After just one season as a judge on America’s Got Talent, Gabrielle Union was fired from the hit NBC program. Rotating the female judges on the panel has become routine on the show that counts Simon Cowell and Howie Mandel as mainstays, and a recent Variety report alleged Union was fired after calling out the racist culture on-set and after imploring the show’s producers to report an incident to human resources.
Since the Variety report, fans and celebrities have shown an outpouring of support for Union, and the SAG-AFTRA labor union initiated a formal investigation into her firing. Here’s everything you need to know about Union’s time on AGT, the racist joke from Jay Leno that she witnessed, how her hair was deemed “too Black,” the investigation, and how fellow AGT employees like Heidi Klum have invalidated her experience.
Gabrielle Union’s Contract
Union joined the prime-time reality talent show for its 14th season and sat on the judging panel alongside Julianne Hough, Cowell, and Mandel. According to her contract, she could have been brought on for another season, but NBC decided to cut ties after her first stint. (The same thing happened to Hough, but she said she had “a wonderful time” on the show.)
Gabrielle Union Pushes Back Against Producers
As reported by Variety, during Union’s time on the show, she witnessed Jay Leno (who was taping a separate segment in the production building) make a racist joke. In the presence of all the judges and while filming, Leno allegedly commented on a painting of Cowell surrounded by his dogs. Several people who were there told the publication that Leno said the judge and executive producer’s dogs looked like they would be “on the menu at a Korean restaurant.”
Obviously, this is racist, and many on the show found it to be offensive and perpetuating stereotypes. According to Variety’s sources, when Union heard that come out of Leno’s mouth, she went to producers and told them to report it to human resources, but it was never “escalated.”
As proud as i were of her being selected as a judge on #AGT— Iam even more proud of her standing up for what she stands for and that’s US.
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) November 27, 2019
There was another alleged incident in which a white contestant on the show appeared to make his hands black while impersonating Beyoncé during an audition. When Union said that the live audience shouldn’t have to “be subjected to something racially insensitive,” the producers still allowed the performer to go onstage and just said, “We’ll take it out later.”
Gabrielle Union’s Hairstyles
During the course of the show, Union graced TV screens rocking a few different hairstyles, but they were deemed “too Black.” According to four different sources, the show’s producers gave her this note “over half a dozen times.”
The SAG-AFTRA Investigation
Following Union’s exit from AGT, the SAG-AFTRA performers’ labor union launched a formal investigation into her time on the show and her firing. A spokesperson said that while the process was initiated, they “have nothing to report now” and will continue the investigation privately.
NBC, Simon Cowell, and Freemantle’s Statement
Amid all the fallout from Union’s firing, the companies that produce AGT (NBC, Freemantle, and Cowell’s Syco) released this joint statement:
“We remain committed to ensuring a respectful workplace for all employees and take very seriously any questions about workplace culture. We are working with Ms. Union through her representatives to hear more about her concerns, following which we will take whatever next steps may be appropriate.”
Terry Crews’ Statement
When Crews was asked about Union’s allegations during the Today show in early February, Crews said, “I can’t speak for sexism because I’m not a woman, but I can speak on any racism comments. That was never my experience. In fact, it was the most diverse place I have ever been in my 20 years of entertainment.”
And when everyone rightfully dragged him for invalidating her experience, he had to apologize. He later tweeted, “I apologize. You have been through a lot in this business, and with that, I empathize with the struggle toward fairness and equality in the workplace.”
@itsgabrielleu, I want you to know it was never my intention to invalidate your experience— but that is what I did. I apologize. You have been through a lot in this business, and with that I empathize with the struggle toward fairness and equality in the workplace.
— terry crews (@terrycrews) January 31, 2020
"The only thing I know for sure is that Terry Crews gets three checks from NBC...If you're not going to help, then get out of the way. It's fine. If you don't feel financially comfortable or spiritually comfortable, or you flat out disagree, but at the end of the day he will benefit from a safer, um, more equitable workplace from what I stuck my neck out to do and got fired for, you know, instead of actively working against progress. And just since I've come out and been so vocal about what happened, the floodgates have opened that this reckoning is just hitting…And as he said, choosing this hill to die on, I have a feeling he will probably regret it for a thousand reasons very soon."
Heidi Klum’s Statement
In January, model and former AGT judge Heidi Klum also brushed off Union’s experience and said that she couldn’t relate to any of the allegations, seemingly forgetting that she herself is not a Black woman. Klum said, “I’ve only had an amazing experience [on the show]. I can’t speak for Gabrielle. I didn’t experience the same thing. To me, everyone treats you with the utmost respect.”
And on February 5, Klum expressed how hurt she apparently was by the public’s reaction to her statement and thinks the way she was treated on-set had nothing to do with her race. She said, “A lot of people got mad at me. I was called, for example, ‘a white woman.’” She continued, “I can only speak to what I saw—it has nothing to do with what color I am. I am a human so I just looked at what I saw.”
Jay Leno’s Statement
Despite the fact that Union is a 47-year-old grown woman, Leno chose to refer to her as a “girl” when he spoke about the controversy to TMZ, something that Twitter users are rightfully calling him out for. He told the outlet, “I love Gabrielle Union. She’s a great girl. I really enjoyed working with her. She’s really good.” When asked if he thought Union was being treated fairly, he stumbled over his words and said, “I don’t know…but I think she’s a great girl.” As for any regrets regarding his racist joke, he didn’t have an answer for that.
Gabrielle Union’s Statement
Union didn’t initially comment on the report or her firing, but she has since taken to social media to like tweets schooling everyone on what “a solid apology” looks like. She’s also taken time to thank everyone for supporting her through this.
So many tears, so much gratitude. THANK YOU! Just when you feel lost, adrift, alone... you got me up off the ground. Humbled and thankful, forever ❤
— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) November 28, 2019
This! This! AND THIIISSSSSSS!!!!!! https://t.co/RCrtKtkQ4L
— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) December 1, 2019
NBC & AGT Producers Reveal Internal Investigation Results
An internal investigation into Union’s claims was supposed to wrap in January, but it experienced some setbacks. According to a statement from NBC, Fremantle, and Syco, the several concerns Union raised had nothing to do with her firing. They dismissed her experiences and stated:
“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.”
That said, Variety senior film writer Matt Donnelly, who interviewed Union and obtained her first comments on the matter in a cover story for the magazine, claimed the investigation isn’t even finished yet and the producers released that statement in response to Variety’s just-published interview with the actor.
The investigation into NBC, Fremantle and Syco over #AmericasGotTalent is *not* yet complete. They released their initial findings in response to @Variety's cover story this week. https://t.co/tE95eCewHF
— Matt Donnelly (@MattDonnelly) May 27, 2020
Gabrielle Union Breaks Her Silence
Speaking of Union’s interview with Donnelly, within the pages of Variety, she revealed that she was sick for two months as a result of Cowell’s smoking. “I couldn’t escape,” she said, “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.”
On top of that, her sickness upset Mandel, who sat next to her onstage and struggles with OCD and is a germaphobe. “It put me in a position from day one where I felt othered,” she continued. “I felt isolated. I felt singled out as being difficult, when I’m asking for basic laws to be followed.”
And speaking about the offensive joke Leno uttered in front of her and how the show didn’t ask contestants their preferred pronouns when they know they should’ve, Union said:
“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?...And again, no checks and balances. Everyone is allowed to operate without consequence or accountability, and it sends a message that this kind of thing is not only tolerated but encouraged.”
When it came to the conversation of having stylists and makeup artists who are skilled at working with diverse clients and who could make every contestant feel confident when taking the stage, Union said the show was severely lacking. To her, the hiring practices exhibited failed “to provide adequate services to all of that diversity that you are touting” and created an “unequal and discriminatory experience.”
Gabrielle Union: “If I can’t speak out with the privilege that 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?” https://t.co/KWGakAmuMN pic.twitter.com/aJIhwMPsrL
— Variety (@Variety) May 27, 2020
Of course, no matter how much privilege Union might have as a celebrity with a comfortable lifestyle, speaking out about all this is “absolutely terrifying” for her. Ultimately, she wondered, "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 sh*t to help other people?”
Gabrielle Union Files Discrimination Complaint
On June 4, Union filed a discrimination complaint against the AGT producers and claimed NBC Entertainment Chairman Paul Telegdy threatened her for speaking out about her AGT experience. Union’s attorney, Brian Freedman, noted how NBC recently stated Black lives matter but failed to act when she called out “racially offensive conduct during the taping of America’s Got Talent.” He went on to say:
“Instead, NBC did not care enough to either promptly investigate Ms. Union’s complaints or even ask HR to get involved. Rather, NBC stood against her and directed its ‘outrage’ at Ms. Union for whistleblowing about the racially offensive conduct she experienced while working for NBC on ‘ America’s Got Talent.’”
According to Variety, complaints like these are often precursors to lawsuits.
Gabrielle Union Wants Stronger Action From NBCUniversal
On July 7, The Hollywood Reporter provided an update in this unfortunate saga and reported that NBCUniversal TV and Streaming chairman Mark Lazarus sent a companywide statement committing to “promoting a positive culture” using specialized training materials and more methods of reporting workplace concerns. Union saw the statement, and while she acknowledges the initial positive steps NBC is taking, she thinks they need to do more. She tweeted:
“Great start by NBC to recognize the need to not turn away & ignore racial & gender discrimination on programs like #AGT. More changes are needed however like stopping executives from intimidating talent from sharing their experience of racism in their own workplace investigations.”
NBC Entertainment Chairman Paul Telegdy Accused of Racist, Sexist and Homophobic Behavior
Nearly two months after Union filed a discrimination complaint against Telegdy, 30 current and former NBC employees accused the chairman of racism, sexism, and homophobia. The Hollywood Reporter explained:
"But sources say they have seen Telegdy mock gay executives, sometimes to their faces; use homophobic and misogynistic slurs; and disparage or make sexual comments about the physical appearance of network talent. Current and former insiders say they have heard Telegdy participate in what one former insider describes as 'appalling' discussions in the office that included crude sexual remarks."
In addition, former AGT judge Sharon Osbourne said that in 2012, Telegdy threatened her when she told him that her family planned a press conference to speak out against her son's firing from NBC's Stars Earn Stripes, which came after her son revealed he has MS. She explained, “He said, ‘Go fuck yourself. If you call the press you’ll never work in this town, you fucking witch.’” She quit as a result of the conversation.
You can read more damning allegations regarding Telegdy in THR.
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