Gabrielle Union is finally airing her grievances with America’s Got Talent!
As we reported last September, the Bring It On star and fellow judge Julianne Hough were dismissed from the show two months after the finale of their inaugural season as judges. Days later, news broke that Union had raised issues with execs about the culture at AGT during her time there, complaining about racially charged incidents at the hands of contestants, producers, and guest judge Jay Leno.
Now, the 40-year-old actress is getting candid about her unfortunate experiences on set — one of which she describes as “the very definition of a toxic work environment.” In a new interview with Variety, Union revealed that on her very first day as a newly minted judge for the show, she became physically ill after walking into the closed soundstage to be met with a cloud of cigarette smoke, to which she’s severely allergic.
The smoker was none other than judge and producer Simon Cowell, which meant Union had to make the dire choice of complaining about behavior “being carried out by the most powerful person on the production” on her very first day.
Video: Gabrielle’s 1-Year-Old Daughter Hilariously FAILS Viral Snack Challenge!
Union said she hesitantly addressed the matter with producers, who told her she wasn’t the first to complain about Cowell’s smoking. Essentially, nothing was going to change, and Union said she stayed sick “for two months straight” because of it. She recalled:
“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.”
It also affected her relationship with fellow judge and admitted germaphobe Howie Mandel, who was apparently rattled by her constant runny nose.
“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.”
Ugh, so frustrating!
Cowell said through a rep 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.” However, a source familiar with the internal investigation of AGT that was conducted on the heels of Union’s exit said while the matter was addressed, it’s unclear if Cowell’s indoor smoking stopped entirely.
Union said she experienced more — albeit less on the nose — toxicity weeks later when she was shocked by an incident involving Leno. While filming a commercial in the AGT offices, the former Tonight Show host allegedly made a joke about a painting of Cowell and his dogs, saying the animals looked like food items at a Korean restaurant.
The actress recalled gasping at the racist wisecrack, which was widely perceived as perpetuating stereotypes about Asian people eating dog meat, explaining:
“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. I gasped. I froze. Other things had already happened, but at this point, it was so wildly racist.”
Gabby said the reaction from production was one she would become familiar with throughout the season:
“‘We’ll delete it. We’ll edit it 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 company-wide email, no reminder of what is appropriate in the workplace?”
The show’s handling of contestants was also very problematic, according to the actress. Union noted that AGT did not have a standing policy of using contestants’ preferred pronouns, telling the outlet:
“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. 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.”
Union also claimed the production was ill-equipped to give all contestants equal time in the hair and makeup chair, which was a problem when it came to getting people of color camera-ready. She said:
“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.”
Union reportedly had her own issue with hair and make up — sources told the outlet that her rotating hairstyles were labeled by production as “too black” for mass audiences — but she wasn’t able to to discuss that specific accusation due to the ongoing investigation.
One of the most alarming incidents Union did discuss, though, was watching a white male contestant whose act involved transforming into famous singers through wardrobe changes. She revealed:
“At the very beginning of his act, he put on black gloves to a black performer.”
The mother-of-one said she was distressed by the fact that the expression of blackface was not immediately flagged as problematic before the performer was cleared to audition before the judges and audience.
She remembered finding herself “waiting for there to be some mechanism that kicks in, to protect an audience of 4,000 people in a Pasadena auditorium that just watched that — all of the production, all of the other contestants, the judges. There was nothing in place. They did not think enough about how we would experience this blatantly racist act that, as a company, they have established that they take seriously.”
The actress compared the production’s lack of racial awareness to the 2013 incident where her fellow judge was photographed wearing blackface on Halloween while dressed as black actor Uzo Aduba of Orange Is the New Black. Union noted:
“I’m a part of a show that hired one of my co-workers who had an unfortunate incident doing blackface… I’d like to trust 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.”
After her stint on the series ended, Union said she discussed her issues with NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer, who apparently thanked her for sharing what she calls the production’s “blind spots.” But during her chat with Variety, Union stressed that AGT had more than a few “blind spots” when it came to diversity.
“I had a professor who told me that racism is an issue for people who have to experience it every day. If you don’t have to experience it every day, it’s a nonissue. And that was never more true than in this case. When you talk about diversity, there is very little diversity behind the scenes to match all of the diversity that is in the audience on-site, at home watching and the contestants. There are so many blind spots. Your solution can’t be an edit button.”
And while Gabby admits she doesn’t know what the solution is, she said she’s still working to create real change, sharing:
“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.”
She’s not the only one with that goal either! She added, on a positive note:
“There are so many people who are committed to making NBCUniversal and Comcast different, who truly want to be a part of the solution and on the right side of history. In the same breath, there are some people who want the wheels of change to come to a grinding halt because they feel that their privilege is being challenged.”
And because she’s fortunate enough to have a successful career and a high profile, Union’s making it her mission to use her privilege to challenge others. She concluded:
“If I can’t speak out with the privilege that I have, and the benefits that my husband 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 s**t to help other people? It’s absolutely terrifying to speak truth to power about anything. I’m trying not to be terrified, and some days are better than others.”
Keep speaking out, gurl — it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!
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