It all started with news that “America’s Got Talent” judges Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough were departing from the show after their first season on November 22. Not much was said after the initial announcement, giving no context to the exit of the two new judges for the 14th season of the show. Everything seemed amicable until reports surfaced on Vulture and Variety just days later revealing the truth behind her dismissal.
Throughout the 14 season run of “America’s Got Talent,” some judges have been cycled through, including Tyra Banks, Mel B, and Heidi Klum. Simon Cowell, a producer for the show, as Howie Mendel have been consistent judges since the beginning of the popular show.
When it rains, it pours, and there was a lot to unpack from the various reports regarding the not-so-amicable departure. There were alleged reports of a “toxic culture” behind the scenes of “America’s Got Talent”, as well as various racially insensitive comments and situations throughout Union’s single season as a judge for the program. In addition to the toxic culture, Union expressed her concerns regarding Cowell’s indoor smoking habit in addition to “attempts to keep the show from misgendering” when Union would ask preferred pronouns for contestants in drag, Vulture reported from multiple sources involved with “America’s Got Talent.”
One of the reported racist incidents involved former late night host Jay Leno during a taping for an episode that aired in early August. During the taping, while he was with Union and Hough, Leno made a joke about a painting in the hallway where they were filming of Cowell with his dogs. Those present at the taping reported to Variety that Leno said that the dogs looked like something “on the menu at a Korean restaurant.”
Union “urged producers” to report the joke, noting that the joke would offend both members of the staff as well as the audience. The issue was reportedly never escalated and the line was cut before the episode aired.
Other racist incidents included critique of her various hair styles, as they were considered “too black” for the audience, as reported by multiple sources to Variety. Sources also revealed that in a production meeting, Union was instructed to pick an act that “America can get behind”, resulting in 10-year-old black rapper, Dylan Gilmer, to be cut from the show.
Perceived as “difficult” by Simon Cowell, Union had addressed her complaints to NBC executives who oversaw the show, but nothing came from her claims and tensions continued to remain high throughout the course of the season.
Hollywood seems to be on Union’s side throughout this entire controversy. Countless celebrities from Lin Manuel Miranda and Debra Messing to Ariana Grande and her “America’s Got Talent” co-star, Hough, have reached out to Union on social media to offer her their support, as well as via recent interviews.
Viola Davis retweeted Ellen Pompeo’s note of support for Union, adding that she stands “in solidarity” with Union, adding in, as always.”
“She is an awesome young woman,” Davis said at the L’Oreal Women of Worth Awards, explaining why she tweeted what she did. “I didn’t want her to feel alone in a world where people are feeling increasingly alone when they speak out. I don’t want my legacy to be one of tearing another woman down.”
Messing shared the same tweet from Pompeo as many other celebrities have, adding her own thoughts and words of support for Union.
“This is disgusting behavior from a network that has been my professional home for decades,” she wrote. “Yes, women become ‘difficult,’ when their insistence on a respectful and professional working environment, is ignored.”
She continued, adding, “Addressing a hostile work environment is inconvenient when there is a huge money making machine that is involved.”
“It is cowardice, greed, and protection of the status quo revealed,” she finished her tweet. “Being ‘hands off,’ is inexcusable and reflects a laissez faire attitude toward systemic racism and sexism.”
Deadline released a statement on December 1 from NBC, Fremantle, and Syco, stating, “We remain committed to ensuring a respectful workplace for all employees and take very seriously any questions about workplace culture.”
The statement continued, reading, “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.”
On December 2, SAG-AFTRA announced that it was opening an investigation in a statement to Variety.
“While we have taken steps to investigate this matter, we have nothing to report now,” the statement revealed.
Union broke her silence on the subject–aside from a message on social media to those who were defending her publicly–revealing in a tweet on December 4 that she had a “lengthy” and “productive” meeting with NBC and producers from the show.
“The initial conversation was candid and productive,” an NBC spokesperson said. “While there will be a further investigation to get a deeper understanding of the facts, we are working with Gabrielle to come to a positive resolution.”
Photographer Credit: @gabunion