This Legendary Actress Went From ’90s Sitcom Star to Renaissance Woman

This Legendary Actress Went

From ’90s Sitcom Star to Renaissance Woman

Daphne Maxwell Reid may be best known for playing Vivian “Aunt Viv” Banks on the beloved ‘90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air—and for gracefully taking over the role during the end of the show’s third season. But, there’s so much more to Reid’s story and career—that starts before Fresh Prince ever aired and goes long after the show ended in 1996. Passionate about photography, cooking, and design, Reid considers Daphne Style, her custom line of Chinese silk brocade jackets, to be wearable works of art. She’s published five fine art photography books that feature doors and doorways from around the world, and recently released her first cookbook, Grace + Soul & Motherwit: A Cookbook Spiced with Personal Memories.

To give all her projects the time and energy needed to thrive, Reid is a master at the delicate art of prioritizing. “I was given the God-given blessings of gifts,” Reid explains. “And gifts are the talents that I need to express to the world. I just take each one as it inspires me and see where I can go with it and learn what I can through the process of developing it. The learning process is my favorite part. Learning how to do something, market something and express something in the most fulfilling way.”

With so much success and personal gratification to relish in, Reid is determined to influence and inspire the younger generation of African-American men and women to find, follow and execute their passions too. “I found that all of these threads of experiences weave the tapestry that makes my life fulfilled. I want to make sure that kids don’t get jaded and unfocused,” she explains. “I want them to realize that they can achieve whatever they desire if they have the willpower, if they get up when they fall down, if they make sure that there are joy and compassion in their life. It just all rounds out beautifully.”

While Reid has found success as an actress, model, artist and more—she didn’t follow a set path to check off all those boxes on her resume. Instead, as she went along for the ride, she remained open to where the twists and turns might lead.

“When you set your goals, you decide, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do. This is what I want to be,’” says Reid. “But, life has its own playbook. If you’re living your life fully, you may be guided toward something else, but you’ll eventually get back to what you’re dreaming about. The sidetrack is to gain additional knowledge that you’ll need to help that dream along.”

Reid was the first black woman to grace the cover of Glamour. This 1969 cover would go on to change her life

Reid knows a little something about getting sidetracked. As a teenager, she started modeling in the pages of Seventeen magazine’s “Real Girl” issue. A merit scholar with plans to attend Northwestern University in Chicago, modeling was not in Reid’s big picture plans. “I was looking for a career first as a science teacher and then as an interior designer and architect. That’s where I was focused.” So, Reid framed the chance to model as a “blessing” and decided to pursue it while in college. She flew back and forth between Chicago and New York City for just $25 a round trip.

For one shoot, her agent instructed her to arrive with clean hair, minimal make-up and wear just a simple red turtleneck and jacket.

“My agent said, ‘Put some mascara and some lip gloss on. Pull your hair over to the side and sit on the window,’” recalls Reid. “I shot for maybe fifteen minutes—the photographer didn’t take more than twenty shots.” Reid got back on the plane and headed back to school not knowing how drastically her career was about to change. That “simple” photo shoot was the future cover of Glamour magazine.”

With an acting career that started in the ‘70s, Reid has witnessed a great shift in the entertainment industry, especially within the African American community. Photo Courtesy of Daphne Maxwell Reid

And, it wasn’t any cover. It was the first cover of Glamour featuring an African American woman. Being the “first” wasn’t Reid’s intention. “You grow up living your life, and you go on to the next opportunity,” she says. “If you’re graced, you’re guided to places that fulfill you and opportunities that can help you be fulfilled.”

While acting is a natural progression from a career in modeling, Reid didn’t imagine she’d follow that path either—even though she did some theater in high school and commercials and voice-over work in Chicago. Through her modeling agency, Reid got cast on a TV series called The Duke. She enjoyed the experience so much, she decided to see what would happen if she pursued acting in the “big pond” of Los Angeles. “My career just bloomed. It was a blessing. It was manna from heaven,” she says. “I was trying to do my best at it and learn everything that made it tick. That’s how my career progressed. I was not the woman who had the desire to be a high fashion model or TV star. I didn’t think about any of that. I went along for the ride and what a wonderful ride it has been.”

With an acting career that started in the ‘70s, Reid has witnessed a great shift in the entertainment industry, especially within the African American community. She’s especially impressed and proud because today, African Americans are making themselves heard in ways the past generations could not. “There’s a long history of blacks in this business but because there’s social media now, you hear more about them,” she says. “When say Lena Horne was acting, when a whole plethora of black actors and actors were acting, you didn’t hear about them because they didn’t spread the word. But they were there, and everybody built on everybody else’s career. Everybody has to move the ball when it’s their time to move the ball.”

Reid, however, still thinks there’s much work to be done. “I’m very proud and very happy for all that I see,” she says. “But, I would love to have more African Americans in decision-making roles, so that they can decide how our community is represented on television and include stories that our culture knows about, but other cultures don’t, that need to be expressed on television.” True to form, she is an avid TV watcher—mainly scripted shows, however, because she believes the second you stick a camera in someone’s face on a reality show—the reality is over. “I like the things that Oprah is developing and of course, I love Shonda Rhimes projects, because they just show so many varied types of black people. Then, there’s Empire that shows a whole ‘nother canvas of wonderful characters,” she says.

“I think there’s too much of the BS television out there but that needs its space, too. I’m saddened by the fact that advertising drives production more than creativity does but that’s just my overall, general ‘TV ain’t what it used to be.’”

And, because show business isn’t what it used to be either, Reid has very specific advice for those just starting out. “I suggest that new actors and actresses also love something besides acting that will earn them a living,” she comments. “As an actor, you’re waiting to be chosen. You don’t have control over where your next job is coming from. You need to be able to eat while you’re waiting to be chosen and working on your craft and learning all you can about the business.” And, Reid wants young people to know that being a celebrity is not the end goal. “Being a celebrity is a nice perk,” she says. “I’m not going to knock it—but it’s not the goal. The kids now need to focus more on quality rather than quantity.”

Quality work is what Reid built her career on. And she knows that an opportunity to work on something a trailblazing project like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air is rare.

“The show is timeless. It’s an example of a black family that was not seen like that before,” she recalls. “The talent of Will Smith is iconic, and the show had such a wonderful array of characters. It was written so well and so truthfully.”

Reid says that the cast was instrumental in helping the writers nail those cultural notes the show so famously hit on. “I remember sitting at the table read one time, and they had Ashley talking back to her father,” she remarks. “We all said, ‘Excuse me? If Ashley did that in our house, she wouldn’t have teeth because she’d have been knocked to the other side of the room. We don’t have that kind of disrespect for our parents.’ The writers understood that it was cultural, and they made it work.”

To be sure, Reid believes a big reason the Fresh Prince was so successful is because Will Smith, the show’s fearless leader and star, was the hardest working man in show business back then—and continues to be today. “He’s a brilliant man,” she says. “We knew this working with him. He worked harder than anybody on that show—and we all worked hard. He was a serious businessman and knew what a performance meant to the rest of the show. He brought it every time. He’s a great leader and a great learner.”

One of her standout memories is sitting with Smith and the rest of the cast between takes and talking about everything from philosophy to religion to literature. “All things where we would all grow from it,” Reid reminisces. But while the cast still keeps in touch—don’t expect them to follow the lead of other huge ‘90s sitcoms and reunite with a reboot. “No, no, no—it’s time to move on! The times are different, things are different, people are different,” she says. “Let’s talk about what’s happening now and the relationships in families now. Let’s not try to recreate that was magic. Besides, it replays well. We’re on our third generation of watchers!”

And, Reid is inspiring all generations to keep on following their dreams and live their best lives. “I’m trying to show that no matter where you are, who you are, how much money you have, or what your circumstances are—you can dream something into being,” Reid says. “You can make it happen—if you try. If you don’t try?” It’s why Reid has yet to retire and has no plans on stopping anytime soon. “It’ll never happen. I want to encourage my generation—the older folks— not retire. Instead, I want them to move to the next chapter and find something that they can grow with. Don’t stop growing just because you’ve reached 65 or 70. It’s a wonderful time for learning something new. Follow a path and see where it leads you.”

And with Reid leading the way, we’ll take any path she sets on.

She recalls sitting with Smith and the rest of the cast between takes and talking about everything from philosophy to religion to literature. Photo Courtesy of EW.com
Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal

Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal is a NYC-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Glamour, Redbookmag.com, EW.com and so many others in her career spanning almost 20 years. She's the author of five books, has interviewed A-list celebrities, written about women and career topics, health, money and more.

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