OG Aunt Viv from ‘Fresh Prince’ Was the Dark-Skinned, Multi-Dimensional Icon Who Helped Raise Us All

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This piece is part of a franchise called 'Issa Throwback,' where we celebrate the golden age of Black TV. From the best ‘90s sitcoms to Disney Channel classics, it’s time to tune back into the shows that shaped our identities.

The first time I saw Janet Hubert as Vivian Banks in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air at the age of 12, I was captivated. She carried an air of confidence and dressed in a way that was almost regal, with ornate jewelry and fabulous shoes to match. Her elegant updos looked flawless enough to be featured on the cover of a magazine, and her smile could light up a room. But best of all, she had glowing ebony skin—something that I, as a child, rarely ever saw on screen during the ‘90s.

Now, this isn’t to say that there was a shortage of great TV aunties at the time. After all, we had role models like Aunt Rachel—the sarcasm queen—from Family Matters, the kind and optimistic Aunt Becky from Full House and, of course, Roseanne’s Aunt Jackie, a super-chill aunt the kids could confide in. But while each had their own charm and garnered plenty of laughs, they didn’t hold a candle to the incomparable Aunt Viv. (Or shall I say, Aunt Viv 1.0?) OG Aunt Viv was, is and always will be the best fictional auntie of all time.

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Before we dive into her standout qualities, it’s worth briefly mentioning that the series made the controversial decision to recast Aunt Viv—hence the terms “OG”  and “Aunt Viv 1.0.” In 1993, right after season three, Hubert was replaced by a new actress, Daphne Maxwell Reid. But I’m not here to rehash a years-long fan debate over which actress was better or even discuss what transpired behind the scenes. This is a tribute to the iconic character—one who deserves all the flowers without being overshadowed by controversy. 

And it all begins with the OG Aunt Viv’s incredible backstory. In season one’s “Love at First Fight,” Aunt Viv confessed that when she was a teenager, she ran off with a guy and quit school, but that this curveball didn’t deter her. As she offered a bit of wisdom to one of her students, who was slipping up in school, Aunt Viv revealed that she spent her former years cleaning hotel rooms by day and going to school at night to earn her GED. She said, “It took me years to get back. And honey, if you wonder why I seem to fit so well here, it's because I worked damn hard to get here. And I know I deserve it.”

The Vivian Banks, a whip-smart university professor who lived in a massive Bel-Air mansion, didn’t have a squeaky-clean past, and she wasn’t ashamed to say it—especially if that meant teaching her students a lesson. I admired this about her. To know that Aunt Viv also had flaws and managed to bounce back from her mistakes meant that there was still hope for me (a young girl who happened to be failing math at the time). And I loved how she approached her student: with sternness and compassion. 

Speaking of Aunt Viv’s no-nonsense talks, she held all of her kids, and Will, to the same standard and held them accountable. She offered them the support they needed but didn’t hesitate to call them out when necessary—like when Will kept boasting about reading a single Malcolm X book. (“Will, you can read that book, you can wear the T-shirts, put up the posters and shout the slogans, but unless you know all the history behind it, you're trivializing the entire struggle.”) Oh, and who could forget her epic reaction when Carlton tried to suck up to his mother for a good grade in her class? (Spoiler alert: She shut him down in front of his classmates.)

She was a nurturing mother and loving wife, but not someone to be messed with. She moved with grace and dignity, always keeping it classy—but she also kept it real. (Remember “Mistaken Identity,” where she snatched off her earrings and prepared to fight when the officers refused to let Will and Carlton go?) While speaking with The Root about her character, Hubert said, “Vivian was so fierce. She was not just a schoolteacher, she was a professional woman. She looked good, she was smart…and I loved that they allowed me to bring parts of Janet into who Vivian was. It was a very complete role.”

Unlike the other fictional aunts I encountered, Vivian seemed to fall into a category of her own. She was cut from the same cloth as famous fictional moms like Clair Huxtable and Dee Mitchell, but she still stood out as the edgier, more carefree character. The loving auntie who could spontaneously perform a Tina Turner song at the mall, poke fun at her kids, flirt with her husband and deliver the sharpest comebacks in the span of 30 minutes. (And look like a queen while she was at it.) But of course, there was one particular episode that truly solidified her as the best TV aunt of all time, and that was her incredible dance number in season two.

In case you need a refresher, Aunt Viv went through a bit of a mid-life crisis after turning 40. During her party, she was inspired to revisit her old dream of becoming a dancer. And while she got off to a shaky start, she wound up nailing her audition, outshining people that were practically half her age—and proving she still had what it takes to become a professional dancer.

Tatyana Ali, who played Aunt Viv’s daughter, Ashley, told Clay Cane on Sirius XM about the episode, “When we were working on the show together, we always talked about how beautiful she was... When she does that amazing dance sequence, the leotard she was in… I hope that she knows that for me as a young girl, I saw her with a spotlight on her and that’s how I thought she was being represented on the show. In terms of beauty, Black beauty, as a young Black child, I thought she was radiant and I thought the spotlight was on her. That was something that I wasn’t used to seeing.”

For once, Aunt Viv—a dark-skinned, multi-dimensional mother—was the focus of the entire episode, which felt liberating. And not only that, but seeing her put her mind to something and totally slay a complicated routine sent a powerful message to young Black girls like myself. 

Nearly three decades later, I still get goosebumps whenever I watch that scene. And yes, now in my thirties, I still like to imagine that I’m one of her long-lost nieces… So, excuse me while I go have a virtual reunion with my favorite make-believe auntie.

nakeisha campbell bio

Associate Editor, News and Entertainment

Nakeisha has been interviewing celebrities and covering all things entertainment for over 8 years, but she has also written on a wide range of topics, like career...