For the first time, Gabrielle Union is speaking out about her departure from the reality competition show America’s Got Talent, unchecked systemic racism in the workplace and the importance of a healthy workplace environment.
In September 2019, the actress and author, along with fellow judge Julianne Hough, were dismissed from their duties on the show despite having contractual obligations to return for a second season. In an explosive report from Variety shortly after, the allegedly harmful culture at the show was brought to the forefront, claiming that Union and others fell victim to racially-biased incidents and comments behind the scenes from contestants, producers, and also the show’s guest judge, Jay Leno. She also noted that judge Simon Cowell’s incessant smoking made her physically ill. While fellow members of the AGT team dismissed her claims, internal investigations of Fremantle, Syco and NBC are ongoing.
Union, who recently spoke with Variety for a cover story, stated that as a marginalized person, speaking up about the on-set issues was something she was hesitant to do, but knew needed to be done.
“Do I cave? I didn’t feel like myself; I’m shape-shifting to make myself more palatable,” she said. “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.”
In the new interview, she discussed that Simon Cowell’s cigarette smoking caused her to become sick, which gave way to a long-term health issue.
“I couldn’t escape. I ended up staying sick for two months straight,” she says. “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 also said her constant runny nose became an issue for fellow judge Howie Mandel, who has been open about his struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and germophobia.
“You cannot edit out what we just experienced,” she said of one of the most glaring examples of racism, perpetuated by guest judge Jay Leno, regarding an Asian stereotype he used as a joke for a show’s commercial. “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?”
“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...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? 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.”
Union hopes that diversity and acceptance will begin to be fostered respectfully in Hollywood, and she aims to work in places with better environments.
“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,” she says. “My goal is to create the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected and healthy example of a workplace.”