The Tragic Real-Life Story Of Janet Hubert

The following article contains references to domestic abuse, mental health issues, suicidal thoughts, and issues affecting the African American community. 

For better or worse, everyone knows the story of what happened to the OG Aunt Vivian from "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." But very few, it seems, know the tragic, real-life story of Janet Hubert — the talented actor and Broadway star behind the character. Having grown up in the "hardscrabble streets of Chicago's south side," according to her "Perfection Is Not a Sitcom Mom" autobiography, Hubert had to work harder than most to claim space for herself within the entertainment industry. 

As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the young star studied acting on a full scholarship at Juilliard — one of the most prestigious performing arts schools in the world. In the meantime, she "supported herself during hard times by working at Dunkin' Donuts," having grown up in a working-class household with a mom who supported the family by cooking and cleaning houses. 

These are all details that became lost within the tabloid frenzy of the ongoing feud between herself and "Fresh Prince" star Will Smith. But they are also personal details that Hubert potentially felt protective of. However, she's still shared some glimpses into her personal life, and her private battles, over the years. So, throw on your boldest power-outfit and be sure to show some serious respect — Janet Hubert's story demands it. 

Janet Hubert felt forced out of Fresh Prince

Aunt Vivian's radical makeover in the fourth season of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" re-introduced audiences to a new actor depicting the beloved character. Janet Hubert was out, and Daphne Reid was in. For years, the story held that the woman who depicted the OG Aunt Viv was fired, but the truth was reportedly a great deal more troubling: Hubert felt forced out of the show due to contractual issues.

In an interview with ABC 7, the veteran star suggested that amid her real-life pregnancy and difficulties on the set of "Fresh Prince," she was offered a terrible contract offer which she viewed as an attempt to "put her in her place." Hubert explained, "They offered me 10 weeks of work and they said you can't work anywhere else." Understandably, the Broadway star felt degraded by the negotiation attempt. "We were a very successful show and I felt like I was an integral part of that," she told The Grio. "... [I] felt valuable, but you cannot feel valuable in Hollywood."

At the end of 1993, Hubert filed a lawsuit against the show's star, Will Smith, for "unspecified damages," including "defamation" and "intentional infliction of emotional distress," per the Chicago Tribune. The newspaper reported that the actor-musician "influenced NBC to reduce [Hubert's] salary and air time," with Hubert alleging that Smith had "hurt her marketability" by spreading rumors about her behavior. She lost the lawsuit — but arguably, her battle was just beginning. 

Did the Fresh Prince cast destroy her career?

As if the contract negotiations weren't insulting enough, Janet Hubert's exit from "Fresh Prince" was treated like one big joke. On the show, the new Aunt Viv was introduced with a sly quip about there being "something different" about the character since giving birth at the end of Season 3. Meanwhile, Hubert's alleged on-set behavior was treated like a real-life punchline. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Hubert claimed that Will Smith used talk show appearances to suggest his former co-star would flip him the bird and "storm off the set." 

Meanwhile, Perez Hilton published a clip of Alfonso Ribeiro performing a stand-up comedy set in 2009, where he claimed Hubert was fired after making "it very difficult for us to work" due to her supposed behavior (via Newsweek). "She went nuts!" he told the crowd. "... She would literally go off on people." Hubert wasn't having it. Speaking to The Grio, the star alleged that Ribeiro "went out to a college and told a lot of lies" with his stand-up set, "but the problem is I have proof that a lot of that didn't happen."

Sadly, solid proof never quite materialized, and Hubert's career seemed irrevocably damaged by the allegations — which, the actor claimed to ABC 7, the cast were "offered money" to do. She mused, "Everyone in Hollywood is about that check." Unfortunately for Hubert, her bad reputation would severely affect hers.

Janet Hubert garnered a reputation for being 'difficult'

While the rest of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" cast claimed that Janet Hubert was difficult to work with, the actor suggested she wasn't exactly treated well on set either. In an interview with ABC 7, she even alleged that she was pushed aside for not responding adequately to Will Smith's humor. She said, "They told me I had to go into my dressing room in between takes because I wasn't laughing at Will's jokes." To the industry, there was only one side of the story being listened to: The one that implicated Hubert as a diva.

Professionally, it pretty much ruined her. She spent the rest of her career having to fight against an allegedly falsified reputation which she claimed wasn't earned or true. While Hubert was a guest on "The Real" in 2016, she maintained that she "was never difficult" and "was so professional, it wasn't even funny" (via Us Weekly). Tragically, she even claimed to have "begged" Smith "to tell the world that this stuff didn't happen" back in 2009. It didn't happen. 

Thankfully, by 2020, Smith and Hubert finally made peace at HBO Max's 2020 "Fresh Prince" reunion, where she explained the devastating impact of his words against her. She explained, "I lost everything," and described how "calling a Black woman 'difficult' in Hollywood is the kiss of death" (via PopSugar). But the impact Smith's words had on Hubert's life and career were far worse than people may have realized at the time.

She felt 'blacklisted' by the industry

During the "Fresh Prince" reunion, Janet Hubert opened up to Will Smith about the "hurt" she felt upon leaving the show: Her entire support system had been destroyed, and she felt completely isolated. "[My] family disowned me," she explained (via Entertainment Weekly). "Hollywood disowned me." She previously stated she felt as though she'd been "blacklisted" from the industry, per the Los Angeles Times, and the more she tried to tell her side of the story, the more she found herself silenced.

In 2018, for instance, Hubert took to social media to allege how the media wrote about her and why. Suggesting she had "waited" 27 years for Smith "to be man enough to admit" how he'd "lied" about her, she claimed that his influence — and that of his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith — had further "poisoned people against" her, including Oprah Winfrey. "Every time I tried to call Oprah for help, Oprah's people would say, 'No, she's friends with Will and Jada, so Janet can never be on the show,'" Hubert alleged (via Vibe).

Time and again, Hubert attempted to address the apparently false narrative surrounding her Hollywood mythology in a bid to redirect and reclaim her career, only to feel punished for it. However, she had no regrets. She told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm not afraid to speak the truth. I'll take the hit in doing so." Sadly, it appears not many people took her seriously until the "Fresh Prince" reunion in 2020, when Smith publicly apologized to the star.

Janet Hubert endured 'a very abusive marriage'

Despite being so outspoken regarding industry issues and times where she's felt wronged, Janet Hubert has mostly maintained privacy regarding her personal life. So when she chose to speak on the troubles she endured behind the scenes of her time on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," audiences were shocked to discover the extent of her circumstances. The actor told Smith that there was "some friction" because of her pregnancy, but there was an additional factor for her suddenly withdrawn behavior on set: She was experiencing a "very abusive marriage" at home.

"I was no longer laughing, smiling, joking because there were things that were going on that nobody knew about," she explained (via The Source). "... I was going through a lot at home. You didn't know." Clearly, Hubert didn't feel comfortable with sharing her personal issues with her workplace, or with the media. But sadly, Hollywood isn't an industry which always grants such privacy or compassion to its stars.

In a "Radio Andy" interview following the series' reunion special, Hubert reflected on how public figures are used like "dart boards to be taking shots at" — and often without people knowing or understanding the whole story. The actor suggested that her own situation be considered a cautionary tale for others and encouraged the media to be more careful on what stories they report and how — "Because you don't know what's going on behind the scenes with people's lives," she said.

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

She hit some serious financial hardship

Her exit from "Fresh Prince," and the damage done to her reputation following it, had a grave impact on Janet Hubert's financial situation. Speaking to "PopViewers" in 2021, the star outlined how juggling her domestic responsibilities — paying a mortgage, raising a newborn baby, and supporting an unemployed husband, on top of maintaining a business — was so hard on her that she even contemplated suicide. "There were moments where I wanted to die," she confessed. "... I figured I had a life insurance policy to take care of my son." 

Thankfully, Hubert managed to make it through, but it wasn't easy. In a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times, she described how she was left "penniless, homeless, and worthless" following "Fresh Prince" and that she even struggled to "feed [her] child." Her situation worsened when she was forced to rent out her home to a couple who apparently completely mistreated the residence. 

According to the AV Club, who recapped parts of Hubert's 2009 autobiography, "Perfection Is Not a Sitcom Mom," the star "confronted her tenants" on their treatment of her home, and "they pulled a gun on" the actor. Hubert subsequently "pulled out a pistol" in self-defense — and ended up getting arrested for it. Hubert was sentenced to community service, which she carried out "while [still] getting asked for autographs." Her "Fresh Prince" legacy seemingly haunted her wherever she went. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Janet Hubert struggled to move on from Fresh Prince

Having repeatedly claimed that her career was destroyed by "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," it was difficult for Janet Hubert to move on from the show as quickly or as tidily as she wanted to. Like a lingering spirit that can't be vanquished until it finds closure, the actor had unfinished business with the comedy series — and she couldn't move on until she could clear her name. Unfortunately, nobody but Hubert seemed to be interested in helping ... and over time, it wore her down. 

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, the sitcom icon propounded that she was forced "to deal with 'old stuff'" from the show "every day of [her] life." Telling the publication, "Every time I try to move forward, somebody brings up 'Fresh Prince,'" Hubert added, "I have dealt with the ramifications of [rumors about being difficult on the 'Fresh Prince' set] and I'm tired."

As if proving her point entirely, the AV Club wrote a piece about the actor's autobiography, in which they appeared to criticize Hubert's desire to rectify her reputation while seemingly attempting to cash in on her own unfortunate legacy, "Business is business," they wrote, "and the 'Fresh Prince' name means money even to the woman who probably hates the 'Fresh Prince' more than anyone in the world."

The media continually painted her as a villain

Tragically, some members of the media appeared to relish any opportunity to drag and belittle Janet Hubert for decades after the "Fresh Prince" drama first appeared. In the same AV Club piece criticizing the star's autobiography, for instance, writer Nathan Rabin voiced an opinion that many outlets seemed to share: This woman was "a diva who loudly broadcast her lack of respect for [Will Smith] along with her Juilliard pedigree." The problem, Rabin argued, was that Smith — young and inexperienced — simply had his own way of doing things, while Hubert was supposedly a demanding professional, stepping on his toes. 

Hubert was so often painted as a villain in this way that she made it her business to clap back and stand up for herself whenever this depiction resurfaced. In 2013, for instance, she wrote what Complex described as "a really angry letter" to Wendy Williams, after the TV show host pushed for "Fresh Prince" star Tatyana Ali to dish some dirt on Hubert's alleged on-set behavior. Amongst the barbs thrown at Williams, Hubert accused the host of spewing "vulgarity and ugliness and hatred" on her show, and of attempting to destroy the hard work she'd done to clear her name. 

It was an issue that the star raised while on "Radio Andy," wherein she suggested that "people had a great time" damaging her reputation. Hubert reasoned, sadly, "This is what we do to Black women, and this is what we do to people."

Tabloid gossip followed Janet Hubert

The media's general attitude toward Janet Hubert was perhaps best proven by how some outlets chose to report news regarding the mental health of her son, Elijah Isaac Whitten. In 2018, websites such as Hip Hop DX ran a story regarding a deleted Facebook post from Hubert, which suggested her son was in the hospital following a suicide attempt. The post reportedly read, "Dear destroyed my life with your lies...YOU win my son is in the hospital." Publications then suggested that Hubert was blaming Will Smith for her son's mental health struggles.

Understandably, the "Pose" star was furious. In a 16-minute video published on her social media channels, Hubert accused outlets of putting their "own seasoning on this so-called steak," and of "tak[ing her] personal post" and "putt[ing] it on blast" without knowing the full story (via Vibe). There was, she argued, "no concern, no compassion" and also no regard for her or her son, as nobody "call[ed her] to ask ... if [she] was okay."

In 2021, Hubert was once again taking the press to task in an Instagram post, where she accused them of being "like vultures" after she'd posted about being in the hospital. "My health is my business," she wrote. And after thanking fans for their well wishes, the star added the reminder, "Positively heals, negatively kills. LIVE YO LIFE, I'M LIVING MINE." Message received. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

She's experienced some serious health issues

Unfortunately, Janet Hubert has experienced various health issues for almost two decades. While appearing on "The Doctors" in 2016, the actor explained how for 12 years she suffered from what's known as military neck — a rare condition that Heathline defines as "an abnormal curve of the cervical spine" which can cause a variety of debilitating symptoms. For Hubert, that meant experiencing things like a "violent, intense pain," accompanied by "tremors" and "dizziness." All of which worsened to the point that she "blacked out" and was hospitalized.

In her emotional testimony on the show, the star revealed she went through "48 different doctors" before she was able to find answers, and solutions, for her symptoms. Tragically, the condition left her unable to work, and in 2014, she filed a lawsuit against her insurer to cover her treatment. She claimed to Radar, "They've sort of denied me some very ... important medical things that I need," noting, "I'd like my benefits back." As reported by The Jasmine Brand, she sadly lost her court battle for medical coverage. 

In 2002, Hubert had already been diagnosed with osteoporosis, despite her not fitting "the criteria" for the disease. The actor's doctor was reportedly "even more shocked" than she was at the diagnosis, as she was otherwise "healthy" at the time, per HER. The star has since worked as an ambassador for the National Osteoporosis Foundation, and was even the recipient of their Champion Award in 2005.

The actor's lifelong fight against colorism

As an outspoken and proud African American artist, Janet Hubert has always been vocal about calling out issues of colorism as and when she experiences them. Years after the actor was replaced by Daphne Reid on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," for instance, Hubert pointed out to the Los Angeles Times that colorism regarding their different skin tone was evident from the get-go. "I'm called 'dark-skinned Aunt Viv,'" she explained. "[Reid] is called 'light-skinned Aunt Viv.'"

Before she left "Fresh Prince," Hubert had even accused Will Smith of making colorist jokes on set, which she called him out on. Speaking to BlackAmericaWeb (via Newsweek), she alleged that the "King Richard" star "used to tell the you're-so-Black jokes to the audience before the show," prompting her to come out and stop him one time. "I was a dark-skinned, African-American mother," she reasoned. "He didn't understand how unbelievably disrespectful that was to women like me." 

Hubert's outspoken stance on the topic led to some raised eyebrows in 2016, when Jada Pinkett Smith led an Oscars boycott. Though seemingly done to protest people of color not gaining recognition for their achievements, and not just for Will's Oscar snub, Hubert regardless rolled her eyes at the effort. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, the actor suggested "colorism within the Black community of Hollywood" had to be addressed before complaints "about diversity" could be made. She added, "It dilutes the movement when you only stand up for yourself." Ouch. 

Janet Hubert found 'peace' and reclaimed her career

Time is a healer, and after close to 30 years of one of pop culture's most fervent feuds, Janet Hubert and Will Smith finally made peace with one another on HBOs Max's 2020 reunion special for "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Per Vanity Fair, the two "aired their grievances," with Smith confessing to having "made the set very difficult" for his co-star, before acknowledging that he "wasn't sensitive" or "perceptive" toward her "pain." 

Just a year later, and Hubert's fortune had greatly changed, with the star being "offered some really wonderful roles" since the reunion. In an October 2021 Instagram post, she wrote, "Clearing my name from all the drama has brought me PEACE and respect" — and also, apparently, friendship. Speaking to People, Hubert shared that she and Smith now have "a very good relationship" and "text each other back and forth all the time." Considering their history, it's easy to imagine that Hubert may have struggled to accept Smith's apology. But according to Hubert, "It was very easy." The actor told ABC 7, "I felt the honesty. I felt the change. He is not the same person that he was at 21 years old." 

And just like that, it seemed Janet Hubert was able to undo the curse that had unjustly plagued her life and acting prospects for a great portion of her career. "If there are tree roots in the drain, the water doesn't flow," she poetically told People about her potential comeback. "The drain has been snaked."