Gabrielle Union details her experience at “America’s Got Talent” in an explosive new interview with Variety.
After Variety announced last November that Union and fellow judge Julianne Hough were exiting the NBC competition series, a report from Love B Scott alleged that Union was fired after speaking up about “problematic” situations on the show.
Later that month, Variety published a report that said Union took issue with an unaired segment where guest judge Jay Leno allegedly made a racially insensitive joke — allegedly saying a painting of dogs looked like something one would find “on the menu at a Korean restaurant” — and with a white performer who allegedly did impressions of people of color.
Variety also reported that Union and Hough reportedly received excessive notes on their physical appearance, and that Union was allegedly told her hairstyles were “too black” for the “AGT” audience.
Vulture also published a report that claimed Union complained about co-judge Simon Cowell smoking inside the Pasadena, California, theater where the show was filmed.
On Wednesday, the “LA’s Finest” actress directly addressed these reports for the first time.
In regard to Cowell’s smoking, Union confirms she made a complaint about it on her first day on the job. Though she hesitantly brought up the issue with producers — who reportedly told her that Cowell’s smoking was complained about in the past — she knew very little change would come out of it.
“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,” she said.
Union claims that her complaint about Cowell’s smoking made it appear that she was “difficult” to work with.
“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,” she said.
“Do I cave? I didn’t feel like myself; I’m shape-shifting to make myself more palatable. I’m contorting myself into something I don’t recognize. I had to look at myself and say, ‘Do you want to keep it easy? Or do you want to be you, and stand up?’ Because I’m not the only one being poisoned at work,” she remarked about the added difficulty of bringing up a complaint as a woman of color.
In response, Cowell told Variety through a spokesperson that “when he was directly informed of the smoking complaint during the first couple of days of the season, he immediately changed his behavior and the issue was never raised again.” Variety reports that an “AGT” insider said the smoking issue was addressed, but it is not clear if Cowell’s indoor smoking was stopped entirely.
In regard to Jay Leno’s alleged racially insensitive joke, Union said she initially wanted to address Leno directly but didn’t, as she assumed she would have to go through “corporate protocol.”
“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.”
Union says the alleged joke was simply edited out, and not directly addressed internally.
“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.
In regard to the white performer who allegedly imitated artists of color, Union says he “put on black gloves to [represent] a black performer” — an action that some may consider an expression of blackface.
“I’m a part of a show that hired one of my co-workers who had an unfortunate incident doing blackface,” Union said of Hough, who was photographed at a 2013 Halloween party with darkened skin to imitate black actress Uzo Aduba of “Orange Is the New Black.”
“I’d like to trust [Hough] 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,” Union said.
Per Variety, Hough did not respond to a request for comment.
In regard to Union reportedly receiving notes that her hairstyles were “too black” for mass audiences, Union declined to address this claim.
In response to Union’s Variety interview, NBC and “AGT” producers, Fremantle and Syco Entertainment, said in a joint statement that they “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.” They, however, did not elaborate on these “processes.”
In response to claims that Union was criticized for her appearance, they said that “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,” they continued. “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.”