Daphne Maxwell Reid, Fresh Prince of Bel Air’s “Aunt Viv”: What she’s doing now
She played iconic TV mom “Aunt Viv” in the 1990s to Will Smith’s “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” The show went off the air in 1996, but Daphne Maxwell Reid never slowed down. She has remained active as an actor, but true Renaissance woman that she is, she has never let a single role define her. She is a photographer and has published a wonderful collection of images called “Daphne Maxwell Reid’s Fresh Prints®” and four others, a cookbook entitled “Grace + Soul & Mother Wit” that is a combination cookbook and memoir, and she has created a line of Chinese Silk Brocade tops under her “Daphne Style” brand, which debuted last year at New York Fashion Week. And there’s more to come.
Which Aunt Viv do you remember?
By the time she became the lovable Vivian Banks – “Aunt Viv” – Daphne had already been working in television for 20 years. “I was lucky enough to be discovered back in the ’70s by Robert Conrad, who was doing a show in Chicago where I was working as a model and as a commercial artist,” said Daphne. “And he put me in a show that he was shooting in Chicago, and I guess the rest was history! It was a great opportunity.”
Daphne is best known for her role as Aunt Viv, but she wasn’t the only one who played this role. Janet Hubert had the role for the first three seasons, while Daphne finished out the show’s final three seasons, and fans still speculate on exactly why Janet was replaced to this day. Most accounts say that there was certainly no love lost between Janet and Fresh Prince star Will Smith and the feud between the two still continues.
But what went on behind the scenes? “It’s a mystery to me!” said Daphne. “I never met her, I didn’t know her, and they didn’t talk about it while I was with them in the years following. They had worked with someone, and now they were working with me, and life went on.”
Once the decision was made to bring in a new actor for the role, over 200 women auditioned. “I was the lucky one,” said Daphne. “I remember the audition very well, and was happy to be back at work. I had already semi-retired to Virginia on a farm, and I saw the opportunity, and it was a great show. So I went, spent my two weeks auditioning, and was lucky enough to really hit it off with James Avery and impress the network, so I got the job.”
She loved working with Will Smith and the entire cast, and there can be no doubt that there was a chemistry there in those last few seasons. “Will is a very smart, talented, exuberant young man who was a joy to work with,” she recalls. “The rest of the cast are like my family. Wonderful, interesting people that have just grown in their lives and in mine. I couldn’t have been happier!”
Will ran the show with high expectations, and that was one of its secrets of success. “Will was someone who showed people that if you give 150 percent, you get a thousand percent back. He was very committed to what he was doing, very open to suggestion, very respectful of those who had done it longer than me, and very wise. He was very, as he used to say, a ‘clever young man.'”
Style icon and creator of wearable art
Her memorable style and fashion sense on Fresh Prince was no accident. Daphne has been sewing and designing her own clothes all her life, and lately has been creating her own line of Chinese-inspired silk jackets, each one a work of wearable art. “I sell them as wearable art, rather than as fashion,” said Daphne. “It’s a custom-made topper for you to wear, like a piece of custom jewelry.”
She’s been sewing since she was nine years old, and fell in love with the Chinese-inspired jackets about 25 years ago. “When I found those, I wanted to make a jacket that I could wear as my statement piece. I started making them about 15 years ago and every time I wore one, I would get stopped on the street and asked, where did you get that? Can I get one?” Finally three years ago, she decided to do a limited edition.
Last year, she debuted her designs at New York Fashion Week. “There were probably about ten designers in the show I did, and I was blessed to be one of the designers and got to show the line that I had created for that year. I only do custom design work, so I was showing the style that I was doing that year. Fashion week was good for me!”
A photographer since childhood, Daphne’s creative endeavors also include the creation of stunning books of photography. Photography was always something present in her youth. “My father used to take pictures all the time,” she said. “He spent some time in photography school, and although he didn’t do it for a living, he always had a camera, and when we were growing up I always had a camera. That was just one of the standard things that you own.”
She has published a series of four photography books that expand on the theme of doors and portals and other details of architecture. “Doors seem to be a metaphor for life for me,” she said. “They symbolize adventure and curiosity. I’ve taken photos of doors from around the world, and in my talks, I talk about the metaphor of the door, and noticing the details of your life. Not just going from A to B and achieving a goal – but noticing the whole path along that journey and embracing it.”
The concept of doors is explored gracefully in her books, and doors as an architectural detail throughout history have held often spiritual importance. If you look at the doorway of a Chinese temple, or a Renaissance-era European cathedral, you’ll see that the door is so much more than an entryway, and Daphne has captured that importance in her photography. “I want to point out the craftsmanship that people had. It’s so rare to get to see the work that people laid their hands on in this very manufactured world. The actual handcrafted thing is very important.”
Grace + Soul & Mother Wit
It’s more than a cookbook. It’s personal memories, a memoir, and of course, a collection of what she calls “mother wit.” Her book “Grace + Soul & Mother Wit” shows a little of her 40 year journey, with plenty of photographs, letters, and remembrances of those who have been with her along that journey.
“It’s a memoir of the importance of sitting around a table in my life, and how the family meal was the center of discussion, the center of exchanged information, the center of joy, the expression of love for my mother,” she says. “It was one of my fondest memories of growing up. So it was important to me to help folks re-establish a place where you could share that kind of intimacy with your family and enrich your life.”
Acting, breaking barriers, traveling the world and publishing books, and designing her own line of clothes – what hasn’t this Renaissance woman done? She has never slowed down and is still the same energetic woman we all came to know and love when she played Aunt Viv opposite Will Smith. “I had a decade-change in my birthday, and I said, let’s see what else I might want to do? I’ll let it percolate while I continue to create these jackets, take photographs, do another book out of my trip to Sicily – and I think just continue to travel, and to share experiences with people on my journey so far.”
And what a journey it’s been.
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.