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The Black Widow Looks Back

Jeanette Lee, the subject of a new documentary, talks about her childhood in Crown Heights, and how she became the Black Widow of billiards.

Jeanette Lee at Amsterdam Billiards in 2002. (Courtesy ESPN Films)

I still remember the thrill of watching the Black Widow, the pool player otherwise known as Jeanette Lee, on the TV screen. Dressed in black from head to toe, she would stalk around a pool table, her eyes narrowed as she leaned over and coolly eviscerated her opponents. (Thank you to my dad, who was too cheap to pay for a cable subscription but who was more than happy to get us an illegal cable box.) In the 1990s, Lee was a phenom—I challenge you to name one other pool player from that era, let alone one with a nickname—and she and outlets like ESPN, which featured her in an iconic "This is SportsCenter" commercial, ran with it. 

But to me, what really mattered was that she was so fucking cool. What other Asian American woman at the time was so publicly—and literally—busting balls? She was incredibly talented, yes—and she also oozed an unapologetic sex appeal. (Her nails! The all-black outfits!) Looking back, it's easy to see that she had made the calculation that if others were going to portray her as a modern-day dragon lady, she would ignore the haters and embrace that image, using it for her own ends. 

What casual viewers like myself might not have known was that beneath the Black Widow exterior, Lee was often in constant physical pain. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, she had been diagnosed with scoliosis, and a series of surgeries over the years would cut short her professional career. And then in 2021, Lee was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. In May of this year, she shared that her cancer was now in remission, though due to the aggressive nature of ovarian cancer, she was undergoing daily chemotherapy; her long-term prognosis is uncertain. 

It feels that this moment, for so many reasons, is the right time to examine Lee's life and legacy—and the Black Widow is now the subject of the filmmaker Ursula Liang's latest work, "Jeanette Lee Vs.," a "30 for 30" ESPN documentary that premieres on the network on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET.  

Recently, Lee and I spoke over Zoom about her childhood in Crown Heights, the reasons why she gravitated to pool, the New York City billiards club that kicked off her career, and how she became the Black Widow. Some things don't change: As always, her nails were immaculate, and she was dressed in all-black. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Esther Wang: First of all, how are you? How are you doing health-wise right now?

Jeanette Lee: I'm stable, but I'm dealing with some muscle atrophy. I'm weaker, you know. And I've lost a little bit of weight, which we're working on, because I was gaining weight for a while. Then I started having these dizzy spells and just severe fatigue, and it just kind of kept me in my bed more.

And so I've been fighting that—getting out and getting more physical again, and just kind of fighting the fatigue and trying to make sure you get plenty of rest. And then it's, well, you don't want to be in bed all the time. You want to be a little active. And you've got to figure out where that balance is. 

In the documentary, you talk about growing up in Crown Heights. And this was a time when it was a largely Black and Jewish neighborhood. It sounds like your family was really the only Asian family around. 

At some point, there was a Chinese family that was in that same school, but for most of my childhood, it was just us. 

Looking back, do you think your childhood gave you a certain comfort with being a little bit of an outsider? 

In some ways, yeah. 

My friends were Black, but at the same time, I was also made fun of every day, on my way to and from school and at school. "Ching chong," you know, "China girl," all these kind of derogatory remarks. 

I felt like I, from that, kind of grew up comfortable as a wannabe—I was just always kind of looking at what [others] were wearing, and the way they were dressing. 

You were an angsty, rebellious teen. I read that you dropped out of Bronx Science. How did you find pool? What made you gravitate to it, and what made you want to devote your life to it?

I don't know that I thought that far ahead in terms of devoting my life to it, but I just know that at that moment, I didn't feel like I had a reason to get up in the mornings. I was just a teenager, trying to transition into adulthood as soon as possible, wanting to be independent of my parents as soon as possible, not really having a close relationship with them. I mean, [there was] an undying, unconditional love, no question about that. So that aside, just us understanding each other from where each other was coming from—she grew up in Korea, and I was growing up in New York. And so it was a confusing time back then, just trying to figure out myself, and I just never felt like I fit in anywhere.

And then with pool, I didn't care. And that was so, not was like I had permission to breathe. I was always asking what other people think and how they dress or where they buy clothes, instead of deciding what I like. I just wanted to do what they liked. And if I thought they were cool, then I wanted to like what they liked. 

That was in the Black community. And then when my mom gave up and sent me to a private school, which was an all-white community, it still didn't change in terms of me feeling different, like an outcast. 

And then the scoliosis surgery really made me an outcast, because I had this huge plastic brace on. You know, when you're 12, 13 years old, that's about the age when you start noticing that boys are boys, and you're very conscious about your body changing. And you look like a plastic surfboard. It was bad. It didn't do a lot for my self-confidence. 

But with pool, it was just so fun. It was so fascinating. It wasn't a conscious decision, this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. It was like, I need to play. I want to play. I want to play. So I'd go to work and do my responsibilities and I'd go play. And then I ended up changing jobs to where I had more flexibility, so I could go play more. And then I took this other job which was closer, so I would have to commute less, so I'd get to the pool room faster. 

I became obsessed with it. It took three years to turn pro and a year and a half after that to become number one in the world. I think I was naturally competitive. And I was just depressed and lonely enough to just become obsessed with something. 

I really became obsessed, and after that, I was free. I got to be me, I got to be an authentic version of myself. And I started thinking about, what kind of food do I like? What kind of music do I really enjoy? That was when I started growing up. Until then, I didn't allow myself to have an opinion. I didn't think I was worthy of that.

I was really struck by how much the Howard Beach Billiard Club played a large role in your life as a teenager and as a young adult. There was that New York Times piece from the early '90s that mentioned you as part of the scene there. And I just pictured in my mind, teenage Jeanette strolling in and showing up in a space that's full of people who are maybe mobsters, maybe not. 

I mean, it is true! 

I remember walking into the place because I was playing pool somewhere else, and [someone was] like, yo, there's this new pool room called Howard Beach Billiard Club, it's like a million-dollar pool room. And I was like, a million-dollar pool room? Who's going to spend a million dollars on a pool room? And so we were curious, and we went there. And it was all leather seats and velvet everything, cigar bar. It was just so elegant and beautiful and plush. And I thought, this is never gonna work, it's a pool room. 

But I was wrong. I ended up meeting the owner [Gabe Vigorito], because he saw me playing and I guess I caught his interest. And then they invited me to their grand opening. They had a soft opening, and so we were checking out this new place. At the grand opening, I got to meet Willie Mosconi, who at that point was the greatest player that had ever lived. And so that was really inspiring. Now I'm thinking at the pro level, rather than me being, you know, a pretty good player around town. No, now it's like, there's an opportunity to go semi-pro and go pro. 

Tell me more about the scene there. 

Gabe Vigorito, he told me right away that if I went there, I could play for free all the time and he'd comp everything. And for me, being a broke teenager, that was a great thing. 

I wanted more women playing pool in the pool room, and it bothered me that there were hardly any, and so I asked Gabe, would you be willing to give up one of your slow nights for us to make it Ladies' Night? And that we’d promote it as Ladies' Night, and it's free pool for the women, and I would be there from seven to eight, teaching them for free. And I said, it's more women that are coming in your door, attracting more men, and they're going to eat and drink. And so he said, okay. 

And then he's the one that named me the Black Widow. One day I came in, and there were these trifold papers, and on the front was a picture of me that said, "Come play pool with the Black Widow. She really knows how to break balls." And I went in there, and I'm like, what? No, no, no. And I said, "What are you doing? You can't do that." And he said, "What? You're teaching them. We got to promote it." And I was like, yeah, but not as the Black Widow, they're not going to understand. And he said, "Trust me, they'll understand, the minute they get to know you, they'll understand." And I was like, no, no, no. And he said, "Well, we got to promote it, and I've already printed these, so it's too late." Well, I wanted to do the lessons. And that kind of stuck around for a while. And that was a lot of fun. 

And actually, he started sponsoring me at local events, as a house pro kind of thing, even though I was not a pro yet.

How did you become a pro?

What I didn't know is the winner of the state championship got to go to a [Women's Professional Billiard Association] national tournament. That would be my first shot at my first pro tournament. I went to the state championship, and I came in second, and I went home and forgot about that. But then I got a phone call that the girl who did win, that beat me in the finals, she couldn't go to the WPBA. So the next person would be me. And I was like, I have a slot to go to the WPBA nationals? 

And so I got that, which is great. But I was like, I don't have any dress clothes, I don't have any dressy, tournament-worthy clothes. I didn't have any reason to yet. 

I was complaining to Gabe, and I said, "I have to say no." And he's like, why? And I said, "Because I can't, I've never been on a plane before, as far as I knew, I don't even know how to buy a ticket. And then I have to figure out a hotel room, and I don't have any clothes." I just couldn't afford to go. But I said, "I'll get there." I was always saving money, all the money that I earned from all the tournaments. I wouldn't let myself spend that money on anything but more tournaments. 

But he said, "Don't worry." He said, "I will cover your airfare, I’ll cover your hotel, and I'll give you $500 towards a wardrobe." I was so excited. And he said, "On one condition." And I said, "What's that?" And he said, "Everything has to be black." And I said, "Why?" I wore black all the time anyway. I would say 70 percent of my clothes were black. 

You were a New Yorker.

Exactly. And I was Korean, a lot of Asians wear black. [Laughs] 

I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because you're the Black Widow and the minute everyone sees you in black, with your hair down and your deadly face, it's going to become the biggest name."

How long did it take you to fully embrace that public image of yourself?

I have to say, probably within two years of becoming pro. I just felt more and more…I still felt like the genuine me. I truly, truly believe that I'm a genuine person, on and off the table. And I believe that both of them are me. They're just sides to me. One is a motherly, loving, nurturing person. And the other one just wants to break balls. You know? That's it.

There was a lot of casual sexism and misogyny that was thrown your way throughout your career. It was really eye-opening to watch the documentary and see some of the skits that you participated in. There was one with Jimmy Kimmel.

Yup. "The Man Show."

How did you deal with that? 

Obviously, you want to have your own self-respect, and you want respect. I did feel a responsibility as a woman, and as an Asian. And being in a male-dominated sport, there are all these different kinds of pressures and expectations and things like that. 

My boyfriend at the time told me a quote, "Say what you want about me, but just get my name spelled right." Something like that. Like, there's no such thing as bad publicity. It's better to be known one way or another than not be known at all. 

I think in the end, it was an opportunity to get more publicity, and then show that I can still be my own classy self and not change who I am, regardless of the environment that I was put in. 

I also think when I was very young, I really didn't necessarily have a sense right away of what's going on, or what I could do about it. You might see it and not like it, but that doesn't mean you feel like you could actually [say], "Hold on a second here, everybody." Then as you grow older and you get more self-confidence, then you're going to voice your opinion, you're going to make the decision, do I step up and try to make a change? Or do I decide not to participate at all? Or do I participate, but also make my feelings clear?

You said in the documentary, "I like toying with the men. They've done enough to women."

[Laughs] Yes.

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