Gabrielle Union breaks silence about alleged racism on set of 'AGT' — as NBC investigation into her firing finds no racial bias

Gabrielle Union is speaking out about the alleged racism she says she experienced on the set of America’s Got Talent — as NBC announces its investigation into her dismissal from the show found no racial bias or “derogatory remarks.”

The former judge, who was let go from the show last year after one season, broke her silence in a new interview with Variety. She spoke of problematic issues she encountered on the set from her very first day, but also detailed alleged racism — allegations which first surfaced in November in a report from the same news outlet.

"I signed up for the experience of being a part of a show that hails itself as the biggest stage in the world,” Union told Variety. “Super diverse, and one about giving people an opportunity to shine where they otherwise probably wouldn't.” She added, “What could go wrong?"

(Photo: Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 18: Gabrielle Union attends "America's Got Talent" Season 14 Finale Red Carpet at Dolby Theatre on September 18, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Union said her first day on the soundstage she was greeted by a cloud of cigarette smoke from series creator, star and smoker Simon Cowell. She’s allergic to smoke, leading to respiratory problems, and when she raised the issue about Cowell’s law-breaking habit with show brass, she was told things wouldn’t change.

The toxic environment on the show, which has aired for 15 seasons on NBC, went deeper for Union. Weeks after she raised issue about the smoking, she was shocked again when guest judge Jay Leno made a joke comparing Cowell’s dogs to food offerings at a Korean restaurant.

“My first big interview in this industry, the first person who allowed me to come on their talk show, was Jay Leno,” Union said. “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.”

AMERICA'S GOT TALENT -- “Live Results Finale” Episode 1423 -- Pictured: (l-r) Howie Mandel, Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough, Simon Cowell -- (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Howie Mandel, Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough, Simon Cowell on the set of America's Got Talent. (Photo: Trae Patton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

While she considered confronting him, she figured producers would. However, she said she learned nothing happened. Producers said they would “edit it out.”

“You cannot edit out what we just experienced,” Union said. “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?”

Leno did not reply to the outlet’s reply for comment. (He called Union a “great girl” in December when his joke was first made public and Asian American Advocacy Groups called for NBC to sever ties with him.)

Amid the allegations that first surfaced last fall, was a source saying Union also received a note from producers criticizing her hair on the show, calling it “too black” for viewers. She wouldn’t comment on that to Variety, citing the ongoing investigation (launched in December), but said the show did not give all contestants equal attention in the hair and makeup chair — a problem on many shows when it comes to minorities.

“Some contestants get the full Hollywood treatment, and then some are left to dangle,” Union said. “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.” (An AGT source said there are 25 full-time hair and makeup staffers and half of them are people of color.)

Union also spoke about a white male contestant whose act was transforming into famous singers.

“At the very beginning of his act, he put on black gloves to [represent] a black performer,” Union said, noting it raised concern, grouping it with an expression of blackface. (She called it “blackface hands” at the time, voted him out and the performance was never aired.)

Union said she found 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.”

She went on to call out fellow judge Julianne Hough’s 2013 misstep with blackface, for which Hough publicly apologized.

“I’m a part of a show that hired one of my co-workers who had an unfortunate incident doing blackface,” she said, referring to Hough infamously darkening her skin to dress as Uzo Aduba’s Orange Is the New Black character for Halloween 2013. “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. 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 — who was let go from the show at the same time as Union — did not respond to the outlet’s request for comment. (Last year, Hough commended Union for “speaking her truth” about AGT culture.)

As Union speaks out for the first time directly about all this, the network NBC and producers Fremantle and Simon Cowell's Syco released findings from the investigation into Union’s departure from the show and state there was no evidence of racial bias or “derogatory remarks.” Here is the full statement:

We have a shared passion to make America's Got Talent a positive, inclusive and diverse show that is open to all individuals from any country or background. We are proud and grateful that our contestants and audiences support our ongoing mission, which is represented in the incredible people who participate in the show each year. We have heard from contestants and talent alike that their experience on AGT has had a positive impact on their lives. When we heard Ms. Union had concerns about her time on the show, we took them extremely seriously.

NBC, Fremantle and Syco 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.

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.

NBC, Fremantle and Syco share Ms. Union's dedication to diversity and inclusion in the industry. We continue to remain committed to having an inclusive environment for everyone associated with the show, and to upholding AGT as one of the most diverse programs on television.

Following Union’s and Hough’s departures, Cowell and judge Howie Mandel have been joined by replacements Heidi Klum and Sofia Vergara.

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