Today, September 25, is Will Smith’s birthday. In the 50 years that he has graced Earth with his presence, he has done more than most people. I don’t think I need to go into an account of his life because everyone already knows: teenage rapper turned actor turned movie star turned Instagram influencer. The following is a recounting of my weird obsession with him lasting over 20 years.
When I was a kid, “about 7 or 8,” I started watching Fresh prince of Bel-Air. While it was (and is) a hilarious show, it spoke to me deeply. The character of
Will Smith was funny, a bit of a troublemaker, charming and loud and completely me. Watching the show was like looking in a mirror (albeit a very color blind one). I watched it every day after school while I did my homework… it had begun.
During my 5th grade talent show, I (poorly) rapped the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song. I remember moments before I was expected on stage, a teacher asked a classmate to lend his hat. She had me wear it backwards even though I was wearing a t-shirt that said Laughlin, Nevada and had 3 teddy bears on it. I was clearly not trying to appropriate his style, I simply wanted to showcase his work to my fellow 10 year-olds. In 6th grade, I changed the words to the theme song to retell the Old English story of Beowulf. I can imagine it’s what Will Smith’s character would do in the show. WWWSD?
One would think that my obsession with Will faded in high school but that is far from the truth. When I turned 16 and got my own car, I applied (and had my parents pay) for a specialty license plate: FRESH SR. In hindsight, I could have used S FRESH because my middle and last initials are FR. That is what I now use for all my social media accounts.
In grad school at Columbia University (fun fact: a scene in Hitch was filmed there; I promise I didn’t go there because of that reason), I had to create a iMovie on any topic. So of course, I did it on DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. I also gave many presentations about him, squeezing him into any subject that would allow for it: science, democratic education, Vygotsky’s theory of proximal development.
In the real world, my obsession reached new heights or, some would say, new lows. I could now spend my own money on Will Smith related things. I bought t-shirts, accessories, and experiences. While Will never performed, I was in the front row to see DJ Jazzy Jeff perform at the Brooklyn Bowl. I also recently bought entries to his bungee jumping contest- I lost.
I have been close to meeting Will- only once. He was appearing on the David Letterman show. I waited for 4 hours with my Fresh Prince of Bel Air shirt, my Fresh hat, my Fresh double finger ring, and my “license plate that said FRESH.” When he finally got out, he walked over to say hi to the large group of fans. I couldn’t say a word- I froze. I just stood there with my license plate facing him. When I realized I was going to let him get away, I threw my license plate in my bag and touched his arm. It sounds so creepy, but it was my only contact with the person I looked up to for 20 years. He left and I ruminated on elusiveness of celebrity: I spend so much time thinking about this person and getting to know this person, but he doesn’t even know I exist.
A few months back, I received a Facebook message from “Will Smith” explaining how appreciative he is of my fandom. I was screaming and jumping around my house. I was beyond excited and felt recognized. I promptly replied showing my license plate and trying to put into words what he means to me. After a brief back and forth, he said “so are you married?” My heart dropped. He wasn’t my Will Smith, he was an impostor. I laughed it off and explained to my friends it will make a good story, but I had to consider how I may never get a reciprocation from Will. I may never get to tell him all these stories and explain how much he means to me. Why spend all this energy obsessing when I get nothing back from it?
But it doesn’t matter, because he has helped me go through so much. Sometimes I have trouble explaining my obsession with Will to other people. It is not a crush and not an “I really like his movies” kind of thing, but is an all encompassing admiration that has taken over my life.
Aside from my own family, Will has taught me the most about life. He showed me hard work is crucial. Putting in effort breeds success, but when summertime rolls around, it’s time to “kick back and unwind”. He taught me to never quit- whether it’s working out or relationships- you fight for the things you want. He showed me that Earth is worth protecting. From Independence Day and Men in Black to Just Water, the Earth needs to stay around for a while. And I can’t not mention the pick-up-lines i got from Fresh Prince of Bel air, many of which got me dates surprisingly! And lastly, the most important life lesson I learned is to be proud of who I am. To be a little braggadocios about myself; women and, particularly, people of color do not get their due credit so rap it on the album or name the show after yourself.
I hope one day he gets to know how important he is to me. I hope one day I get to tell him myself. Until then, this will have to do.