Will Smith Once Compared His and Sheree Zampino's Marriage to "Chinese Water Torture"
Who: Oscar-nominated actor, producer, and rapper Will Smith, 53, and entrepreneur and reality star Sheree Zampino, 54.
How They Met: Smith arrived on the set of A Different World in 1991 with one objective: to meet a young actress named Jada Pinkett. The Fresh Prince star had seen Pinkett on the show and reached out to a friend to introduce them. But before he and Pinkett's paths had a chance to cross, Smith ran into Zampino in the audience.
"The dude that was going to introduce me to Jada was with another girl and I was like 'Who is that?'" Smith remembered during an episode of Red Table Talk with Pinkett (now Pinkett Smith). "And it was Sheree. I went to Different World to meet Jada, and met Sheree and ended up marrying Sheree and having [my son] Trey with Sheree."
Smith and Zampino wed in 1992 and welcomed their son the same year.
Why We Love(d) Them: While we don't have a lot of information about Smith and Zampino's relationship as a romantic couple, we know quite a bit about their ongoing journey as co-parents.
In the premiere episode of Red Table Talk, Pinkett Smith and Zampino sat down to discuss their own relationship and its evolution through the years as they raised Trey.
Zampino recounted a heated phone call she and Pinkett Smith shared when the Red Table Talk host had told her husband's ex-wife that she didn't appreciate her tone and ultimately hung up on her.
"I called back and I happened to say, 'Bitch, you're living in a house I picked out,'" Zampino remembered, "and you said, 'It's my house now.'"
Pinkett Smith told Zampino that Smith was not happy with how she handled the situation. "Will Smith let me have it!" she said. "His take was 'that is Trey's mother and that's just not your place.'"
Gotta love a supportive ex!
Pinkett Smith has gone as far as to describe the parenting trio as a "non-sexual throuple" and once revealed that Smith and Zampino will take vacations together with Trey without her.
"She and Will have their own relationship," Pinkett Smith said in an interview with Sway's Universe. "She's gone on vacations with Will, without me, with Trey. Because I feel as though Trey needs to feel that dynamic between his two parents — that's very important that he can feel that connection and feel where they do meet."
When They Peaked: The pendulum swings both ways, and in 2016 Zampino came to Smith's defense after Alexis Arquette claimed their marriage ended because the Hollywood Exes star caught the actor having sex with a man.
In response, Zampino took herself to the red table (so to speak, the show hadn't premiered yet) and shared a video rebuttal.
"It's absolutely not true," she said. "I didn't find Will in bed with a man, I didn't find him in bed with a woman — just didn't happen." Clearing the air, she explained that there were many other factors at play, though infidelity was never one of them. "Our marriage ended because we were so young," he was 23 and she was 24 when they married. "Marriage isn't easy, especially at that age. And now we're trying to be parents, navigate through our marriage … I couldn't reconcile all of that."
"I left because I was unhappy. It's really that simple," she continued. "I'm grateful for the relationship that we have. It's loving, it's healthy. Our children love each other. It's respectful."
The Breakup: Sometime after Smith and Zampino had married, the King Richard star ran into Pinkett at a dinner with a group of friends.
"We started talking – about my dysfunctional relationship [with basketball star Grant Hill] and his dysfunctional marriage," Pinkett Smith recalled in a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone.
Decades later, Smith shared details about the experience on Red Table Talk, noting that there was "a real unique beautiful power" between them. "We had that moment and we connected, but I was married. That was it."The night after he and Pinkett "connected," Smith and Zampino went out for dinner.
"We were at The Palm and I remember I had to get up from dinner when I had a realization that I wasn't with the person I was supposed to be with," he said. He went to the bathroom and was "crying uncontrollably," but the reason was two-fold: "I knew that was the woman I was supposed to be with, but I was never getting divorced. I don't get divorced."
Zampino ended up filing for divorce herself. "She hit me hard," Smith joked. "She filed for divorce on Valentine's Day. I was like Ouch! Ouch! And I still told her, 'No, you can't have a divorce.' She hit me with the 'So you're going to make somebody stay with you who doesn't love you?' And that was the one that got me."
The couple divorced in 1995 and Pinkett and Smith wed in 1997.
Both Smith and Zampino have clarified in the years since the split why things didn't work out.
In 1998, Smith told Rolling Stone that he thought the "largest part" of why the marriage failed was because he "didn't trust women" after he was cheated on by his first girlfriend as a teenager. "Jada put me back together."
And, we can't forget Smith's brush with near identity-altering method acting. According to the actor's new memoir, Will, he "fell in love" with his Six Degrees of Separation co-star Stockard Channing when he and Zampino were newly married. "She'd married a guy named Will Smith and now she was living with a guy named Paul Poitier," he wrote. "And to make matters worse, during shooting I fell in love with Stockard Channing."
Still, Smith was determined to stay with Zampino, at least until his son turned 13.
"That's what my parents did," Smith explained. "To me, age 13 felt like an OK time for my parents to say, 'This is not working out.' 13 years old worked for me. So I would have stayed together until Trey was 13 and then moved on."
He went on to describe his and Zampino's relationship, telling the magazine, "It was passive, sort of a drippy faucet. It wasn't fighting, arguing. We never raised our voices. It was . . . Chinese water torture."
Zampino gave her take in a 2018 interview with Hollywood Unlocked.
"With Will's career taking off and being what it was ... He didn't have the capacity to give me what I needed," she revealed. "I didn't feel like a team. It just felt like wow you could've gotten anybody in this position. I didn't feel like I was chosen."
"What I always thought was once I have my family, once I have my husband, my child … seemingly I had it all," she went on. "But I'll tell you, you get that and if you're still empty that's really devastating."
Though the divorce allowed Smith to reconnect with Pinkett, he still labeled it "the worst thing in my adult life" as recently as 2020. "Divorce was the ultimate failure for me," he told Pinkett Smith during a Father's Day episode of Red Table Talk. "I've been hurt a lot in my adult life, but I don't think anything touches the failure of getting divorced from my [then] 2-year-old son's mother."
Zampino wasn't thrilled with Smith's characterization of their split as his "ultimate failure," and told him as much. "I challenged him, 'cause I'm big on the words that you speak over your life," she told Entertainment Tonight. "I don't want to be in the same sentence with 'failure.' When you look at what we've been able to do, the marriage didn't work, but we are a success. The love that we have for each other, the co-parenting journey — and not doing it perfectly, but being effective, and being an example for other people. So, we're — I'm — a part of his greatest success."
Where They Are Now:
About six months after Smith and Pinkett married, they welcomed their first child, Jaden. Daughter Willow came along about two years later.
Smith has a busy month with the launch of his self-titled memoir, Will, and the release of Richard Williams biopic King Richard on Nov. 19.
Zampino wed once more, marrying former NFL player Terrell Fletcher in 2007 — she filed for divorce 7 years later, in late 2014.
Smith and Zampino continue to be supportive exes and co-parents — in fact, Zampino publicly voiced her support for her ex-husband's memoir just last week.
#TBT: Check in every Thursday as we throw it back to some of our favorite celebrity couples of all time.