To the world, the Fresh Prince was riding a wave of success. Behind the scenes, it wasn’t like that at all.
When West Philly hip-hop artist Will Smith, of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, landed a major TV series, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” it was a pivotal point in his career. Not just because it could take him to new heights in entertainment, but he sorely needed money.
Despite having hit singles under his belt, he was in debt. Like many young artists, he’d blown through his newfound wealth quickly and found himself in debt to the IRS to the tune of $2.8 million.
Smith and his hip-hop partner, Jeff Townes (DJ Jazzy Jeff) earned accolades from fans and the music industry.
The group received the first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance in 1989 for “Parents Just Don’t Understand”. Their most successful single, “Summertime” (1991), earned the group their second Grammy and climbed to No. four on the Billboard Hot 100. DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince have sold more than 5.5 million albums in the U.S., according to Showbiz CheatSheet.
“The Fresh Prince of Bel -Air” was offered to Smith just in time. Despite not having any acting experience, he took it, knowing he had a major debt to settle. Smith played a teenager from a poor Philadelphia neighborhood who was sent to live with his rich aunt and uncle in the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air. It debuted in 1990 and ran until 1996.
To repay his IRS debt, Smith had to fork over 70 percent of his salary for three years.
Smith has spoken of this part his life but the experience recently resurfaced when the cast of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” reunited 30 years after the show’s debut.
The reunion was an emotional one for Smith. Smith decided to go on “Red Table Talk,” the popular online show created by his wife, Jada Pickett-Smith, to clear the air about dealing with his IRS issues and a personal feud with a fellow cast member, Janet Hubert, who played Aunt Vivian on the show.
Hubert has long complained that Smith froze her out, had her fired, and in essence ruined her career. After the first three seasons of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the actress who played Aunt Vivian switched from Hubert to Daphne Maxwell Reid.
Hubert has always been outspoken about her time on the hit show and departure from it, but this is the first time Smith addressed it.
He sat down with psychologist Dr. Ramani Durvasula on “Red Table Talk” to discuss why he turned on Hubert.
Durvasula and Smith traced the conflict back to Smith’s difficult childhood. He said he became an entertainer at a young age in part to ease the tension in a violent and abusive household, Complex reported.
“My father was violent in my house. So a part of the whole creation of Will Smith — the joking, fun, silly — was to make sure that my father was entertained enough not to hurt my mother or anybody in the house,” he said. “Right? So, that plucks a childhood space of inadequacy and when someone comes at me like that, the little boy is fully in that space and I would perform and dance and tell jokes, right? People laughing and people having fun was my defense mechanism.”
When Hubert didn’t laugh at Smith’s act, it triggered his fears and insecurities, Complex reported.
“Janet was Julliard trained. Janet can sing. She can dance. She can act. She’s brilliant. And she was in the parental figure, so my little boy desperately needed her approval,” Smith said. “I just noticed now in this moment that I fell back into my family dynamic with my television family…I needed everyone to feel joyful so that I could feel safe.”
According to Smith, the Fresh Prince was his lifeline to save him from drowning in debt and tax obligations. When Hubert turned down a renewal contract from NBC, Smith said it felt like a threat to his livelihood.
“I felt threatened. At that point in my career, ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ really saved my life,” he said. “‘The Fresh Prince’ represented life.”
Here are three things to know about Will Smith coming back from a nearly $3 million IRS debt and garnishing of his “Fresh Prince” checks.
Soon after DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince had their first hit, they became millionaires, according Biography.com. However, since he was so young and financially inexperienced, Smith started spending too much money and didn’t know how to manage it, according to “Will Smith: A Biography,” written by Lisa Iannucci.
Smith didn’t pay taxes on the money he made as a hip-hop artist and wound up owing $2.8 million in back taxes. He had to return all his major purchases. “There is nothing more sobering than having six cars and a mansion one day, and you can’t even buy gas for the cars the next,” he said.
Smith was about to file for bankruptcy when producer Quincy Jones approached him about acting in a new show, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” For the next three years, the IRS took 70 percent out of each of Smith’s paycheck from the show, Showbiz CheatSheet reported. Smith was just 21 years old when that started.
Not only did Smith bounce back from his IRS trouble, he excelled. Following a string of blockbuster movies such as “Bad Boys,” “Independence Day,” and “Men in Black,” Smith’s net worth today is an estimated $350 million, Showbiz CheatSheet reported.