so that way I didn’t have to worry about an apartment. I was paying for my own apartments. I actually would have roommates and shared up, which is kind of common in New York City to get roommates or whatever. But again, I was 20, 21. I was young, and actually, I don’t know if you know, but I left home when I was 15, so my own studio in Chelsea. But in any case….

John: What did mom think of all this? Just take us through mom. Mom Still is alive.

Jeanette: She was eventually so proud, but at first, understandably scared, her daughter’s out all hours of the night, comes home that day, but sometimes two days later wearing the same clothes and I’m like, mom, I’m not with boys. I’m playing pool. If you come to the pool room, you would see me. I’m just playing pool and it was just a bad relationship. I was very, very rebellious. I feel very bad about it giving my mom such a fright. But there came a time when my mom called me over, and by then I had actually become number one, all my sponsors stuck with me, but my contracts grew, and whenever I made money, I would give my parents a cut just because that’s the way I was raised to respect your elders and they raise you up and then you raise them up. Well, raise them away. So anyway.

John: It’s been written about you that you supported your mom and dad for many years and when the money was good, and obviously the love is there, but it’s a confusing time for an immigrant mother who’s a registered nurse, which is a very traditional and wonderful and important profession, but of course her young, beautiful daughter in big bad New York City for a day or two, who would it be worried?

Jeanette: She would not know where I was going because as you get better, instead of playing in the tournaments that are five and 10 and $20 entry fee, there are bigger tournaments that instead of being a one day like Tuesday night tournament for 10 bucks, you would go and play in a Saturday, Sunday, two day tournament with 64 players, and the entry fee would be $50 or $75 now. If you’re total amateur, you’re not going to spend 75 unless you’re filthy rich. At least that’s the way I felt at that time.

It seemed like a million dollars, $75. But I would take all the winnings that I would make in these little ones to get me enough entry fee to start playing in these bigger ones and of course, I didn’t always have a ride. I didn’t have a car. I couldn’t always use my mom’s car because she had to work. So I would end up stopping home to get more things with all these different guys driving, which are all friends and she must must’ve been so worried. But I’ll tell you, when I was number one day, she pulled me in the kitchen and she said, I know that you have really been playing pool and that you have been really focused because you have all these trophies and I just want to give you something and I’m so proud of you. She gave me these golden, not these but gold hoop earrings and a matching bracelet and along the outside was an Olympic wreath along the gold on the bracelet and on the earrings.

It just gave me goosey right then. She said, ”I’m so proud of you and congratulations. You did it on your own. That meant, I can’t think of a more important moment in my life up to that point because everything was such a struggle with, yes, you’re winning all over the place, but I’m not making best friends. It’s a very lonely road because you have to focus on you. You have to be selfish, not rude to others by any means or anything like that. But you’re not going to your friend’s birthday party and going out to the beach and going to the movie. You are just playing pool and you’re working at it, and you’re playing people that are better than you, playing people worse than you and by the time I got to the Women’s Pro tour, I was kind of a seasoned competitor because I had gotten to play in so many little tournaments.

So I think that made me a little bit unique because from the very first tournament that I played in, I cashed and I cashed in every tournament since then. I never didn’t cash. So it was something that I just kept. I got 17, and then the second tournament I ever played in, I came in third place out of 96 of the women and I thought, man, I can compete with this women. These are the women, the WPBA, the Women’s Professional Ability n? And so I started gunning for number one and it’s not that I didn’t respect the other women. I absolutely respected the other women, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try to smash. It wasn’t personal. I definitely admired some of the women in the path that they paved for me that I could, same with, I have to be thankful to ESPN for SPN too. I mean, those gave me the platform to grow, but it was…

John: I think you gave them the platform to grow as well because I remember the only time I turned on The Deuce was to watch you play pool. So those were the days. Did they not, back then, they saw that you wanted to win, but did they not just get you, was it more of a, you were so soul minded on honing your abilities and winning. Did they not understand you culturally or did they not understand the other woman on the tour when you were on tour? They just didn’t get it.

Jeanette: They were rookie women that were rookies like me that I met that were super nice. But in terms of all the veterans…

John: Yeah, they didn’t get you.

Jeanette: They weren’t nice. They can say every excuse in the book, I was confident. I did believe I was going to be number one, but it was never in a way that I don’t have to put people down in order to grow. So I wasn’t trying to become number one by disrespecting the other women or anything like that, but they just didn’t like that I was gunning for it and that I was getting so much attention that they felt I didn’t deserve, I was a newbie, I just came in and they’re like, oh, just because she’s pretty, she’s getting all this attention and she’s getting to get all this television and whatever. I’m like, pretty, doesn’t make the nine ball go in.

I’m earning this. I’m winning the titles. No matter how much you think, I’m not seasoned, I’m winning. I have the right to be here. I felt very shunned. Nobody was friendly. Nobody was warm or welcoming. So I made it my, if you ask all the women today that have played through my career that were beginners, they would all say I was the first to introduce myself to the rookies. I would go out of my way as a top pro to meet the rookies and welcome them because I don’t want anyone to feel the way that I felt. You know what I mean? I want every new person that comes to our tour to be welcomed and to feel like they’ve arrived on the women’s tour and they’re going to compete and they’re going to shine and good for you welcome to our family.

I feel like that’s the way it should have been. But instead, I won every title and it celebrated it alone. There were secret doors closed, and there was just rumors getting back to me of things that certain people said. It was a hurtful time. I really considered quitting several times just because it was that painful because I looked up to them. I was looking forward to being there and to just compete by women, I didn’t even know or understand.

John: You earned your way there. It wasn’t like this was no nepotism, this was an earned position. This was an earned standing that you had gotten to a place and to be, were you able to get through this, your life is an unbelievably inspiring story of overcoming and getting through was part of what helped you get through now this sort of isolation on part of the WPBA sort of your childhood all over again, where growing up in Crown Heights, the racism, being an outsider in a community where everyone else seems to fit in, what were you able to lean on in terms of your DNA to get you through this?

Jeanette: There were several things. One, I had just gotten a boyfriend who had told me that there was a saying that was like, you can say whatever you want about me, just make sure my name is spelled right. It’s kind of saying, there is no bad publicity. Any publicity is good publicity. Of course, I disagreed and I was hurt because I would read these things that other people would say. I would be miss, like someone would interview me and they would say, get out of my way, or get stepped on says the Black Widow.

Actually, I said those when they said, when you’re down shooting and your eyes are like that when you’re competing. I said, that’s different. When I’m competing, it’s get out of my way or get stepped on. But by it coming out in head, it’s almost like I’m just walking around saying that, which is not, I’m very humble when it comes to off the pool table. I’m a different person and…

John: They were quoting you out of context for…

Jeanette: Judging me, not even giving me a chance to get to know me, just judging me and shunning me and eventually each one of them have warmed up because a lot of them are still on the tour, they’re just older and I’ll hear things like, oh, well, you’ve changed. You’ve grown up. I’m thinking, I haven’t changed. I’m the same confident, competitive, hardworking, friendly person that I was then. I said, ”You’ve just gotten to know me. One, I’m not going to go away and two, I’m a kind person. I go out of my way to help people. So I think people have just, even though they didn’t become close friends with me, they would see me doing things and being good and you can only hate me for so long.

John: I don’t know. I don’t understand that kind of stuff, but I totally understand.

Jeanette: Rub on people.

John: I understand where you’re coming from though, and I totally understand feeling like an outcast. Talk a little bit about, now you’re 1994, you become number one. You’re number one, and you’re still a kid, really, you’re still a kid. How did that feel and where shifts happened after there? Michael Jordan, in his famous documentary about these years on The Bulls, he was very stoic in how he talked about those years on the Bulls in the last dance. But at the end of the eighth episode or so, he got very emotional for the only time during the whole series, because they were asking him about lack of, sometimes steal, they even still is beef between him and some of the ex bulls and him and some of the players in the NBA and he said these words.

Jeanette: Are they in the same team?

John: Yeah.

Jeanette: I didn’t know that. Yeah.

John: Him and Pippin still, they still hard feelings between him and Pippin today.

Jeanette: Wow.

John: Yeah, wow.

Jeanette: I got such a different impression.

John: Well, back then…

Jeanette: Not knowledgeable spectator. Yeah.

John: Yeah. But he got emotional when he said these words, ”Winning has a price.” What does that mean to you, Jeanette, in terms of a price, both. personal, physical, and then also like you said, no friends, no partying, you didn’t do the regular thing 17 year-olds did growing up in New York City or 16 year-olds or any city USA or any city in the world. You were Jeanette Lee and you were on a mission. So winning has a price, Jeanette. Like Michael Jordan’s words, what does that mean to you? Because you are the ultimate winner.

You overcame everything. We haven’t even gotten yet to issues about having children, cancer and other things we’re going to get to, but just in what you did in pool, winning has a price you didn’t follow stereotypical young lady in America growing up and all the high school proms and all that other kind of stuff and everything else, you were on a mission. What’s the price when you think about the price of winning, what does that mean exactly to you?

Jeanette: I can’t remember the number of years that I could say at different points in my life. If they say, what’s on your bucket list or what would you love to do? I would love to dance. I would love to learn to dance. I would love to be a great cook. Take some culinary classes. I would love to be an actress. I would love to be taught, not just try because I’m famous, whatever, but I’m talking about these things interested me when I was younger. So here I am, I’m traveling around the world, I’m making income.

But I was never home for more than two weeks in a row where I could attend a class. I couldn’t take any course that would be every Tuesday for 16 weeks or you know what I mean, like a course. Because I was never home on the same day. Two weeks later, I was traveling so much and whenever I wasn’t traveling, I was just playing pool and I was playing pool to train. Yeah, I really didn’t have time for a lot of other things because I felt like every minute I was not playing there were women gaining on me, gaining on what I had built and as long as I was playing while they were sleeping, and I’m playing when they’re going out to dinner and I’m playing when they go see a movie. You know what I mean?

Or I don’t know, stay out late doing whatever I was playing pool, I’m gaining on you, and as long as I keep playing while you guys eventually quit, get older, get bored, I’m going to be right there and that was really my thinking. So I took very seriously every spare minute I had when I wasn’t competing to refine what I had built and to get better. It’s like I wanted to become, even though I was number one, I was very disappointed on how bad I was while I was number one, I was disappointed because I thought when I started, I was like, I’m going to be number one.

I’m going to be the best in the world. I’m going to be right number one in the world. There were so many, male good players in New York, and there were a lot of good players that would fly in or they would have these big gambling matches where one male pro would play the other, and I’d just be there watching and learning and seeing what they do. What would I do? Why did they do that? I would’ve done this and just constantly analyzing every time I got the opportunity to watch a better player. By the way, I also saved money. The kinds of things I spent money on was just basically pool time or expenses. I didn’t buy myself very much. I had a lot of black T-shirts and black jeans. It wasn’t like I wasn’t rolling the high life at that point. It was just about getting better at pool, getting better at pool, wearing something black and comfortable and just getting better at pool.

John: Your dedication was unparalleled and it paid off with all your championships, with all, you won the gold medal in Japan.

Jeanette: Oh, my God. Yeah, that is one of my proudest moments only because my dad was constantly like, hey, when’s pool going to be in the Olympics? Oh, when are you going to be in the Olympics? I was like, dad, it’s not like that. We’re probably never going to be in Olympic sport. We’re too small as professionals, it’s very, very small sport. He’s like, no, you need to do that. Then one day, it was actually in 2001, I just had three back to back surgeries on my neck, my shoulder and my spine, right? Each three weeks apart, because I was playing with so much back pain and then I had burned through my rotator cuff. I had bursitis and bicep tendonitis in my shoulder, but somehow I herniated a disc in my neck to the point where I couldn’t lift my neck, I couldn’t play. Whereas my back, I would just, I didn’t care how much I hurt.

I was going to bend down and shoot. I didn’t care what was happening to my shoulder. I would reach out and I’m down here shooting. I just kept lifting that arm up, to play, just burning right through it. But once I couldn’t move my neck, that stopped me. So then I’m talking to the doctor and he’s like, yeah, you got a herniated disc. We got to move that. We got to put some plates in. I’m like, okay, how long is that going to take? What’s the recovery time? He’s like, we really need to do something about that shoulder and whatever. I said, ”Well, if I’m going to take a break from pool, just do it all right now.” And he understood that I was competing. He was a Dr. Terry Trammell and he was out of Indianapolis, and he actually still travels with some of the NASCAR, as a consultant and I think he was one of the doctors that was with Peyton when he was having his big neck surgery.

John: Oh, right.

Jeanette: But anyway, he’s a world renowned surgeon. He’s retired from doing it, but at the time he understood I needed to get back out there. It was so scary because I thought I took so much time away from pool and I’d never done it and it was like, will people remember me, what I built, will I ever become number one again? Because you fall off, because you’re not attending.

John: [crosstalk] How long was that recovery?

Jeanette: It was actually, well, I had each surgery three weeks after another, so that’s nine weeks of actually having the surgery, and then probably two solid months. I needed more time, but I didn’t care, I just started playing after two months. But anyway, I was actually in the hospital when I got the call that I was chosen as the top American in 2001 because 2001, by then, I think Alison was on top because she had come from England playing snooker, and she was dominating there. Then she came here and started picking on me. So she was my rival. We both battled, but I have great respect for her. Anyway, I just remember…

John: You get the call, so did your mind start turning already like when can I get out of here? When can I start practicing again and I want to go do this? Was that what happened?

Jeanette: Kind of the human child in me was, are you kidding? This is the longest time I’ve ever spent away from playing pool, and now I have to represent number one, what is my game going to be like when I start playing again and it’s in two months? That’s not enough time to train and it was not in the summer or Fall Olympics, it was in the World Games, which there’s a lot of sports that got recognized as an Olympic sport. I was actually the person, me and Steve Deckoff, the executive director of the Billiards Congress of America, we’re the ones that went up to the IOC, International Olympic Committee to discuss why we believed billiards is a sport, not just a game, chess, but a sport and in what ways does it take that physical thing, why it should be accepted as an Olympic sport. That was in 1996.

In 98, we became recognized as an Olympic sport, but the rumors were that at best we might be able to be an exhibition sport at one of the different types of Olympic, all the different games and things that they had. So I never expected that we would be able to compete for a medal. But here I am in the hospital getting this phone call and would be the top American representing, and we’re playing for a medal. We’re going to be at the World Games in 2001 in Akito, Japan, and you are going to be competing by people that are synchronized swimming and, I don’t know, skiing.

I can’t remember all the different success that were there, but it was huge. When I won that gold medal, you could see out into this area that were, as far as you can see, there were people, and so many of them were in warmups that had the German flag and the Chinese flag and the Nigerian flag, and on their warmup suits or their outfits, and you would hear all this… and then suddenly it’s silent and the US national anthem starts playing, and the United States flag rises behind me. My goosebumps, my whatever, everyone stopped and recognized the flag, and I was so proud of myself because it wasn’t that, oh, I was playing… It was that I was so proud I didn’t quit all the times I wanted to quit.

So many times I wanted to quit, I was so proud that I didn’t, and the way I felt, and I was so looking forward to calling my dad and saying, dad, that was my first call. I’m very close with my mom, but that was my first call. I said, dad, because I told him we were as an Olympic sport, and he would be like, so when are you going to play it? I’m like, I don’t know dad. So when he knew that I left for the World Games, which is still, if you see my medal, it’s still the Olympic, it still has the symbol and everything.

It’s gold and it’s really cool. But I said, ”Dad, I won the gold. I won it, the whole thing.” He’s like, yeah, you won the tournament. Yeah, you won the gold medal. And I’m like, yeah. He goes, oh, Korea’s so proud of you and oh, you did great. I said, ”Dad, it’s a US gold medal.” You know Korean, so is Korean medal. Korean Korean’s going to be proud of you. I’m like, yeah, but it’s a US gold medal dad. It’s an American gold medal, but still, I get it. Proud to be Asian. Be proud to be a Korean and I was.

John: That’s so sweet.

Jeanette: That was really special feeling. I can’t ever…

John: Let’s give perspective to it. You are still the tender age of 30 years old. You are only 30.

Jeanette: Yeah, you’re right.

John: That’s a very young age. As age goes in this world today, so what an accomplishment. You were already number one, you had achieved that. You had won tons of tournaments and since of 100 whatever, 30 tournaments and titles, but now you were a gold medal winner. No one could ever take that from you. You were a gold medal winner. Let’s talk…

Jeanette: It was the first time in history that we got to compete for gold medal and to represent America, and that it came to America first. That made me very proud. It was funny. It wasn’t me was when I say I was proud of myself, if I look back When I say I was proud of myself, I’ve always been very hard on myself actually, and it seems like I’m very conceited or cocky or whatever. I was very determined, but I would go, wow, you did it. You survived that. I’m so proud of you. It was like I would be proud of myself for withstanding and getting it done, but it wasn’t like, man, you are awesome.

You’re the queen. It never got like that for me, and that’s why it hurts me when people say, all I cared about was being famous because that’s so wrong. But I knew I needed sponsors and I knew that the more known I am, the more of value I would be for my sponsors when they’re advertising their product aligning with me. So it all made sense, and just because I was better at it, which I believe I was, I was better at negotiating and getting sponsors and finding win-win deals than some of the other pros, that doesn’t mean that that was my number one dream. That was a means to an end. It was always to be the best. It was…

John: Your self-talk really wasn’t I’m the best. Your self-talk is how to get better. How do I get better at what I love?

Jeanette: Oh, it as always that.

John: Yeah, that’s so fascinating.

Jeanette: I was proud of myself as I did each thing, but it’s almost like I feel like certain, I’m thinking about different women and the hurtful things they’ve said over the years and things that I would hear about, oh, she said this, and I always try not to be involved in any kind of gossip. I don’t even want to be near it, but it was that I just was so full of myself. I just cared about getting all this stuff and it was like, no, okay, good job, Jeanette. Let’s go. What’s the next thing? How many free charity events can I fly to because of the media attention that it got?

John: Right.

Jeanette: That’s what a lot of the sponsors would say. Jeanette, you were willing to be up at every 4:00 AM 5:00 AM radio network in Hodunk. Who knows where it was. Any kind of media, I was there.

John: Like you were operating from a very different point. You were actually working in an egoless fashion. Like you said, it was a means to an end, but if you had an ego, you’re not going to get up at four o’clock for a call, five o’clock. People with egos just think they’re bigger and better than that. You were actually the opposite. You were paying the price to just further your ability and the ability to keep playing pool the highest level possible.

Jeanette: I had to learn how to do trick shots so that when I went to a trade show for Imperial International, which was one of my biggest sponsors at the time, I wanted to be able to do trick shots. I wanted to amaze the crowd, and my game was pretty good, but it was kind of pretty good for a girl. I would dress up and I could do some trick shots, whatever. In time, I was pretty good period. You know what I mean? I got better and better and better.

But at the beginning, I just wanted to be of value to my sponsors so that I didn’t lose them. So I didn’t have to go back to working a regular job to afford and ask for vacation time and then make it to a tournament and me continuing to do any kind of press gave me the ability to make my own hours, practice as much full as I want and in the morning I was doing media and phone calls, and I resented the countless women that thought, oh, everything just falls in Jeanette’s lab and I’m going, I worked really hard. I was the first one there and the last to leave. I worked very hard, but I feel like I didn’t get credit for that. I mean by my closest friends who are all that mattered, they saw how hard I worked, but being on the tour was a painful thing for a lot of my experience.

John: Talk about pain. I don’t want to talk about right now, the emotional pain. Talk about the physicality of what you did from 13 years old with scoliosis, two surgeries, you’ve had how many surgeries to date? Nine. Approximately nine, 10.

Jeanette: Oh, more than 19, 20, 21.

John: Okay. So obviously…

Jeanette: Numerous surgeries.

John: Right. Mentally, how do you still work through the pain to achieve the goals that you set out for yourself? How does that happen? Where did you get that from?

Jeanette: Are you talking about then or now? Because they’re both battles.

John: I want to talk about…

Jeanette: Let’s talk about right now first.

John: No, let’s talk about then and then talk about how that transfers to now, because that creates a resilience that you’re able to then pull forward and tap back into again. How did you originally do it when there was not a lot of role models for you that showed you how to do this?

Jeanette: Absolutely, you’re right. There was no one, I did not have a role model. I had a role model, Jean Negi, who was a great male player that would play me all the time. Never could be. I learned a lot from him, but I’m talking about, I was in so much pain from playing pool all the time and constantly bending, using just that little bit. Just imagine having to, it’s like everyone gets a whole hand to lift this bowling ball up and down, up and down, and I only have a pinky and I’m like up and down, up and down.

I had so little to take my entire body up and the stress that it created down in my lower back, it was a lot and I was doing so much of it. I would easily play 18 to 25 to 30 hours in a row countless times. I would just get so into it that I would just lose track of time and I just played through it. I didn’t know to quit. I couldn’t anymore. There were times that I had to be lifted and practically carried all the way home to my bed because I had worn myself that thin. I wasn’t a mature 18, 19, 20-year-old. I was someone obsessed with a injured back, obsessed with pool and so I pushed through it and eventually I developed bursitis in my left shoulder on my neck, but I just kept pushing through it.

I started eating Advil like it was nothing and I remember getting injections in my back, which would help for a little bit. I’m talking about the early years on the tour, not even playing at home, but on the tour… a tens unit, there’s a unit and you use it with a remote control and you put it around your waist, and I can’t remember, you add it to your temple or something, and it creates these signals that trick your brain from recognizing pain. So they have that today. It’s called the spinal cord stimulator, and I just got approved for it.

They can implant a little metal device inside your spine, and then they’ll put leads, wires going all the way to your brain, and then you have the remote control that you can raise the level of the vibration or lower it. It’s not an annoying vibration at all. I was worried about that, but it’s just enough to where I don’t feel the pain. So the problem is still there. If you saw my X-rays, they’re a mess. My back is a mess. The scar tissue and the damage and all the fusion and all the broken bits and everything.

But so I will have lifelong pain and I did this three, four years ago, and it was the first time in my life that I could remember that I felt no pain and I was dancing and my girls were like, what are you doing? And I was spinning around. I was jumping in the pool and I had just a different level, and I was like, wow. I felt like King Kong, but the wound would not heal, and I was so excited. We did the trial version where they put the devices outside your body, but the wires are in, so you have this gaping hole on your side, but you have to do a trial version to see if it works before they’ll do the actually bigger surgery to implant the smaller device inside your body.

John: So you’re going to be getting that in the future now that you’ve been approved?

Jeanette: Yes. So I got sepsis. From that surgery, it never healed properly and eventually against my wishes, I was crying. I said, you don’t know what gift you gave me, and you can’t take it away. You can’t. But they kept trying to clean it out, fix it, do everything. But the wires kept coming out and it kept getting yellow and green goop, and they said, Jeanette, your body does not want this, it’s just fighting it. It won’t heal up and they just made the choice to take it out. Since then, I haven’t been able to get anyone willing to do it again because it didn’t work the first time. It’s not that it didn’t work, but that my body…

John: Long-term. Right, but now you’ve been approved for… [crosstalk]

Jeanette: But now I do have someone, so I’m excited. So hopefully after I’ve got a little traveling to visit my daughter and a couple things here in August, so probably in September maybe I’m going to try to do that again then, who knows? I might be someone on tour again. Breaking falls again.

John: Jeanette…

Jeanette: I still do that.

John: That’s awesome.

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