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How'd Karyn Parsons Get Her Gig On 'Fresh Prince'? Brattiness

As part of a series called "My Big Break,"All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers .

Today, Karyn Parsons runs the nonprofit Sweet Blackberry, which focuses on bringing little-known stories of African-American history to children.
/ Chia Messina
Chia Messina
Today, Karyn Parsons runs the nonprofit Sweet Blackberry, which focuses on bringing little-known stories of African-American history to children.

Karyn Parsons played Hilary Banks, the bratty, self-centered cousin of Will, on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Before she got her break on that hit '90s sitcom, Parsons was living in Hollywood — working as a restaurant hostess, taking acting classes and going on lots of auditions.

Her first role was in a low-budget horror film called Death Spa in the late '80s.

"It was a haunted gym," Parsons recalls, laughing. "Mind you, it was a big deal to me at the time, but it was also ... not a whole lot of people saw it. Thank goodness!"

When she first got the audition for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, she wasn't sold on the show's concept.

"I remember my first reactions being, 'Oh, God, it's a sitcom with a rapper? Like, what's that?' " she recalls.

She says the Hilary character was originally written as a polished, cool model.

"My first reaction to it was, 'Oh, well, this is ridiculous, I'm not gonna get this, I'm not a model type. This is silly,' " Parsons says.

Parsons says she decided to make the character her own. "I did what I could do, which was, I kind of turned in her into a little bit of a real brat," she says.

"It was fun to play that girl. It was fun to just be so self-absorbed that you just say ridiculous things."

Parsons got the part, but she still went back to her hostessing job.

"I didn't know what was gonna happen with that show," she says.

She remembers Will Smith and others from the show coming by the restaurant while she was working and teasing her outside the window.

"Will would say, 'What are you doing here? What is wrong with you?'

"And I said, 'I don't know what's gonna happen!' So I just, I stuck with my job. You know, keep your day job — for a while. And then, of course, we got picked up, and that definitely changed everything.

"That was definitely my big break. That was a life-changing moment for me and, I believe, for all of us on the show," she says.

The series ran for six seasons — from 1990 to 1996.

Today, Parsons says she sometimes speaks with the airhead voice she used as Hilary, but she promises it's not on purpose.

"Often I meet people at the store or someplace on the street and they say, 'You know who you look like?' And then once I speak, they say, 'It's you! I knew it because of your voice!'

"I'm always like, 'No, you didn't. It wasn't my voice! I don't talk like that!' "

She snagged some movie roles during breaks in shooting while Fresh Princewas on the air. When the show ended, she took courses in writing and film and co-produced a show called Lush Life.After she got married and started a family, she says, her priorities changed.

Today, Parsons runs the organization Sweet Blackberry, which produces short films for kids about little-known yet influential people in black history. Almost 20 years later, her role on Fresh Princeis still meaningful.

"I definitely wouldn't be who I am now if I hadn't had the experience of playing Hilary Banks."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.