After one season as a judge on NBC’s America’s Got Talent, actor/producer Gabrielle Union left the show, citing a toxic and racist environment. In a new interview with Variety, she explains the ways in which the environment wasn’t just emotionally toxic, but physically toxic to her health.
As previously reported, during her time on AGT, Union’s health was put at risk on an almost daily basis as a result of show creator Simon Cowell smoking indoors. Union, who’s allergic to cigarette smoke, tells Variety she was “sick for two months straight.” She adds, “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.” Despite being a fixture in Hollywood, Union was the new kid on the block and, in the interview, talks about how she grappled with how to confront the issue of her boss smoking indoors, a scenario that would have been made easier had there been a clear structure for presenting complaints in place, she explains.
As a result of Union’s claims, upon her departure, NBC and SAG-AFTRA launched an internal investigation into the work environment, which did confirm that Cowell had been smoking indoors on closed stages. A spokesperson for Cowell told Variety that once the issue was brought directly to Cowell’s attention, he changed his behavior. The internal investigation has yet to conclude whether that is true.
In the Variety interview, Union also delves into the widespread racism behind the scenes at AGT. Previously, Union had described a racist incident with Jay Leno. While filming a bit with the guest judge, she said Leno made a comment about Cowell’s dogs, “saying the animals looked like food items at a Korean restaurant.” Speaking about the incident now, Union says she was “shocked” and “froze” after hearing such a blatantly racist comment from someone she had admired. Union further explains that in an effort to follow the proper “corporate protocol,” she did not address Leno directly. Trying to play ball and do things the right way got her nothing. She was told the line would be edited out of the bit and that was supposed to be the end of it. “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 says, “You cannot edit out what we just experienced.”
The racism Union describes also extended to the hair and makeup chair and to other contestants on the show. Union was repeatedly told that her hairstyles were “too black” for television. She did not address that specific claim in her new interview since it’s part of the ongoing investigation. However, producers at AGT told Variety there is no truth to the claim and say the investigation has so far shown that “no one associated with the show made any insensitive or derogatory remarks about Ms. Union’s appearance.” But Union says in this latest interview that contestants received unequal treatment when it came to hair and makeup as well. Union claims the show was “ill-equipped” to handle different hair types, an issue that runs rampant in the entertainment industry. Union also takes note that while AGT promoted diversity of race and gender on stage, it had no idea how to manage the diverse talent it attracted. “We’re doing a show that is talking about a global audience, and we’re not even asking for preferred pronouns,” Union tells Variety.
Despite the shortcomings of AGT and NBC, Union believes that change is still possible, which is why she chose to be vocal about her experience. “If I can’t speak out with the privilege that I have, and the benefits that my husband (Dwayne Wade) and I have, what is the point of making it? What is the point of having a seat at the table and protecting your privilege when you’re not doing shit to help other people?”