It’s not an exaggeration to say Hilary Banks is one of the defining Black television characters of our time.
The eldest child of the Banks family in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Hilary, played by Karyn Parsons, is synonymous with bougie Black fabulosity. As the ditzy but determined rich girl with a heart (at least sometimes), she proved that Black Valley girls existed, and that regardless of their signature West Coast intonation, they were complex individuals too. Her character paved the way for the likes of Dionne Davenport in Clueless and Toni Childs in Girlfriends. So when the reboot for the Fresh Prince (backed by the show’s original star, Will Smith) was announced, the buzz was deafening. Sure, people wondered who could replace lovable characters like Will and Carlton and Uncle Phil — but for a certain subset of the viewing public, the most important question was this: Who was going to be Hilary?
The reboot, dubbed Bel-Air, found its new Hilary in Coco Jones. Much like Parsons, Jones has nailed the character, this time introduces as a full-blown chef and influencer, rather than a fumbling weather girl and ’90s-style talk show host. While many aspects of Hilary are the same (she still loves clothes and lives in the backyard pool house), the show allowed longtime fans of the character to see how their favorite Daddy’s girl has evolved over the decades.
Like Banks, Parsons and Jones have multiple talents. Parsons is now an author, having recently written the novel How High The Moon. She also funded own non-profit organization, Sweet Blackberry, which publishes children’s books that share the stories of overlooked African-American achievements in history. Jones is embarking on a music career alongside her acting career — she signed to Def Jam Records in 2022.
To properly look back at the legacy of Hilary Banks, BAZAAR.com sat down with Karyn Parsons and Coco Jones to talk about what the character means to Black women, why it’s important to show imperfection on screen, and why the core story of The Fresh Prince still speaks to us today.
Why did the character of Hilary resonate with you both?
Karyn Parsons: Well, my experience was obviously a little different from Coco’s coming into it because it was just this thing written on paper. She was described as a model type — they didn’t have very much more about her. First off, I was like, I’m not a model type, so how do I make this work? I had to find some way into her.
I grew up in Santa Monica, and at my school there were girls from Malibu who would drive up in their fancy cars and stuff. I took a little bit of that, a little bit of my cousin Garland, a little bit of my friend LeAnne, and kind of threw ’em in a blender, and that’s how the key character started for me. Then over the years, of course it became something else — it became more.
Coco, how about for you?
Coco Jones: When I did the audition, I was like, I know what you guys want here. I’m gonna give it to you. I played the character inspired by OG Hilary, for sure. But when I was reading the scenes, I realized it was different because she’s talking about all of these things that she’s trying to attain. She’s a hustler and a go-getter, and she’s trying to attain all these accolades on her own that can’t be purchased.
Was there any pressure for you, Coco, when you were preparing for this role? What was your approach?
CJ: The pressure really just came from myself. I wanted to give quality to everything, and not forget my intentions playing Hilary and my intentions representing a dark-skinned version of this role. I was nervous about what everyone else was going to think, but because I have been in the industry for a minute, I knew they were hungry for me to be on pretty much anything. And I wanted to further open the door for other people that look like us on this cast. That’s my favorite part. More Black everything! More Black shows, Black writers, Black all of it.
Karyn, did you have any idea that this character would become so beloved?
KP: Oh gosh, no. I remember in the first season, Will and Carl blackmailed Hilary because they found out she dropped out of college. She ended up having to bark like a dog and all this stuff. And in that episode, it’s Will that’s blackmailing me first. When I go to Carlton for help, he decides to jump in on it and blackmail me too. So I’m supposed to be outraged. The audience, when we shot it, they did not just laugh and applaud like normal —they started stomping their feet in the stands. They were so happy to hear her get hers.
I also remember I went to Paris and crashed a party with a friend of mine, and of course we didn’t speak French very well. There was a girl there who said, “Do you play that Hilary on The Fresh Prince?” I said yeah. She’s like, “Oh, we hate you.”
There have been people all along who have liked her, but it’s also changed...the appreciation for Hilary, I have to say, has changed. It’s gone from people kind of laughing at this ditzy quality to people saying No, no, no, she’s ambitious! She wants what she wants! She’s incredibly confident! I think more modern women have an appreciation for her. And I think they were very smart in the reboot to make that so much a part of the Hilary Coco is playing. She’s a fierce woman.
One of the most important things about the character of Hilary Banks is it’s not just that we’re seeing a beautiful, rich, fabulous Black woman on TV. It’s also the fact that in both versions of the show, she’s a little unsure of where she’s going — in her life and in her career. Why was that such a crucial detail for Black women to see play out on TV?
CJ: As Black women, we go through a lot and sometimes we’re not allowed to really feel or express what’s inside. So showing those highs and low can make you feel like someone can relate to your journey. I think it’s really important to see Hilary’s tenacity. Specifically in Hilary’s journey in Bel-Air, she has a lot of opportunities that look pretty, but really aren’t, and then of course she’s also an influencer. She’s one way on the camera, but her life is chaotic when she turns her phone off. This is a lot of people’s reality—pretending for the internet or having these great opportunities at a cost of character, a cost of values. It shows how your choices affect your long-term consequences, but also, the worst choice you can make is to give up on your dreams and on yourself.
KP: Her story is very relatable and it does make people feel seen. This time around, this is a drama, this isn’t a comedy, so it’s a very different Hilary journey in that regard. It’ll be really interesting for people to see themselves in that character as she grows into her womanhood. It’s very interesting what you said about being an influencer and the life that you curate and put out there for everybody, and then what the truth is. There’s really an opportunity there to let people see themselves in that and hopefully allow themselves to not be perfect.
Hilary Banks is also no doubt a fashion icon. In Bel-Air, Hilary is a chef and influencer, and I think the wardrobe department got the LA influencer look down pat. Were you involved in that process at all, Coco?
CJ: I definitely was blessed in the fact that I got to really speak my mind. I will say that that wardrobe team went off. So I did not have much to say, except “Who is keeping this when this show is done?” I also love the inclusion of Black designers. It’s important with this platform to represent in all the ways, even down to the accessories that Hilary had on.
Karyn, are there any memorable fashion moments you have from your time on the show — on or off set?
Judy Richmond was the mastermind behind that. She was really a phenomenal stylist and visionary. Judy would come in with stuff on the rack that I was like, “Oh, no, no, no — I’m not wearing that. That’s awful.” She would come up with things that I thought were two or three sizes too big, had really strange lengths, all sorts of things. But she would go, “Just wait a minute.” And she would grab Cynthia, who would come over and start pinning and tucking and tailor it to my body. She would take these things that looked, to me, absolutely hopeless at the beginning of the week, and by the end of the week, when I put them on, they looked so good and so expensive.
She had such a great sense of the vision for Hilary’s style. There were a few times where I would be like, “Oh, that’s just too much.” But Hilary’s style and my own were very, very different. So I rolled with it, and it was great because it always made me feel more like the character.
There’s a reason the Fresh Prince has stood the test of time. In a sea of all the Black sitcoms and shows that we’ve grown to love over the last few decades, why do we still come back this story, and why was it time to bring it back for a new generation?
CJ: I’ve always said that the warmth and the love that The Fresh Prince inspires was so important. Also, just showcasing a supportive Black family, in a non-toxic — or at least not intentionally-toxic — atmosphere, you know? Each episode and each character relays these messages to this generation, the messages of being seen and heard, and the consequence of truth and also opening your mind to what Black people can be.
I think Morgan Cooper was inspired because anyone can have a platform on social media, and because there’s more opportunities for Black creatives right now. Our director had this idea, and all of us get to live out our dreams through it, and to further push the narrative that no matter what you look like, you can be whoever you want to be. You can create whatever you want to create.
KP: I think one of the reasons the show was so successful and endures is that you simply got to see Black people as very different. You’ve got this family where everybody’s not the same. Carlton’s this young Black Republican. Then you’ve got Hilary and Ashley, and she’s the intellectual kid, and then of course you’ve got Will. The parents and the butler and everybody—they’re all individually very, very different. Today, that’s still really important and valuable. I also think that a lot of the stuff in the original, thematically, is still relevant. Now it’s a great time to explore some of those things and go deeper. We’re in a time where people aren’t dismissing certain things, either. They’re actually really looking and calling society out — and the Banks family is the vehicle for it.
Bianca Betancourt is the culture editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com, where she covers all things film, TV, music, and more. When she’s not writing, she loves impulsively baking a batch of cookies, re-listening to the same early-2000s pop playlist, and stalking Mariah Carey’s Twitter feed.