Will Smith's Celebrity Lifestyle
Will Smith's Celebrity Lifestyle
In May 2008 Will Smith was jogging near his California home when he came upon three boys screaming for help. They had been throwing a stick into a water-filled canal so their pet dog could retrieve it. When the cocker spaniel became trapped in some weeds, the youngsters became frantic because they feared he would drown. Smith saw the trapped animal and waded into the water to rescue it. The boys thanked Smith, who, before resuming his run, warned them, “Next time you play fetch, play it on the grass.”69 There was nothing dangerous or heroic about the simple act of kindness Smith did for the frightened boys. But when the news media learned about it, they spread the story of Smith's rescue around the world through articles in newspapers and on Internet sites.
The news media reports anything Smith does or says because he is one of the world's most famous people. His success in movies and other fields of entertainment that produced that fame has also made him rich.
Smith and his family live on a 200-acre (81 ha) estate outside Los Angeles that cost some $20 million. That sounds like a fantastic amount of money to pay for a home, but Smith is one of a few stars who earns that much for making just one movie. That $20 million is four hundred times greater than the $50,000 he received for Where the Day Takes You, his first movie. Movie studios are willing to pay Smith that much because it has been estimated that Smith's films average ten times more than his salary, which makes the high-priced Smith seem like a bargain.
How wealthy is Smith? Forbes Magazine estimates that he earned $31 million in 2007 from movies, record albums, and his production company, and in 2004 the magazine claimed his net worth was $188 million. Thus, Smith can afford the huge compound he and his family occupy. Their home is 8,000 square feet (743m2), and the sprawling grounds that surround it include a lake, basketball courts, and a pair of par-three golf holes for Smith, an avid golfer.
The large, private estate allows Smith and his family to get away from people who pursue celebrities; even his wife and children are targets because they are famous from their own movies. His home is also a sanctuary from the unreality of life in Los Angeles, the movie capital of the world. Smith realized when he first moved there in 1990 to go into television that “you get lost in Hollywood [the Los Angeles area where films are made]. It's not real [and] not normal by the average person's definition.”70 By that, Smith meant that many people there have so much money and fame or possess such unrealistic dreams of attaining those two goals that their moral values are far different from those of average Americans.
Smith was raised in a normal, working-class community, and his parents instilled in him and his siblings solid values about working hard and taking responsibility for their actions. Although Smith has far more money and possessions than his parents ever did, he is trying to raise his children in a similar manner. The main way he does that is by trying to be a good father to Trey, Jaden, and Willow:
I have always wanted this lifestyle [of a dad]. Driving them to school and helping with homework, I enjoy that. [For example] Trey loves baseball and likes to go to the batting cages. He's very physical. So my job is to run him around until he is tired and put him to sleep, and then it's time for Jada and I.71
Another part of life in Los Angeles that Smith rejects is the high divorce rate of many celebrities. Even though Smith divorced his first wife, he is committed to preserving his marriage to Jada. On May 26, 2008, Smith told television talk-show host Ellen De-Generes that when he and Jada have problems, they talk them out because they want to stay together forever:
What I found is divorce just can't be an option. It's really that simple. And I think that's the problem with L.A.—there are so many options. So a huge part of the success for [Jada] and I is that we just removed the other options. We're like “Listen, we're going to be together one way or the other so we might as well try to be happy.”72
Despite Smith's reservations about the celebrity lifestyle in Los Angeles, many of his best friends are also rich and famous. Two of them are, like Smith, among the best-known people in the world.
Smith still sees people he knew when he was growing up in Philadelphia, such as his rapping partner, Jeffrey Townes. But Smith has met many people since his rise to stardom, and two of his closest new friends are actor Tom Cruise and soccer star David Beckham. They became buddies because they share many interests. One of them is fencing, a sport that all three began practicing.
While promoting Hancock in London, England, in June 2008, Smith told a newspaper about the three men's new activity: “Tom has a room for training. We don't get enough time for hanging out, just us three guys, so this is his way of getting together and bonding. David and I go to his home and just do fencing. It's a lot of fun.”73 Even though Smith turned forty in September 2008, he was still very athletic and in great physical condition. In addition to fencing, he has recruited Beckham to teach him how to play soccer.
Smith's celebrity status has allowed him to meet famous, powerful people from many walks of life, including several historical
figures. When Jaden was born, President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, sent the Smiths a note congratulating them on their son's birth. And in 2008 Smith was friends with another powerful elected official who won the presidential race that year—Barack Obama. Smith supported Obama's historic candidacy for president in 2008 and has said he would like to play him in a movie. Obama himself believes Smith would be a natural to portray him because they are both tall and share a prominent physical characteristic—large, protruding ears. Obama jokes, “Will and I have talked about this because he has the ears!”74
When Smith went to Africa in 2002 to promote Ali, he met Nelson Mandela, who led the fight for racial justice in South Africa and became that nation's first black president. On June 27, 2008, in London, England, Smith served as master of ceremonies for a four-hour concert and tribute to the African leader prior to his ninetieth birthday. Smith told nearly fifty thousand people, “Peter Gabriel once said, ‘if the world could have one father the man who we could choose to be our father would be Nelson Mandela.’ Nelson Mandela has taught us about love and reconciliation, taught us about justice.”75 Smith led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to Mandela.
News stories connecting Smith with such an uplifting event make even more people like him. However, the news media can often produce stories that hurt a celebrity's image, and that has happened at times to Smith.
Adolf Hitler and Scientology
The news media has generally treated Smith kindly. Unlike some celebrities, Smith has never had problems with alcohol or drugs, has never cheated on his wife, and has never broken laws. But everyone makes a mistake once in awhile, and in 2007 Smith was criticized for a comment he made while promoting I Am Legend. Smith told a newspaper that every person has some goodness in them, even someone like Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, who started World War II and killed tens of millions of people in concentration camps. Smith said at the time, “Even Hitler didn't wake up going, ‘Let me do the most evil thing I can do today. I think he woke up in the morning and using a twisted, backwards logic, he set out to do what he thought was ‘good.’”76
The quote angered many people because they thought Smith was defending Hitler's actions. Smith, however, claimed his comments had been taken out of context because he was only trying to say Hitler was not totally evil. But Smith apologized for the remark, and his image was not greatly damaged.
Some people and media commentators have also criticized Smith because of his religious beliefs. Although Smith was raised a Baptist, he has studied Scientology, a controversial spiritual program created by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Smith was introduced to those beliefs by Cruise and his wife, Katie Holmes. Some people condemn Scientology as a cult or pseudoreligion. Smith maintains he is still a Christian—he cofounded the nondenominational Christian church Living Waters in the San Fernando Valley—and not a Scientologist.
Smith, however, defends the right of people to hold such beliefs and has criticized the media for being excessively harsh in their attacks on Cruise's faith. “That's painful for me to see,” Smith says. “I've met very few people committed to goodness the way Tom is. But even with different faiths and different beliefs, at the end of the day, goodness is goodness.”77
The controversy over Smith's relationship to Scientology gained new strength in 2008, when he donated $900,000 to open a private school in Calabasas, California, called the New Village Academy, which his two younger children will attend. The reason for the criticism was that several, though not all, of its teachers were Scientologists.
Such negative news coverage has been rare for Smith, one of the world's most beloved and respected entertainers. Equally as rare is the fact that Smith has attained that exalted status despite the color of his skin.
Will Smith's Religious Beliefs
Will Smith's flirtation with Scientology is one of the few things he has done in his life that has created negative publicity for him. Even though Smith claims he is a Christian and not a follower of that spiritual program, he has been linked to it because of his friendship with Tom Cruise, one of Scientology's most prominent adherents. This is how Smith defended his right to believe in any faith he chooses in an interview with one reporter:
I don't necessarily believe in organized religion. I was raised in a Baptist household, went to a Catholic church, lived in a Jewish neighborhood and had the biggest crush on a Muslim girl from one neighborhood over. Tom introduced me to the ideas of Scientology. I'm a student of world religion, so to me it's hugely important to have knowledge and understand what people are doing and what the big ideas are. But I believe that my connection to my higher power is separate from everybody's. I love my God, my higher power, but it's mine and mine alone, and I create my connection and I decide on what my connection's going to be.
Quoted in Bob Strauss, Los Angeles Daily News, December 14, 2007, p. L6.
Along with Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington, Smith is one of only a few African Americans to become top-level Hollywood stars. For most of the twentieth century, racism relegated black actors to bit parts or roles that represented demeaning racial stereotypes. Smith has not only become a superstar in movies but also has been accepted as a heroic figure capable of saving the entire world. Dawn Taubin is a former executive with Warner Bros., which released I Am Legend. Taubin says that people do not care that Smith is black: “You'd be hard-pressed to find anybody with this kind of appeal. He transcends race, gender and age.”78
Will Smith and Education
Will Smith believes education is important but does not like the way public schools teach children. For several years, Smith hired tutors to teach his children at home. But in September 2008 they began attending New Village Academy of Calabasas, a private school he started with a donation of $900,000. In 2006 Smith explained his ideas about education to Reader's Digest magazine, including his belief that people can learn how to do things by themselves:
The things that have been most valuable to me I did not learn in school. Traditional education is based on facts and figures and passing tests—not on a comprehension of the material and its application to your life [because] the date of the Boston Tea Party does not matter. [I] know how to learn anything I want to learn. I absolutely know that I could learn how to fly the space shuttle because someone else knows how to fly it, and they put it in a book. Give me the book, and I do not need somebody to stand up in front of the class.
Quoted in Meg Grant, “Will Power: Will Smith Is One Driven Guy,” Reader's Digest, December 2006, p. 90.
Despite his widespread acceptance by white audiences in his rap, television, and movie careers, Smith knows that some people hate blacks. He first commented on how strange it seemed to him that whites could love a young black rapper after his early triumph in television. Smith says, “I meet people every day [to whom] I would just be another nigger if I didn't have a TV show. It's like, ‘Well, I wouldn't let just any black guy into my house. But Will Smith, he's okay, he's a good black guy.’ That's just something you learn to deal with.”79
Smith's success has made him a role model for other African Americans. Although Smith enjoys that status, he has admitted that at times being a black icon can be a burden:
It's uncomfortable sometimes because there are so few [black stars] in comparison to successful Caucasian actors. So few that every move you make is “a step for your people.” It's like “Wow, that's a bit too much.” My only litmus test is “Will my mother be embarrassed by the work I do?” As long as Mom and my family aren't embarrassed, then it generally works out for my people also. 80
Despite his overwhelming success, Smith keeps striving to reach his goal of being the world's most successful and famous movie star. Smith has candidly admitted his race could stand in the way of doing that. But while promoting Hancock, he said he ignores that possible handicap because it could weaken him mentally: “If I say, ‘I'm black, so I can never be the biggest movie star in the world, a black person could never be the biggest movie star in the world,’ I wouldn't try to be the biggest movie star in the world. I'd be creating a barrier for myself. It rarely crosses my mind—purposely.”81
Perhaps what makes nearly everyone like Smith is the joy of living that he radiates in the characters he portrays as well as in his own life. Smith has admitted that playing the depressed, negative superhero Hancock was difficult because it is the exact opposite of his own personality. This is how Smith explained his basic psychological mood to one interviewer: “I wake up every morning based on hope and positive energy, [believing] today is going to be better than yesterday. I feel like my energy is viral. I'm looking to infect people with the positivity that I feel in my heart.”82
Extortion and Identity Theft
Many famous people are plagued by people who try to extort money from them or steal their identities for personal gain. Will Smith has been the target of both types of crimes. In 2001 Smith fired Mike Cooley, a former employee. After Cooley was fired, he began harassing the Smiths by demanding money to stop him from talking to the news media about their private lives. He also began following their children and approached them at a local park. When that happened, the Smiths went to court and got a restraining order to keep Cooley away from their children, and he quit bothering the family. In 2005 Carlos Lomax was sentenced to two years in prison for using Smith's identity to get money. Lomax was convicted of fraudulently using Smith's legal name—Willard C. Smith—to open fourteen phony accounts at stores in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area. He then charged more than $33,000 in merchandise to the accounts in Smith's name. Lomax was already on probation for stealing the identity of former Atlanta Hawks basketball player Steve Smith and running up more than $80,000 on fraudulent credit cards in the player's name.
That positive attitude is not quite a superpower, but it has enabled him to become rich, famous, and adored by many people. And Smith thinks that and his other talents could help him accomplish bigger tasks than entertaining people.
As early as 1999, when Smith was promoting Willennium, his latest rap album, he had begun talking about doing something more important with his life. He told one interviewer then, “I just think acting and rapping is a pit-stop. They are something I do for fun but it's too easy for me for that to be my calling. My true calling has to be something hard, and to be able to affect change and leave a mark on the world bigger than [selling] 20 million albums.”83
Smith and his wife have begun doing something more meaningful by starting a foundation to give grants to young people in the arts. In addition, the New Village School that they established will accept students who cannot afford to pay tuition. Thus, Smith has joined a handful of rich, powerful celebrities, such as Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods, who have established their own schools or programs to help young people. And Smith had joked for years that he would like to go into politics and become the first black president. He had still not made that career change by 2009. But the idea that Smith could be elected to high public office is not much harder to believe than the plots of his movies in which he saves Earth from invading aliens.