Whether you grew up as a kid in the 1990s watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” or you’re now just tuning into the classic TV sitcom, you are more than familiar with the character Vivian Banks, whose teenage nephew (Will Smith) comes to live with her wealthy family from Philadelphia. Initially played by Janet Hubert-Whitten, Daphne Maxwell Reid reprised the role in the show’s fourth season as the beloved matriarch. These days she is a renaissance woman, respected artist, designer, and education activist. Working from her home in Virginia, and still happily married to pioneering actor, producer, writer and director Tim Reid (“WKRP in Cincinnati,” and “Sister, Sister”), Reid is living proof that a passion for creativity and a dedication to hard work can ensure a lifetime’s worth of success.
In an interview with Reid, I was given the opportunity to get her thoughts on how she found stardom as a model and actress, and if she still keeps in touch with “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” cast.
Reid’s creative journey began as a child in the Bronx where she was encouraged to pursue her passions and gain a sense of responsibility. “I grew up knowing that I could be anything I wanted to be, but I also learned the joy and responsibility of working,” said the actress.
Before taking her place in front of the camera, the budding talent found her place at Northwestern University (NU) in the 1960’s. It was during the heart of the Civil Rights Movement that Reid took a stand against the lack of educational resources that were not available to Black students at NU.
Reid began her journey as an activist May 3, 1968, joining her student body where more than 100 undergraduate and graduate students occupied the Bursar’s Office in the first major sit-in at Chicago’s Northwestern University. The peaceful protest lasted 36 hours and led to University leaders negotiating with students, committing to enhance services and support for Black students as well as a Black Student Union, known as The Black House for NU.
On being a part of history, “I grew up in a family where my mother was always protesting or standing up for something or for someone’s rights and when I told her that we were taking over the Bursar’s office, she said just let me know if you need bail money. I just knew what they were asking for was what the school needed and I said I’m in. We went in and took over the building and ask the people to leave and they did and we locked the doors from the inside and shut the school down for a couple of days.”
As an advocate, Reid was a part of a fabric of demonstrators that took action against injustice that is still seen in today’s social and political climate.
On being considered a pioneer for her advocacy, she states, “I was just going on about my business. I knew I could do anything I wanted to do and I decided to do that, and acted on it with courage and integrity, and I got that pioneer label,” she said.
Breaking new barriers is nothing new for Reid, who decades ago was #Blackgirlmagic, becoming the first African American homecoming queen at Northwestern University. It was an honor for Reid who did not expect to win, nor the backlash she received for the title. “I still wonder how that happened,” she laughed. “I was elected and it was as much as a surprise to me as it was to them. I was not celebrated, I was kind of shunned and disrespected, but I carried the title with my head up high. They didn’t place me in the yearbook that year, because they said the homecoming wasn’t important that year.”
During the 1960s during the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, Black women weren’t placed at the forefront and celebrated. However, Reid made history again as the first Black model to grace the cover of Glamour magazine (1969). “I went in for my shoot, and was instructed by my agent to put on a red jacket, pull my hair to the side, put on mascara and lip gloss and that was it. I was as surprised to see myself on the newsstand as my mama was. They didn’t warn me that I was going to be on the cover, I found it on the newsstand and it was cool.”
The NU student who signed with Eileen Ford modeling agency admitted modeling wasn’t something she dreamed of doing, but smiled her way through her career, taking the modeling world by storm.
Inspired by her social and political views, Seventeen Magazine sought out Reid for a feature. “They wanted a Black girl to talk about Black Power and I was then selected to be in a real girl issue of Seventeen Magazine. In January of 1967, we did the shoot and I had a full page and a fixture in the magazine, this was during my freshman year of college.”
As a model, she parlayed her success into an acting career. With guest starring roles in shows like “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Hill Street Blues,” and “Simon and Simon,” she first took a lead role on the acclaimed series “Frank’s Place,” opposite her husband.
On her journey to Hollywood, “I became an actress accidentally while I was modeling in Chicago. A man named Robert Conrad was shooting a television series and my agent sent me over to audition and I got the role. He started my acting career, writing me into the show. I was in the right place at the right time and blessed by the stars and God to be able to perform,” said Reid.
The activist, turned actress furthered her career by landing the prime role as Vivian Banks on the hit NBC comedy “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
Known to endearing fans as “Aunt Viv,” the adored matriarch who is successful and an anchor to her family, stated “It was big fun! I had been doing a lot other television series and was blissfully titillating away my time on my new farm in Virginia, when they had asked me to audition for the show when it first started. They said it’s a new half-hour sitcom with a rapper and I was like ‘ah, no thank you very much,’ and didn’t audition.”
However, Reid had a change of heart when the show aired, stating it was a great show. Fate came knocking at her door three years later and she was again asked to audition for the role. “I got on the first plane smokin’. It took me two and a half weeks to secure that role, but I was so blessed that I was able to do it,” she stated.
On how it was working with the cast, “I fell in love with actor James Avery (played the character of Philip Banks), he was just the most wonderful partner to work with. He and his wife and my husband and I had a great relationship together. It was a wonderful time,” she said. “The cast was fabulous, they welcomed me like I had been there all along. It was the most comfortable transition that I have ever made.”
She landed the role, coming in as the second actress to play the character for seasons 4 -6, replacing Janet Hubert-Whitten who was first cast as Banks. Although both actresses carried out the role on the show, the controversy surrounding Reid and Hubert-Whitten has always been of interest to fans and the media.
On how it was coming into the 4th season, “I’m sure there was anger, etc. on Janet’s part, but I never met the woman, so I don’t know. I’ve heard her stories; but they never talked about her to me, or the whole situation. The cast embraced her when she was there and they embraced me when I was there. There was no snickering going around, it was just welcome, let’s get to work.”
Classic 1990s sitcoms are getting a reboot. “Full House,” “Will & Grace” and “Roseanne” have made a return to television, according to multiple reports, many hope “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” will follow suit.
While fingers are crossed for a reboot, Reid is not waiting to catch up with her TV family on-air. “We had a reunion last year…a lunch and it was wonderful. I keep up with Avery’s wife, she is a very good friend of mine, Karyn Parsons who played my eldest daughter, Tatyana Ali and her new baby boy, Alfonso Ribeiro and his family, and I get to see Will every once in a while.”
The actress keeps busy as the host of Virginia Currents (PBS), and as a spokesperson and board member for Virginia State University (VSU), doing outreach, public relations, and speaking engagements that allow her to preach the importance of education and career prep for students of color.
As an education activist for Historical Black Colleges and Universities, Reid looks to increase resources for a higher education for Black students. “I was very involved in making sure that students got their money’s worth; college is very expensive. I stay active and involved with helping to raise awareness and funds for particular HBCUs that I have been working with.”
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Bursar’s Office Takeover, Reid was honored by the Northwestern University Black Alumni Association (NUBAA) for her participation in the 1968 sit-in, held May 3-6.
“I think its lovely,” she said. It’s going to be the second time that the Black Alumni Association has honored me. They gave me a hall of fame award about eight or nine years ago. This is a wider audience of Black Alumni Association and University Alumni Association and its a bigger honor and I appreciate greatly.”
With a lifetime of success, Reid resides with her husband in Virginia, pursuing her lifelong passion for fashion and photography. Taking her creativity to another level, the photographer specializes in fine art photography that features doors and doorways from around the world, including Cuba, Venice, France, China, Germany and Belgium. She is an author to memoir and cookbook, “Grace, Soul and Motherwit: A Cookbook Spiced with Personal Memories.”
On pursuing her current projects, “I decided at age 60 to start a photography career. I learned how to print my own prints, create my own catalogues and do gallery shows. The journey part was a blast! It’s wonderful to keep learning throughout your life and I enjoy it.”
With a thriving artist career, she has added clothing designer to her portfolio.
Reid who has been a seamstress for much of her life, created many of her own outfits and costumes as a young actress and model, and has now developed those skills into an exclusive, custom clothing line called Daphne Style, making colorful and versatile Chinese silk brocade jackets that are wearable works of art.
She considers them to be statement pieces and wants her work to be personal projects, not mass manufactured.
Daphne Style wowed audiences at New York’s fashion week last fall and is featured on her website daphnemaxwellreid.com.
Reid believes in being in control of one’s own destiny and having the confidence to live your best life.
“I was blessed when I was born, God gave me a lot of wonderful gifts and to be able to share those gifts is what is so fulfilling for me.”