Willow Camille Reign Smith is only 17, but she’s led an absolutely fascinating life. As the daughter of A-list actor Will Smith, whom she was named after, she has access to the sort of fame and fortune most children could only dream of. Yet it wasn’t always easy. Life as a young celebrity took a toll on her, it seems, and when she shared the details with her mother, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jada was left shocked.
Willow, the only daughter of actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, grew up very much in the spotlight. Indeed, she appeared in her first movie aged just six, playing the daughter of her father’s character in I Am Legend. A few years later, at the age of 10, she released her first single. This was “Whip My Hair,” which MTV News called “a kid-friendly club banger.”
“Whip My Hair” was a promising start to Willow’s music career, then. It went platinum in the U.S. and went to number two in the U.K. music chart. But the young singer wasn’t able to replicate the same success with later tracks. In 2011, for instance, she collaborated on a song, “Fireball,” with Nicki Minaj. But it didn’t make the Billboard Hot 100.
In 2016, at the age of 15, Willow also began working as a model. In fact, she was signed as an ambassador for Chanel, something she was very excited about. “Thank you Karl Lagerfeld and the entire team at Chanel for expanding the perceptions of ‘beauty’ by picking me to be the new Chanel ambassador. I am honored,” she wrote on Twitter, alongside the hashtag “#BlackGirlMagic.”
So the teenager seems to have it all. Certainly, she has the look, plenty of money, fame and, most importantly, supportive parents. “I want my kids to be happy, and I want them to be themselves,” mom Jada told The Edit in 2014. “I was saying to a friend the other day, ‘Remember, our kids are not us.’ They’re not. Sometimes we’re trying to fix things that happened to us or projecting [onto them], and that’s a terrible, terrible trap.”
Willow’s father, Will Smith, thought the same way about parenting Willow and her brother, Jaden. “What I do with my children, that I feel that the greatest gift that I can give my children is the freedom to be who they are,” he told BET in 2016. “[Jada] and I are very serious about finding what they are and encouraging them to be what they are because you can never be happy being what you’re not.”
But it seemed that not everybody cared for the way they raised their children. In 2016, for instance, a writer called Kyle Smith wrote a very harsh piece for the New York Post about the Smith family. In it, he wrote that Will and Jada “couldn’t be bothered to raise kids with any grounding in reality,” and he was even harder on the kids themselves.
“We don’t know for sure that Will and Jada Pinkett Smith are the most horrible parents on Earth. But the case for that seems strong when you consider their überentitled, brainless, self-adoring, twaddle-spewing little munchkins,” Kyle Smith wrote. At the time, Willow’s older brother, Jaden, was 17 years old, and she was 15.
With that kind of criticism, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Willow struggled with her fame. In 2017, talking to the zine Girl Gaze, she spoke about the problems she was having. “I’m going to be completely and utterly honest: it’s absolutely terrible,” she said. “Growing up and trying to figure out your life… while people feel like they have some sort of entitlement to know what’s going on, is absolutely, excruciatingly terrible. And the only way to get over it, is to go into it.”
“You can’t change your face. You can’t change your parents,” Willow went on. “So I feel like most kids like me end up going down a spiral of depression, and the world is sitting there looking at them through their phones; laughing and making jokes and making memes at the crippling effect that this lifestyle has on the psyche.”
It sounded like she was having difficulties, and in 2018 she revealed just how much of a toll those difficulties had taken. In May she appeared on the Facebook Watch show Red Table Talk with Jada and her grandmother, Adrienne Banfield-Jones. The three women interviewed one another, and Jada asked her daughter what her biggest loss had been.
“My sanity,” Willow answered. Then she made a revelation: she had suffered from fairly serious mental health issues previously. “It was after that whole ‘Whip My Hair’ thing, and I had just stopped doing singing lessons, and I was kind of just in this gray area of, ‘Who am I? Do I have a purpose? Is there anything I can do besides this?’” she said.
“And after all of that kinda settled down, and it was like a kind of lull, I was just listening to a lot of dark music,” Willow went on. “It was just so crazy, and I was plunged into this black hole, and I was, like, cutting myself.” Her mother reacted with shock. “What? When were you cutting yourself? I didn’t see that part,” she said anxiously.
Willow showed her mother where she’d made the cuts. “On my wrist. I mean, you can’t even see it but there’s still a little something there,” she said. She explained she “totally lost my sanity for a moment there.” As her family looked on, she said, “I never talk about it because it was such a short weird point in my life. But you have to pull yourself out of it.”
“I honestly felt like I was experiencing so much emotional pain, but my physical circumstances weren’t reflecting that,” Willow continued. “Would you say that was part of the reason – the self-harm makes the pain more tangible?” Jada asked. “Exactly,” Willow said, putting her thoughts together. “Instead of like a ghost, in your mind.”
Willow said, “One night I was like, ‘This is actually psychotic.’ And I just stopped.” Her mother was still horrified. “That’s good to freaking know! Willow, I had no idea,” Jada said. “I never saw any signs of that.” Adrienne nodded along. “A lot of adolescent girls struggle with self-harm,” Willow explained. She hadn’t told her siblings about it either; hardly anybody knew.
Still, the reaction to Willow’s revelation was uniformly positive. “Thank you ladies for your transparency. Willow, thank you for sharing something that so many stay silent about!” read one comment underneath the video. “Thank you Willow for opening up about something so personal. It was incredibly brave on your part,” read another.
Indeed, self-harm is a little-discussed condition that still bears a stigma. According to the website Healthy Place, about two million cases of people self-harming are reported in the U.S. every year. What’s more, 90 percent of those people start to self-harm while they’re still teenagers or children, often about age 14 or so.
Not an awful lot is known about how to treat self-harming, as it’s a complex behavior linked to (but not necessarily symptomatic of) many different mental illnesses and conditions. But there are recommended guidelines for people dealing with loved ones self-harming. To help someone who is hurting themselves, then, it’s suggested that family and friends simply remain calm about it and listen to the person’s feelings.
Which is what Jada Pinkett Smith did when she heard about Willow’s self-harming. She was upset, but she was composed about it. She also tried to talk it through with her daughter and not judge her. As a result, all the people who watched Red Table Talk are a little bit more informed about self-harm and who it affects. And that can only be a good thing.