When Jada Pinkett Smith announced that she was going to be hosting a new talk show, few batted an eye. Which celebrity hasn't hosted a talk show at some point these days? Welcome to the club, best of luck.
But upon its premiere in May 2018, it soon became clear that her show, Red Table Talk—usually hosted with her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, and daughter Willow Smith—was filling the need for a voice that has resonated especially at this particular moment in time, delivered in this way (via Facebook Watch, so you can tune in at your convenience) and is providing a fresh, multigenerational perspective which, ultimately, is an expansion of the Smith family's we-tell-it-like-it-is style of communicating.
Celebrity news aficionados who may not have been familiar with Red Table Talk certainly heard about it in March when Pinkett Smith sat down with Jordyn Woods for the former Kylie Jenner bestie's first interview after becoming embroiled in controversy—which was not a randomly great get but rather a timely coincidence, as the Smith family has known Jordyn since she was a baby.
According to Essence, within a few days the Jordyn episode had amassed more than 27 million views (watching for at least a few seconds), easily its biggest audience yet. And per Variety, its 7.5 million views (watching for at least 60 seconds) within the first 24 hours of its premiere made it Facebook Watch's most-watched original episode of programming ever in that time frame.
For whatever reason—scheduling, the embarrassing nature of the subject matter for Jordyn, etc.—Jada conducted the interview solo (after Jordyn's "Uncle" Will Smith had sent his love via video) and, not for the first time but perhaps most palpably to date, was giving off serious Oprah Winfrey vibes as she listened to the model tell her side of the story but also injected some tough love at the moments where it was needed.
Winfrey, of course, hasn't given up the interview game; in fact, she's been as ubiquitous as ever lately, spreading her singular conversational talents among shows on her OWN network, her Super Soul Conversations podcast, 60 Minutes and whichever topics she finds important, such as After Neverland, her sit-down special with Wade Robson and James Safechuck that premiered after the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland, which detailed the pair's sexual abuse allegations against Michael Jackson.
So there isn't exactly a hole where The Oprah Winfrey Show was, but in daytime (or anytime, technically, when it's online-only) there was plenty of room for another host that can wear all the hats—interviewer, friend, mom, career woman, celebrity—all at once, and add her own culturally resonant voice to the conversation. Plus, frankly, at any given moment there's a never-ending stream of white women sitting around sharing what they think, so Pinkett Smith has proved a welcome presence for countless people hoping to hear from someone whose outlook and experiences more closely resemble their own.
"Since its inception in 2018, Red Table Talk has become [a] platform where topics, generally overlooked, especially as they pertain to black women, are brought front and center," read an op-ed attributed to BET Staff on BET.com in response to the Jordyn episode. "The comforting, nurturing environment shared between the 47-year-old actress, her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Jones, and daughter, Willow Smith, who often serve as co-hosts, has initiated important conversations surrounding intimate discussions on addiction, self-harm and love."
It continued, "The tone, comfortability and firm decision to hold their guest accountable for their actions is reminiscent of the style of daytime television veteran-turned-television mogul Oprah Winfrey. RTT's ability to give black women the opportunity to share their own stories and shape their own narratives is extremely important. In a society where black women are often regarded as angry, Red Table Talk provides a comfortable environment for them to be vulnerable and honest about their plight, and not be judged for it, but be offered heartfelt advice instead."
And as a veteran Hollywood star, Jada is coming at this latest chapter in her life with a wealth of experience when it comes to 24/7 media culture, the ongoing epic struggle for women to be taken seriously in just about any business and what her own experience has been as a black actress, a working mom, the wife of one of the biggest movie stars around and a member of a family that people are endlessly curious about.
Not always seeing a place for herself at the table, she literally set up her own table.
"We go in," Pinkett Smith told E! News last year before Red Table Talk premiered (seven years after a chat with her mom and a then 11-year-old Willow at a red table planted the seed). "From talking about sex to, you know, self-image and the difficulties we all have with regards to how we feel about ourselves, how that's reflected through social media... But yeah, we go in."
That they have. In addition to hosting celebrity guests such as Gabrielle Union, Tiffany Haddish and Ellen Pompeo at her table, the conversations inevitably take a turn for the personal, such as when Adrienne opened up about being abused by Jada's father, Jada talked with Kid Cudi about her experience with depression and suicidal thoughts, and Will Smith stopped by to have a heart-to-heart about marriage.
(The family's Facebook Watch empire then expanded with Smith's new show Will Smith's Bucket List, which premiered with Jada sky-diving, much to her husband's delight.)
And Red Table Talk, which returns with new episodes starting Sept. 23 at 9 a.m. PT/12 p.m. ET, has been a place for mother and daughter and grandmother to catch up.
"I know for me, I have gotten some of the strongest lessons and advice through people's testimony," Pinkett Smith told E! News, "through people's stories. And just having the opportunity to hear what Willow's thinking about things, to hear what her peers are thinking about, for her," she pointed at Adrienne, "to hear what our experiences have been, what we've been through. You know, I just think that it's a beautiful way to commune about those topics that might be sticky—but are real and are life."
Pinkett Smith, who first met Will Smith when she auditioned to play one of his character's girlfriends on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air but didn't get it because she was too short (5' to his 6'2"), is no stranger to outspokenness, something she has become increasingly comfortable with in the age of social media. She and her husband (and their kids) have used Facebook and Instagram for everything from wishing each other happy birthday to dispelling divorce rumors (which you know have gotten out of hand if your kids are compelled to weigh in).
The Smith split reports had become almost cyclical, perhaps depending on the angle of the moon or the level of the tides, so the couple, who celebrated 21 years of marriage on Dec. 31, have taken to laying it all out there. Red Table Talk has given them a safe, unfiltered forum to do so on their own terms.
"The Smiths are also a family who hold and uphold their own and use their platform to create space for positive change, reflection, and dialogue," wrote Melissa Kimble, founder of #blkcreatives, in an op-ed for Essence reflecting on what RTT has been contributing to the discourse, as well as how Jada gave Jordyn Woods a welcoming space to tell her side of what happened between her and Khloe Kardashian's now ex-boyfriend Tristan Thompson and how it affected her relationship with Khloe's entire family.
While Red Table Talk has tackled an array of issues that count as more pressing than the latest cheating scandal, Jada is familiar with the damaging effects of the gossip mill, especially when it comes to the ever-churning cycle of pitting women against each other.
"I think we gossip about things we are subconsciously struggling with," she told Redbook in 2013 about the prevalence of sniping about people behind their backs, but in public. "So if we're gossiping about someone who is not a good friend, we might have some issues we haven't dealt with about not having been a good friend ourselves."
Her show is basically a manifestation of that long-held interest in getting at the root of an issue and lifting people up.
Pinkett Smith has acknowledged knowing from the beginning, when she and Smith first got together, that he was going to be the center of attention—at least in public.
"So I had to ask myself, 'Is career more important than having a good man who loves you and will provide a happy family?' I choose Will," she told Rolling Stone in 1998, when son Jaden Smith was 3 months old. "So now my work gets 40 percent. I can still have a career. I just won't have the one I planned on. That will not happen. I put my family first."
But, she added, "We have this African sculpture someone gave us that's the signature of our relationship. It's the head of a man—big, out there, dominant—and sitting regally on top of his head, in a chair, is this little woman. It's OK that the man is in the forefront, because we know who's really on top of the show."
Smith agreed that having a strong partner had been essential to his success, telling RS, "you're so much stronger when your partner is strong. I honestly believe that there is no other woman for me but Jada. Of all the women I've met—and there've been a few—no one can handle me the way Jada does. And once you feel someone locked in on you like that, somebody being down for you, there's no competition. And knowing that I'm not going anywhere gives Jada the strength to be what I need. As fine as other woman can be, as tempting sexually, I'm not going anywhere. This is it. I can't imagine what anybody else could offer."
"He's a lot to take on," his wife noted at the time. And she ultimately couldn't do it alone.
While she's been half of a very famous couple for more than two decades, Jada has also credited a tight network of friends in her life for helping to keep her balanced when the going got weird and getting her invested in serious issues affecting women all over the world. The Girls Trip star has campaigned to combat human trafficking and worked to raise awareness about education, health and justice issues that particularly apply to women.
"I have always had great friends, and my friends are amazingly interesting," she told Redbook. "To find people who can love you through all your transformations is rare."
At least one of those transformations occurred when she was rediscovering herself as a never-to-be divorced but adrift wife when she and Will decided they needed to blow the whole thing up and start again, roughly a decade ago.
"We essentially had to destroy our marriage," Smith said on Red Table Talk in October. "[Jada] was like, 'I can't do this anymore,' and to me... it was over, but divorce was never even an option."
"It never crossed my mind," Pinkett Smith added. "We just needed to get to an agreement between he and I...You have to go your separate ways and get out of each other's way to really see yourself. I had to go away, gain my strength as Jada again—not Mommy, not wife."
She didn't initially see herself as the next Oprah, however—in fact, she saw that possibility in someone else. Pinkett Smith was an executive producer on Queen Latifah's 2013-'15 daytime talk show, which was conceived with the queens of daytime in mind, "a cross between Oprah and Ellen, not serious but heartfelt," Jada recalled to Redbook.
At the time, Jada wasn't convinced that opening her own life up, for other people to pick over or gain insight from, was the right move.
Asked why she didn't even discuss her relationship with her husband with her friends, she said, "Because it is dangerous. Intimacy is a very complicated thing. There is nothing I could ever say to anyone that would give them a clear understanding of what happens between us—so why get anyone involved? [Will and I] work all that out with each other; that's part of being in an intimate relationship. If you are giving your life to someone and this is the person you deeply love, then you should be able to come to that person with anything. There shouldn't be a person I need to talk to outside of him."
Now, she's talking to millions of people—and they can't get enough.
(Originally published March 7, 2019, at 3 a.m. PT)