Gabrielle Union Detailed the Racism on Set at 'America's Got Talent'

Union said the show was "the very definition of a toxic work environment."

Gabrielle Union
(Image credit: Jon Kopaloff)

  • Gabrielle Union was dropped from America's Got Talent in late 2019 after only one season, despite ratings indicating she was the "top personality on all of network television" when she was a judge. 
  • In a new interview with Variety, Union said the show was "the very definition of a toxic work environment."
  • Union shared her horrifying experiences of repeated racism on set.

Gabrielle Union was the highest-performing judge on America's Got Talent, according to Nielsen ratings—and yet she was dismissed from the show after just one season. She subsequently said that she was fired for calling out on-set racism and raising other concerns about the workplace environment on the show. In a new interview with Variety, Union spoke at length about her horrifying experience on America's Got Talent, and why she considered it vital to speak out.

Union said her time on America's Got Talent was problematic from her very first day, when Simon Cowell smoked indoors next to her. Union, who has a severe allergy to cigarette smoke, spoke to producers about the issue, but they told her there was nothing they could do. She recalled "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."

"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. "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." A spokesperson for Cowell, when asked for comment, told Variety, "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."

Union also said that Jay Leno, a guest judge on the show, made an egregious racist joke. Leno commented on a painting of Cowell with his dogs, saying the pets looked like "food items at a Korean restaurant," Variety reports. "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." Leno did not respond to Variety's request for comment.

When Union reported the incident to production, she said that their response—a promise to edit out the comment—was inadequate. "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?"

Union also recalled an America's Got Talent quick change act who put on black gloves to portray a Black celebrity. She said she expected 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."

She also noted that contestants were not asked for their pronouns, while contestants of color received less attention from hair and makeup. "Some contestants get the full Hollywood treatment, and then some are left to dangle," Union said. "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 did not comment on reports that she was told her hairstyles were "too Black," due to an ongoing investigation.

In a statement in response to Variety's story, Fremantle, Syco (AGT's production companies) and NBC said 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." The statement added, "The investigation has not shown that the concerns raised by Ms. Union had any bearing on the decision not to exercise the option on her contract." 

Union also discussed her decision to speak about her America's Got Talent experience. "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 shit to help other people?" she said. "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."

"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," Union said. "My goal is to create the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected, and healthy example of a workplace."

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Emily Dixon
Morning Editor

Emily Dixon is a British journalist who’s contributed to CNN, Teen Vogue, Time, Glamour, The Guardian, Wonderland, The Big Roundtable, Bust, and more, on everything from mental health to fashion to political activism to feminist zine collectives. She’s also a committed Beyoncé, Kacey Musgraves, and Tracee Ellis Ross fan, an enthusiastic but terrible ballet dancer, and a proud Geordie lass.