For Black children of the 90s, Will Smith feels like the uncle who has it all—which is exactly what he wanted us to think. “What you’ve come to understand as Will Smith, the alien annihilating emcee, bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction,” Smith says on his new YouTube documentary, Best Shape of My Life. “A carefully crafted and honed character designed to protect myself, to hide myself from the world—to hide the coward.” The word “coward” seemed harsh. His persona (no matter how wholesome) was based on his ability to win. He was the first rapper to win a Grammy. He turned an impromptu audition in Quincy Jones’ living room into Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a sitcom that has spent nearly 30 years in syndication. And he didn’t just dabble in film: He became a bonafide movie star—making him one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. His career is defined by his power to pivot: rap to television, television to film. Yet, Best Shape of My Life and his memoir find him pivoting to his most important project yet: himself.
In May, Smith declared that he was in the worst shape of his life after putting on weight for King Richard, where he played the father to tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams. Well, technically, his new film was not the sole culprit—Smith says he spent a bulk of his quarantine eating, like many of us—but it was refreshing to see a man as indomitable as Will Smith be honest about how he felt about his weight gain. The extra pounds served its purpose, and now he no longer wanted it. “This is the body that carried me through an entire pandemic and countless days grazing through the pantry,” he wrote in a caption on Instagram. “I love this body but I want to feel better. No more midnight muffins… This is it! Imma get in the BEST SHAPE OF MY LIFE!!!!!” The post was yet another way Smith had made us laugh over the years, but also a clear example of how he’d used humor as a defense mechanism throughout his life. Over six episodes, Best Shape of My Life wore down on the veneer of the perfectionism he’d been building since he deemed himself the Fresh Prince, like a composite of nostalgic reality shows from the 2000s like MTV’s Diary and The Biggest Loser.
His initial weigh-in is an awkward watch. The shame is palpable as he inches the numbers up the scale, making jokes about his current body compared to his stature in some of his most iconic roles. We eventually learn that his humor became a way to mask the trauma he felt watching his mother experience violence at the hands of his father. Jokes were a way to control his narrative, and although he was far removed from that reality, he continued to control the narrative around his public image where he could.
In a confessional with his crew, he reveals that he fasted for a week to lose five pounds before filming. “I just didn’t want to be on camera at damn near 230 pounds,” he says. “I’m a performer, so the cameras act like my sponsor,” Smith says at the beginning of the series. “When I know the world is gonna see it, it’s like the greatest peer pressure there is. I’m not going to fail if it’s on camera.” It wasn’t until Best Shape of My Life, however, that the public would get a glimpse of how calculated Smith could actually be in an attempt to protect his public image.
According to Dr. Ramini Durvasula, his therapist who is also featured on the show, Smith’s success became an addiction. “He’s been rewarded by the world for putting his head down and grinding,” she says. “How does this guy cope when he’s not winning?” The answer can be found throughout the series. When he doesn’t drop the desired pound a week, he is his worst critic. He disparages himself when he gains .8 of a pound and isn’t impressed with his 27-minute run time, even though he completed a 5K in 100 degree weather. Training was proving to be difficult enough, but the expectation of having to repeat drills just to film the show was leaving the 53-year-old burnt out. “I’m finished with Best Shape of My Life,” he says. “I don’t want shooting Best Shape of My Life to get in the way of me getting in the best shape of my life.” But Dr. Durvasula insists that quitting the show, in this case, is central to Smith’s freedom. “For the first time, Will is choosing himself. He’s giving himself time to process and deal with his past.”
A comment under the last episode of Best Shape of My Life summed up the series perfectly. “Man, I thought this was a weight loss show,” the commenter wrote. “But they didn’t say what kind of weight Will was losing.” After watching the series, I immediately recommended it to every Black man in my circle, many of whom have adopted what seemed to be the iron-clad confidence Smith presented in nearly every role onscreen. Seeing an A-Lister like Will Smith address his demons could give men a new kind of confidence to talk about not only mental health, but their body image. Best Shape of My Life was an emotional watch because it is akin to realizing your superheroes are people, too. Sure, Will Smith is rich enough to fly to Dubai and climb the tallest building in the world for his cardio. But you walk away from the series feeling like Big Willie style also means you can define your Burj Khalifa for yourself.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.