Gabrielle Union is breaking her silence on her controversial ousting from NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” after expressing concerns about the “toxic” culture on the set of the reality competition series.
Union and fellow judge Julianne Hough were unceremoniously fired in November after one season on the show, while the contracts of their male counterparts, Simon Cowell and Howie Mandel, were picked up for another year.
Variety reported at the time that the two women had been subject to “excessive notes on their physical appearance” and that the “Being Mary Jane” alum was told multiple times that her hairstyles on the show were “too black.” She also reportedly clashed with producers and judges about alleged inappropriate and racially insensitive behavior behind the scenes.
Now Union — who has remained quiet throughout the entire ordeal — is finally sharing her side of the story in a new interview with Variety published the day after the new season of “AGT” debuted.
Union’s tenure on the show got off to a rocky start when she complained about Cowell’s habit of smoking cigarettes indoors the first day.
Union, who is severely allergic to cigarette smoke, said she was “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,” Union added, as her requests were repeatedly rebuffed. “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.”
The “Bring It On” alum felt like she was “made to feel like I’m responsible for my own sickness” as her fellow judge Mandel, a self-described germaphobe, was clearly uncomfortable with her symptoms.
Cowell, however, told Variety through his spokesperson, 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.”
Union also recounted the lack of accountability for a racist joke guest judge Jay Leno made about dogs in a painting inside Cowell’s home, which Leno said looked like an offering “on the menu at a Korean restaurant.”
“I gasped. I froze,” Union said of her reaction. “Other things had already happened, but at this point, it was so wildly racist.”
When producers said they would later edit out the crack, Union said that wasn’t enough.
“You cannot edit out what we just experienced. There is not an edit button in my brain or in my soul,” Union recalled. “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?”
The “L.A.’s Finest” star mentioned various other gripes with the production, but didn’t address the controversy over her hairstyles, as the results of an investigation into the incident were only made public on Wednesday.
NBC, along with series producers FremantleMedia and Syco, said that a a third-party investigation concluded 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.”
But the investigation also “highlighted some areas in which reporting processes could be improved.”
Union said she’s speaking out now to foster “the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected and healthy example of a workplace,” which seems like a far cry from what she said she experienced on the set of the long-running series.
The 15th cycle of “America’s Got Talent” premiered this week with new judge Sofia Vergara and returning judge Heidi Klum.