Gabrielle Union is offering new insight into what led to her firing from NBC’s reality competition series, America’s Got Talent.
In a new Variety cover story, Union details the events that led up to her dismissal from the series. Among those events is when she raised issues about the “toxic” work environment that show staff endured.
“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 told Variety in a May 27 article.
Well, apparently a whole lot — from guest judge Jay Leno’s racist joke about Asians, to executive producer Simon Cowell’s smoking on set that Union said caused her to become physically 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,” she explained.
The Union-AGT drama led to NBCUniversal opening a formal investigation into the workplace environment at AGT about two months after the season finale of the show.
The website LoveBScott first broke the news in November 2019 that Union and Julianne Hough were let go from the series after one season, while Cowell and Howie Mandel would remain. Union and Hough were hired in a casting shakeup, and replaced Melanie Brown and Heidi Klum for season 14 of the show.
Since her exit, Union has shared brief details on social media about the situation, including a tweet on Dec. 4 saying she had a “productive” five-hour meeting with NBC execs.
Here’s what we learned from Union’s candid interview:
On the issues of Simon Cowell smoking on set
“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.”
On what Union’s end goal is/was when she raised concerns to NBCUni
“At the end of all this, my goal is real change — and not just on this show but for the larger parent company. It starts from the top down. My goal is to create the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected and healthy example of a workplace.”
On guest judge Jay Leno’s Asian joke
During filming, Union said the former Tonight Show host made a crack about a painting of Cowell and his dogs, saying the animals looked like food items at a Korean restaurant. The joke was widely perceived as perpetuating stereotypes about Asian people eating 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.”
On the show’s lack of policy to ask contestants’ their preferred pronouns
“We’re doing a show that is talking about a global audience, and we’re not even asking for preferred pronouns? We should never be put in a position where we are guessing, not when we know better,” she said. “And again, no checks and balances. Everyone is allowed to operate without consequence or accountability, and it sends a message that this kind of thing is not only tolerated but encouraged.”
On lack of proper hair/makeup resources for non-white contestants
“Some contestants get the full Hollywood treatment, and then some are left to dangle. When they hit that stage for the opportunity of a lifetime, they want to put their best foot forward and have all of the confidence that everyone else has. When you are making the conscious decisions in hiring, and failing to recognize that you have whole departments that lack the necessary skill set to provide adequate services to all of that diversity that you are touting, you are creating an unequal and discriminatory experience.”