Gabrielle Union is breaking her silence on her controversial firing from America’s Got Talent last year and her mission to pave the way for a more inclusive Hollywood.
The 47-year-old actress and producer opened up on her abrupt dismissal from the reality competition show in an interview with Variety, revealing she was compelled to report Simon Cowell’s smoking on set, contestant use of blackface, and racist jokes cracked by guest judge Jay Leno, – but when she spoke up, she was cut from the show.
Union was offered a seat on the coveted judge panel of AGT in the spring of 2019.
‘I signed up for the experience of being a part of a show that hails itself as the biggest stage in the world. Super diverse, and one about giving people an opportunity to shine where they otherwise probably wouldn’t. What could go wrong?’ she said.
But Union’s problems began on day one when she found series creator Simon Cowell smoking on set. Union, who has been allergic to cigarette smoke since she was a little girl, fell ill.
‘I couldn’t escape. I ended up staying sick for two months straight. It was a cold that lingered, and turned into bronchitis, because I couldn’t shake it. It impacted my voice, which affects my ability to do my job,’ Union said.
Gabrielle Union is breaking her silence on her controversial firing from America’s Got Talent last year and her mission to pave the way for a more inclusive Hollywood in an interview with Variety magazine
‘There were so many spaces in this industry where I had to compartmentalize myself to feel like I was worthy of work. In my 40s, I embraced myself exactly as I am,’ she said in her cover story
When Union became sick, she made made fellow judge Howie Mandel uncomfortable and worried over her germs.
Union revealed bringing up Cowell’s smoke to producers was a dire choice for her.
‘Coming onto a set and you are literally met with the very definition of a toxic work environment, and it’s being carried out by the most powerful person on the production,’ she said.
Producers told her there had been complaints about his smoking in the past but effectively, nothing would change.
‘It was challenging to tend to my illness without being made to feel like I’m responsible for my own sickness. It put me in a position from day one where I felt othered. I felt isolated. I felt singled out as being difficult, when I’m asking for basic laws to be followed. I want to come to work and be healthy and safe and listened to,’ Union said.
After her complaint Cowell said that he changed his smoking habits and the issue wasn’t raised again. He said he didn’t want to many anyone uncomfortable and as soon as he learned of her concerns he smoked outdoors, a source says to DailyMail.com.
Union was offered a seat on the coveted judge panel of AGT in the spring of 2019. In her time on the panel she complained about Cowell’s smoking on set, racist jokes cracked by guest judge Jay Leno and the use of blackface by contestants. Pictured with fellow judge Howie Mandel, Julianne Hough and Cowell
However, an individual familiar with the internal investigation of AGT says while the matter was addressed, it hasn’t concluded that Cowell’s indoor smoking has stopped entirely.
Weeks later guest judge Jay Leno was on the show and cracked a joke that Cowell’s pet dogs looked like food items found on a menu at a Korean restaurant, peddling the stereotype that Asian people eat dog meat.
‘My first big interview in this industry, the first person who allowed me to come on their talk show, was Jay Leno. I’ve always held him in high regard, but I was not prepared for his joke,’ Union said.
‘I gasped. I froze. Other things had already happened, but at this point, it was so wildly racist,’ she added.
Producers said they would edit his comment out.
‘You cannot edit out what we just experienced. There is not an edit button in my brain or in my soul. To experience this kind of racism at my job and there be nothing done about it, no discipline, no companywide email, no reminder of what is appropriate in the workplace?’ she said.
AGT creators released a statement saying they took Union’s concerns seriously and launched outside investigation that found ‘an overall culture of diversity’, but admitted there was room for improvement
Union noted that the show did not have a standing policy of using contestants’ preferred pronounces. That touches a personal note for Union and her husband NBA star Dwyane Wade whose 12-year-old child is transgender and identifies as a female named Zaya. The couple above with Zaya and baby Kaavia
Union said that AGT’s set was culturally and racially insensitive.
She alleged that production staff told her that her hairstyle and clothes were ‘too black’. She also said the show was ill-equipped to give all contestants equal attention to the hair and makeup chair, which she points out is a recurring problem for minorities.
‘Some contestants get the full Hollywood treatment and then some are left to dangle,’ she said. She said Hollywood sets who fail to hire diverse departments to meet the needs of all backgrounds creates ‘an unequal and discriminatory experience.’
Blackface as also an issue on set from the guest performances to the judge panel itself.
Union said she was appalled when a white male contestant used black globes to represent a black performer and that any expression of blackface, historically offensive caricatures of black and brown people, was not flagged down by producers.
That contestant’s act was flagged as problematic before his performance but he was still cleared to hit the stage for judges and an audience, Union said.
Furthermore AGT judge Julianne Hough had come under fire in 2013 for wearing black face at a Halloween party trying to be African American actor Uzo Aduba from the show Orange is the New Black.
‘I’m a part of a show that hired one of my co-workers who had an unfortunate incident doing blackface,’ Union said.
‘I’d like to trust her at her word that she learned her lesson, and has educated herself amid the consequences she faced and is hopefully a better person. But you would think that perhaps the show and NBC might be more conscientious in exposing that, and it would be taken seriously. I took it seriously,’ she added.
She noted that the show did not have a standing policy of using contestants’ preferred pronounces.
AGT judge Julianne Hough had come under fire in 2013 for wearing black face at a Halloween party trying to be African American actor Uzo Aduba from the show Orange is the New Black. Hough and Union together on judge panel
That touches a personal note for Union and her husband NBA star Dwyane Wade whose 12-year-old child is transgender and identifies as a female named Zaya.
Reflecting on her 25 year career in Hollywood, Union says she’s no longer keen to appease directors and producers – instead she’s focusing on projects she finds meaningful.
‘There were so many spaces in this industry where I had to compartmentalize myself to feel like I was worthy of work. In my 40s, I embraced myself exactly as I am. I wanted to create projects and be a part of things, to have personal and professional relationships that brought me peace, joy, grace and allowed for compassion,’ she said.
In response to the story, NBC, Fremantle and Syco, which produce America’s Got Talent, released a statement saying they took Union’s concerns seriously and launched an outside investigation with more than 30 interviews.
‘While the investigation has demonstrated an overall culture of diversity, it has also highlighted some areas in which reporting processes could be improved,’ the statement shared with DailyMail.com said.
America’s Got Talent responds to Gabrielle Union’s tell-all interview
We have a shared passion to make America’s Got Talent a positive, inclusive and diverse show that is open to all individuals from any country or background. We are proud and grateful that our contestants and audiences support our ongoing mission, which is represented in the incredible people who participate in the show each year. We have heard from contestants and talent alike that their experience on AGT has had a positive impact on their lives. When we heard Ms. Union had concerns about her time on the show, we took them extremely seriously.
NBC, Fremantle and Syco immediately engaged an outside investigator who conducted more than 30 interviews to review the issues raised by Ms. Union. While the investigation has demonstrated an overall culture of diversity, it has also highlighted some areas in which reporting processes could be improved.
Through the investigation process, it has been revealed that no one associated with the show made any insensitive or derogatory remarks about Ms. Union’s appearance, and that neither race nor gender was a contributing factor in the advancement or elimination of contestants at any time. The investigation has shown that the concerns raised by Ms. Union had no bearing on the decision not to exercise the option on her contract.
NBC, Fremantle and Syco share Ms. Union’s dedication to diversity and inclusion in the industry. We continue to remain committed to having an inclusive environment for everyone associated with the show, and to upholding AGT as one of the most diverse programs on television.