Willow Smith: “I saw my life going in a direction that was very dark”

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 (Txema Yeste for Mugler)
(Txema Yeste for Mugler)

‘I want to give you full Alien Goddess!’ declares Willow Smith with dramatic flair. ‘She is a woman in touch with her ancestral and cosmic roots who is living the wildest dreams her ancestors could imagine for her. She is connected to the earth and the stars. She’s Mother Nature’s biggest fan, serving compassion and light…’ she pauses, only to catch her breath. ‘That’s exactly what I’m trying to channel.’

The 20-year-old musician is talking about her latest campaign for Mugler — she is the face of its new fragrance, Alien Goddess — but she might as well be discussing her own manifesto. Smith was picked by the brand for her unique vision of the world; her spirituality and love of nature, her futuristic aesthetic and her uncompromising commitment to calling out injustice. In other words, Smith is the ultimate Gen-Z icon. On the cusp of adulthood, she is a true multi-hyphenate; a bona fide pop star and the thoughtful co-host of Facebook’s wildly successful Red Table Talk series along with her mother, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and her grandmother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris.

While Gen-Z are often looked at through rolled eyes, (‘They’re keyboard activists!’ ‘They’re addicted to TikTok!’ she mimics) Smith is proud of her cohort. ‘I don’t even run my own TikTok’ she says, with a knowing laugh. ‘But when it comes to our insatiable need to right the wrongs of the world, I definitely relate. I think we’re sick and tired of the patriarchy, of racism, of homophobia, of oil getting pumped into aquifers and poisoning future generations; we’re just tired of all of the bad decisions that have been made before us and we don’t want to die because of it. We want things to change. We want things to get better and we want humanity to be more inclusive, more compassionate and more intelligent; we’re raising awareness of the issues that affect us all, we’re taking control.’

As the daughter of Nineties pop culture juggernauts Will Smith and Pinkett-Smith, Willow has spent most of her life in the spotlight. In 2005, a five-year-old Smith made an adorable cameo on The Oprah Winfrey Show with her dad and older brother, the actor and musician Jaden Smith. A year later she had started her own Hollywood career starring in I Am Legend alongside her father. By 2010 — aged 10 — she released her first single, the infinitely catchy ‘Whip My Hair’.

“I hope I can be an instrument in helping more young women of colour know they can do this” (Txema Yeste for Mugler)
“I hope I can be an instrument in helping more young women of colour know they can do this” (Txema Yeste for Mugler)

While the song was full of auto-tuned affirmations and pop positivity, it didn’t rub off on Smith. After releasing a few more tracks, she dropped out of the limelight entirely for several years before releasing her first album in 2015. ‘I just saw my life going in a direction that was very dark,’ explains Smith. ‘If I didn’t sit and take a moment and not do the things that everyone wanted me to do, it would have been a very different story right now. And probably not a very great story.’

On an episode of Red Table Talks she admitted to her mother: ‘I definitely had to forgive you and daddy for that whole ‘Whip My Hair’ thing... I had to forgive myself because everyone was trying to... make my dream but I didn’t really understand what my dream entailed.’

By hitting pause on her music career, Smith kick-started a surprisingly early journey of self discovery that would inform her future releases and inspired her to attempt to live mindfully now. ‘I’ve been constantly reading self-help books and books on spirituality since I was 11 or 12,’ she says. ‘You are what you eat. I started on this journey and I just felt so inspired. I became aware of this [other] side of life.’

The Smith family (FilmMagic)
The Smith family (FilmMagic)

In July, she finally released the record she’d always wanted to: Lately I Feel Everything. It’s her fourth album, and one that moved away from her early R&B roots in favour of pop-punk territory. It’s a head-banging burst of energy, but one that’s punctuated with softer, more vulnerable moments, too. ‘I knew I didn’t want to do a completely pop-punk record, I knew that it needed to have a mixture of some moody alternative, more melodic vibes because that’s just who I am.’ ‘Transparent Soul’, an angry and angsty takedown of fakeness, features Blink 182 drummer (and current boyfriend of Kourtney Kardashian), Travis Barker.

‘He’s the pop-punk god!’ gushes Smith. ‘If you’re going to make pop-punk, Travis is the dude to talk to.’ Avril Lavigne is another childhood hero turned collaborator. ‘I love to do a lot of different kinds of music, but working with Avril made me think I need to focus on one thing for a while, because the level of proficiency is just something else.’

A lesser-known inspiration was her mother’s early 2000s metal band, Wicked Wisdom. Smith has fond memories touring with Jada, though she remembers audiences were not always welcoming to a band fronted by a black woman. ‘She always inspired me. I saw everything she had to contend with when she’d done metal, the hate she got. Even though black women still aren’t super accepted in the rock world, times have changed. It was really my own personal insecurities that had stopped me doing this in the past. Now I hope I can be an instrument in helping more young women of colour know they can do this.’

Yyoung Willow Smith with father Will, in I Am Legend (Alamy Stock Photo)
Yyoung Willow Smith with father Will, in I Am Legend (Alamy Stock Photo)

These are the kind of ideas that often come up when she is in conversation with her mother and grandmother on Red Table Talk. The series is the complete antithesis to planned and polished celebrity chat shows. With guests including Salma Hayek, Kevin Hart and Kelly Osbourne, no topic is off limits and Smith credits the show with teaching her to express herself honestly. It’s where she came out as polyamorous earlier this year, and though she clashed with her grandma’s views on romantic relationships, Smith and Banfield-Norris took great pains to understand each other’s perspective.

Confronting intergenerational differences is what makes Red Table Talk so powerful. ‘Hearing my mother and my grandmother’s journeys as women, all the mistakes and the successes that they’ve made in their life, it just shows me that becoming who you are isn’t a linear journey,’ says Smith. ‘Having those conversations really taught me how to express myself and to be honest. It’s the only way to be. You have to experience life to the fullest and not judge yourself or anyone else for their journey.’

She might have read one too many self-help books, or she might just be on to something: surely we could all benefit from being a little more Willow Smith?

Willow Smith is the face of Mugler’s new Alien Goddess fragrance (mugler.co.uk)

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