Sheila Johnson was born on January 25, 1949 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a neurosurgeon Father who worked for the Veterans Administration, and an accountant mother.
For 33 years from 1969–2002, she was married to Robert L. Johnson. Together they founded the entertainment network BET. They sold the company to Viacom in 1999. They have two children.
After her divorce from Robert L. Johnson in 2002, she was estimated to be worth about $670 million. In 2009, Forbes magazine estimated her net worth to be $400 million. In May 2017, Johnson's net worth was placed at $750 million.
On September 24, 2005, she married Arlington County Circuit Court Chief Judge william T. Newman, who had presided over her divorce from Robert L. Johnson in 2003. The couple first met three decades earlier when they acted in a play together.
In 2007 Johnson was honored as one of the Library of Virginia's "Virginia Women in History" for her career and her contributions to society.
Johnson's first film, Kicking It, premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT. She served as sole executive Producer on her second film, A Powerful Noise, which premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Johnson is a Democrat, although in 2009 she endorsed Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell. In early October 2009, Johnson mocked the stutter of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds at a rally for McDonnell's campaign. She later apologized.
In April 2010, Johnson condemned Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for his proclamation honoring Confederate History Month because it omitted any reference to slavery.
In an interview, Sheila Johnson said she herself is "ashamed" of what the BET has become. “I don’t watch it. I suggest to my kids that they don’t watch it," she said. “When we started BET, it was going to be the Ebony magazine on television. 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.”