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Whatever Happened To Karyn Parsons?

Karyn Parsons is best known for her career-defining role on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." Across six seasons and over 140 episodes, Parsons played Will Smith's cousin and the eldest daughter of the Banks family, Hilary Banks. This defining character arrived just a couple of years into her career as an actor and remained the biggest and best role of her entire filmography.

As a result of her time on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," Parsons landed the occasional supporting role in notable films like "Major Payne" and "Class Act," and even a couple of lead roles in the mainstream dud "The Ladies Man" and the little-seen indie film "Mixing Nia." By the early 2000s, with "Fresh Prince" fading into the rearview mirror, Parsons' career began to slow down. By the end of 2002, she had stopped acting entirely. With Parsons going radio silent in the entertainment industry for so many years, many fans began to wonder what happened to her and what she has been up to since she stopped acting. Let's break down why she stepped away from the industry, where she went, and how she has been keeping busy for all these years.

Her behind-the-scenes pivot didn't work out

"The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" aired its sixth and final season in 1996. Later that same year, Karyn Parsons jumped into her next TV show, but the same success that met "Fresh Prince" eluded her grasp this time around. The show in question was "Lush Life," a sitcom on the Fox network about a socialite businesswoman (Parsons) and a hippie artist (Lori Petty) who share a studio apartment.

In addition to starring in one of the lead roles, Parsons was also attempting to significantly expand her behind-the-scenes involvement when making "Lush Life." Parsons co-created, wrote, and produced the series, her first and only time working in any of those capacities. With her neck on the line as one of the main creative forces behind the show, it was an extra tough blow to her career when "Lush Life" was canceled almost immediately after it began airing. Seven episodes of the show were produced and only four were ever broadcast, leaving the final three episodes forever unaired. Her attempt to expand beyond acting to other positions in the entertainment industry failed to get past the starting line. Parsons stuck to working in front of the camera for the next few years before eventually stepping away from acting as well.

The Fresh Prince spin-off failed

A couple of years into the massive success of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," NBC decided to expand the world of the show. A spin-off series was made to capitalize on the show's success, but the fanbase, unfortunately, didn't transfer over as they had hoped. The show was called "Out All Night" and was part of a shared universe with "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" but primarily followed a new group of characters. Another sitcom, "Out All Night" made use of a club gimmick that allowed it to feature prominent musicians as themselves, such as Luther Vandross, Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, M.C. Hammer, and even Mark Wahlberg back when he was still Marky Mark.

Will Smith and the rest of the main "Fresh Prince" cast never appeared on "Out All Night," except for Karyn Parsons. She appeared on the spin-off playing the same character of Hilary Banks in one episode. She might have continued to be a part of this second series in the future if the show hadn't been canceled so quickly. The plug was pulled on "Out All Night" before the end of its first season, with its final episode left unaired.

A new "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" reboot debuted in 2022 as a Peacock original under the shortened title of "Bel-Air." Parsons has had no involvement thus far, but has said in the past that she is open to the idea of participating in the show. If she does get involved in "Bel-Air" in the future, she would have to be cast in a new role since the reboot features the same cast of characters, with Coco Jones playing the new Hilary Banks.

Another canceled show put her career on ice

After the quick cancelation of "Lush Life," Karyn Parsons' career was on thin ice as far as bankability was concerned. A handful of years went by before she was given the chance to handle a lead role on another TV show. The show in question was "The Job," a dark comedy cop show starring Dennis Leary that aired briefly on ABC. The show developed a small fanbase but was largely considered to have been mismarketed, and it didn't last long before it was canceled.

Leary co-created the show with Peter Tolan and, when ABC pulled the plug, the duo wasted no time retooling the show and finding a new home for its second iteration. With his character's profession swapped from policing to firefighting but his personality and characteristics largely remaining the same, Leary and Tolan created "Rescue Me" for FX, which found far more success and ran for seven seasons. When retooling the series and transferring networks, Leary and Tolan brought along many of the same cast and crew members to the new show, but Parsons did not make the transition with everyone else. The end of "The Job" proved to be one cancelation too many for Parsons. When the show ended, she left the field of acting altogether.

She lost roles to Halle Berry

Karyn Parsons' full body of work as an actor stands at just 20 television and feature film roles in total, with a chunk of those being in minor supporting roles. But her small filmography is not for lack of trying, and it might actually have more to do with the types of roles that were on offer during the time that she was focused on acting.

When looking for roles and going out to auditions, Parsons found that there weren't many parts available in Hollywood that suited her. When speaking to Vice about her career, she said that good roles for Black or biracial women such as herself were few and far between. She described having a hard time finding roles that she was a good fit for and then facing further difficulty landing those scarce parts. She frequently found herself competing for roles with Halle Berry in particular, who was considered to fit a similar type and age range as Parsons but who was far more famous.

She told Vice, "There were a handful of actresses that were doing the work, and most of their names were Halle Berry ... It seemed like there were so few roles and Halle was working like crazy, deservedly so." The scarcity of roles she was right for was part of what drove Parsons to generate her own leading role by creating "Lush Life," but of course, that didn't end up working out in her favor.

She started a family

Karyn Parsons was married for the first time in 1987, the same year she began her professional acting career. She married fellow actor Randy Brooks, who had already been working in the industry since the '70s. Their marriage ended quickly and was already a thing of the past by the time "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" picked up steam after premiering in 1990. For the rest of her career, Parsons remained single and completely focused on her work, even famously rejecting the advances of Will Smith on set.

After "The Job" was canceled and Parsons began moving away from acting, she married filmmaker Alexandre Rockwell, one of the directors who worked alongside Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Allison Anders on the anthology film "Four Rooms." Rockwell had earlier directed Parsons in "13 Moons," which was the final film role of her career before her extended acting hiatus. The two were married in 2003 and have two children together.

She has since said that acting and parenting at the same time was too demanding for her to balance simultaneously. She struggled to memorize scripts while still fulfilling all of her duties as a mother, but she had never planned to write off acting forever.

Her non-profit group

After stepping away from acting, Karyn Parsons made the Sweet Blackberry Foundation her new primary area of focus. She started the foundation in 2005 and still serves as its president today. The goal of the foundation is to spread knowledge and awareness of the under-discussed or forgotten stories and achievements of African Americans from years past. Some of the foundation's projects highlight the true stories of Henry "Box" Brown, a slave who mailed himself to freedom, Garrett Morgan, the inventor of the traffic light, and Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to become an airplane pilot.

The stories presented by Sweet Blackberry are aimed at children, and Parsons has said that she was inspired by the stories her mother told her when was young and by the ones she told her own children, which helped her realize that they were worth sharing on a larger platform for all children to learn. Sweet Blackberry accomplishes the spread of these stories through school visits, picture books, and animated short films. The animated shorts and audiobooks have featured the high-profile voice talents of Alfre Woodard, Queen Latifah, Laurence Fishburne, and Chris Rock.

She became an author

Karyn Parsons' life outside of acting has been busy with a multitude of ventures from parenting to education and, of course, running the Sweet Blackberry Foundation. Stemming from her work with the foundation, Parsons lead a successful career as an author. She began with Sweet Blackberry's picture books, which brought seldom-discussed true stories to light in a new way. Her writing has remained targeted at young readers, but she has moved up a bit in age range and navigated a shift from non-fiction to fiction.

Parsons released her first novel in 2019: The young adult book "How High the Moon," published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The book is set in the Jim Crow-era South and tackles adult themes like the murder of young women in addition to the clear commentary on racism. The book performed quite well and led to Parsons writing her second novel, "Clouds Over California," which is due to be published in July 2023. This second novel is again targeted at young adult readers and centers around themes of race. The story is set in 1970s LA and combines a coming-of-age story with the Black Panther movement. With acting mostly behind her, writing is Parsons' primary creative outlet these days.

She tried to return to acting without success

After being away from the entertainment industry for a long time, Karyn Parsons attempted to mount a return to acting. Unfortunately, she didn't find much success. She was disheartened to find that her name recognition and star power had been thoroughly depleted in the eyes of the Hollywood gatekeepers. This meant she was essentially forced back to square one, scrounging for roles and going out to auditions like any other actor without a lot of sway behind them.

She described her recent casting experiences to Vice, saying "Not that I expected people to know who I was, but even when I'd try to tell casting directors what I'd done before, they would have no idea ... I started feeling really stupid trying to get them to know what 'Fresh Prince' was and who I was on it. It was embarrassing. I'd feel like a moron." It was a depressing and defeating experience to have casting directors treat her as if she had never been a notable name in the '90s. At the end of the day, her comeback didn't happen at all, and Parsons extended her prolonged leave of absence from acting.

The Fresh Prince reunion

Casting directors might not put much stock in the cache of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," but the old series still retains a large and loyal fanbase. This was proven with the recent "Fresh Prince" cast reunion, which was held in honor of the show's 30th anniversary. The reunion aired as an hour-long HBO Max special in which the show's original cast gathered together in person to reminisce about the series.

Karyn Parsons took part along with the rest of the core cast with the major exception of James Avery, who played Uncle Phil, as he passed away in 2013. Parsons had also participated in another recent "Fresh Prince" reunion held over Facetime during the COVID-19 pandemic before the bigger reunion was possible.

The HBO Max reunion brought everyone together in person, including the original Aunt Viv actress, Janet Hubert. She had been absent from previous reunions after she was infamously recast with Daphne Reid following the end of the show's third season and had a public feud with Will Smith that went back and forth in the press for years. Smith documented the entire reunion behind-the-scenes on his personal YouTube channel.

Her recent return to acting

After going a full 16 years without adding any new acting credits to her resume, Parsons made a surprise return. With a supporting role in the little-seen 14-minute-long short film "On Monday of Last Week," Parsons' return to acting could hardly be called a grand comeback, but it did prove that she was still ready and willing to exercise her acting abilities.

A couple of years later, she made a much larger appearance, though it was still far outside the mainstream consciousness. She played one of the main roles in the indie film "Sweet Thing" released in 2020. The plot follows young siblings dealing with their abusive parents and running away from home, with Parsons playing the mother.

Her husband, Alexandre Rockwell, wrote and directed the film, and the young lead characters were played by the couple's real-life children Lana and Nico Rockwell. Rockwell paid for the small film out of pocket with an insurance payout he received for his basement flooding, and filled out the crew with students from the film class he teaches at New York University.

In addition to "Sweet Thing" being Parsons' return to acting, it was also Rockwell's first solo directorial effort in seven years. He had previously directed their children in the 2013 film "Little Feet." Parsons described her comeback film to Metro, saying her husband "definitely had the kids in mind for the two lead roles they played from the very beginning ... I don't think he had me in mind for the mother when he began writing it, but somewhere along the way, he told me that he really wanted me to do it." Parsons doesn't have any additional acting gigs on the horizon currently, but "Sweet Thing" proved that it's never too late for her to dive back into the craft.