Actress Gabrielle Union, 47, has finally broken her silence six months after her controversial departure from the show, ‘America’s Got Talent.’
On Wednesday, NBC, Fremantle, and Syco announced the results of their investigation that refutes the former AGT judge’s claims of racial insensitivity, and “toxic culture.”
In the latest issue of Variety, Union speaks for the first time on her one season experience on the long-running talent show.
“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,” she said. “What could go wrong?”
According to Variety, Union claims things went wrong almost immediately. The first situation was with the show’s most powerful person, creator, and executive producer Simon Cowell, who smoked on a closed soundstage during her first day on set. Union is severely allergic to cigarette smoke and was faced with the difficult decision to complain in what she considered the “very definition of a toxic work environment.”
“I couldn’t escape. I ended up staying sick for two months straight,” she said. “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 states it was a challenge to tend to her illness without being made to feel as if she were responsible for her sickness. “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.”
Union expresses that she did not feel like herself and that she had to shapeshift to make herself more palatable. “I’m contorting myself into something I don’t recognize,” she admitted. “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 fact, producers admitted there were past complaints to essentially no avail. However, Cowell told Variety through a spokesperson when the complaint was brought to his attention, he immediately changed his behavior, and it was never raised again.
Union also addressed the incident with guest judge Jay Leno who she highly regarded and recalled her appearance on his show was her first big interview in the industry. During his time as a guest judge, Leno made a joke about a painting of Cowell and his dogs, comparing the dogs to food items at a Korean restaurant (Leno declined to comment.) “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.”
To add to her negative experiences, Union also discussed the incident involving a white male contestant who wore black gloves to represent a black performer. Union said she was concerned that any expression of blackface was not immediately addressed. However, the act was later flagged problematic and not aired, but the contestant did get to audition before the judges and audience.
“I’m a part of a show that hired one of my co-workers who had an unfortunate incident doing blackface,” Union said, referring co-panelist Julianne Hough, 31, being photographed at a 2013 Halloween party with darkened skin for her costume as Orange Is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba. Hough apologized after the backlash, tweeting, “It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people, and I truly apologize.”
“I’d like to trust her at her word that she learned her lesson, and has educated herself amid the consequences she faced and is hopefully a better person,” Union continued. “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.” (Hough did not respond to Variety’s request for comment.)
Union and Hough, 31, both announced last year that they would not be returning to the show. In December, NBC launched an investigation with Fremantle and Syco Entertainment; results found the show has a “culture of diversity” but admitted that there could be some improvement in which reporting processes could be involved.
According to People, Union chose not to speak on her previous comments that her hairstyles were considered “too black” during her latest interview, but in Wednesday’s statement, the investigation denied those allegations.
“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.”