For three years, Julliard-trained actress Janet Hubert-Whitten played Vivian Banks, the no-nonsense mother of four and aunt to Will Smith on the hit NBC comedy “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Hubert (she divorced her husband in 1994) left the series after differences with the sitcom’s producers. Although the 52-year-old Chicago native went on to appear on several TV shows, including “Friends,” “Gilmore Girls” and “The Bernie Mac Show,” Hubert now spends most of her time working as a children’s advocate. Her main goal is to create and market educational and entertaining learning tools to help shape young Black minds. ESSENCE.com talked with Hubert about the importance of education, her stormy exit from “The Fresh Prince” and why she’s finally at peace.
ESSENCE.COM: Everyone remembers you as Aunt Viv. But you’ve taken your life in another direction—namely, children’s advocacy. You call yourself a M.O.M., Mother On a Mission. What is that mission?
JANET HUBERT: I feel like there’s so much decadence in the world right now. I feel like our children have really been corrupted with sex and violence and the need to fit in [by adopting] the whole thug-wannabe, gang-wannabe [mentality]. The role models out there are really dangerous. I don’t know when education got to be a dirty word, but as a mother, it became my mission to do something. There are a lot of us out there who are pretty sick and tired of underwear hanging out and little girls whose breasts have become billboards.
ESSENCE.COM: One of the things you’re working on is a children’s book and an animated DVD series called “J.G. and the B.C. Kids.” Tell us about that.
HUBERT: Our first book is called “The Swiss Adventure.” It’s about a little Black boy named Vinnie Williams who dares to be different. He doesn’t want to fit in. B.C. stands for “bright children, bold and confident, beautiful and caring.” Vinnie solves a mathematical equation on something called a time writer. Writing can take you places. His mission is to find B.C. kids everywhere and take back their [stolen] minds. It’s a very political statement. I’ve always been a fightin’ kind of momma. I don’t care how big you are, if you’re wrong, you’re wrong. I will fight you for the babies.
ESSENCE.COM: How did you get the idea for the book?
HUBERT: A dear friend of mind gave me a CD. It was called “Rock and Roar Dinosaur,” and my son loves dinosaurs. I redid two of those songs and created the character Janet Granite [a beautiful archaeologist]. I actually dressed up like this character; I didn’t look as good as she does. I went to bookstores and sang the songs to these kids with my little tool belt and my little boots. You gotta do what you gotta do when Hollywood tells you you’re poison and you feel like nobody wants you anymore.
ESSENCE.COM: Your son must be a real-life B.C. kid.
HUBERT: My son is a math head. He loves knowledge. I homeschooled him and taught him to read myself. I put him on the computer at 2. A lot of time people believe Black kids are not bright children. In the eyes of some [White] teachers, there’s this presupposition that Black kids are less bright. They do not challenge Black kids. I saw that with my own son. The schools failed him; I had to take hold.
ESSENCE.COM: Would you want your son to follow in your footsteps in show business?
HUBERT: No, I don’t even want to be in the business. He’s got creativity, but I don’t want him to struggle the way that I’ve had to. This is not a career for the faint of heart. You don’t have to have any talent. You don’t have to be good at what you do. If you look at the Paris Hiltons and Nicole Richies of the world, what is their talent? Omarosa [from “The Apprentice”]? What does she do? Who are these people?
ESSENCE.COM: You’ve never been afraid to speak your mind. Where does that come from?
HUBERT: My momma. She was a real stand-up kind of woman. She has Alzheimer’s now, and is in a nursing home. My mother and my father always taught us to stand up for what was right. It cost me.
ESSENCE.COM: The reports were you and Will didn’t get along. Is that true?
HUBERT: We got along fine. We had so much fun on that set. That’s why I was so shocked. But there was something about Will at that time that I hope has changed. He always had to win. He has an unbelievable competitive spirit.
ESSENCE.COM: How did all of that affect your career?
HUBERT: I actually wrote a book, “Murder of a Sitcom Mother.” I needed to set the record straight for my son. [But I’m not] going to publish the book because my soul is healed. I’m getting a chance to talk to you, to talk to the public and to let people hear my side, finally, 15 years later. It was devastating what happened to me afterwards. Unbelievable things happened. It was horrible.
ESSENCE.COM: Despite what happened in the end, you must’ve had loyal fans who loved your character and how you played her.
HUBERT: They loved what I did with her. They really loved to have this dark-skinned sister playing this upscale woman. The ideal woman in the eyes of many of our men is light and bright. Dark-skinned sisters, we have a hard time. Part of my beauty to me was my dark skin. I love my dark skin. I feel it’s so much a part of my beauty.
ESSENCE.COM: Three years ago, you remarried. Tell us about your husband.
HUBERT: His name is Lawrence Kraft and he’s 50. I met him when he fixed my car. He runs his own shop. He’s an amazing man. I was a customer for four years and he finally asked me to the opera.
ESSENCE.COM: When you think about how a Black man is a stone’s throw away from becoming president, how does that make you feel?
HUBERT: Oh my God, I get chills, but you have to say he’s a bi-racial man. You know, in this country, you could be whatever, but if you got one ounce of Black blood, you’re African-American. It’s so historical. I understand what Michelle Obama meant when she said for the first time in her life she felt like an American. I feel her. Never in my lifetime or my son’s lifetime did I ever think there would be a Black candidate running for president who has a chance of winning.
ESSENCE.COM: How do you want to be remembered?
HUBERT: I want to be remembered as a plain, ordinary, everyday person. I don’t live a glamorous life, but I live a fabulous life. I don’t need gobs of money to be happy. Happiness is within and Janet Hubert is finally at peace.