Gabrielle Union was a judge on America’s Got Talent before she was let go last Friday. Photo: Courtesy of NBC
Gabrielle Union, the actress and producer, was just two months into her tenure as a judge on the NBC talent competition America’s Got Talent when she found herself seated in a tense meeting with Simon Cowell, the music mogul and reality-show star. He had a request for her: If she had any problems with the production or the show, come to him directly. Don’t talk to NBC.
Union did have concerns, and she had brought them up regularly ever since she joined the show in February; they included perceived racist incidents, Cowell’s habit of smoking indoors, and attempts to keep the show from misgendering contestants, according to multiple sources involved in the production of America’s Got Talent. Union had been addressing her complaints largely with NBC executives, including those who oversaw the show. They would respond by saying they would look into her concerns, and then, according to sources, nothing would happen.
By the time Union and Cowell met, Union was deeply frustrated and concerned about the workplace environment at America’s Got Talent. His instructions that she not talk to her employers made Union feel as if he were trying to cover up major issues, according to sources familiar with her thinking.
Then, last Friday, Union was informed by NBC that they were letting her go after one season of judging the competition show, which multiple sources allege was because she was perceived as “difficult” by Cowell and his team of producers. Union had a three-year contract with the show, and the network had the option to extend it for subsequent seasons after the first season in which she appeared as a judge, according to multiple sources. Variety first reported that NBC had dropped Union along with another judge, Julianne Hough. In the past few years, the show has cycled through Tyra Banks as host and singer Mel B and Heidi Klum as judges, while the two male judges, Howie Mandel and Simon Cowell (who is also a producer), have remained consistent.
A source close to the production disputes that Union was fired, and specifically that she was fired for being perceived as “difficult,” saying that she was “rotated out.” While it’s true that talent competitions do switch out judges to keep their programming fresh, past judges like Mel B and Klum appeared on the program for years before being moved out.
The news that Union was dropped because of workplace complaints she lodged with NBC was first reported by the blog Love B. Scott. On Tuesday, Variety reported on some of the details of those complaints, including Union’s concerns about a racist joke made by Jay Leno, and reports that producers had critiqued the appearance of Hough and Union, including calling Union’s hairstyles “too black.”
The details of Union’s grievances were shared with Vulture by seven sources inside and outside America’s Got Talent and NBC, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified. (A spokesperson for Union declined to comment.) In response to a detailed list of questions sent by Vulture, NBC Entertainment and Fremantle, the production company that produces America’s Got Talent, said:
“America’s Got Talent has a long history of inclusivity and diversity in both our talent and the acts championed by the show. The judging and host line-up has been regularly refreshed over the years and that is one of the reasons for AGT’s enduring popularity. NBC and the producers take any issues on set seriously.”
NBC announced in February that Union would be joining America’s Got Talent for season 14. Judging for the show, which is filmed in three multi-week segments over the course of several months, began that same month.
Union was labeled as “difficult” by Cowell and producers of the program almost immediately, when she complained about Cowell smoking inside the Pasadena, California, theater where the show was filmed, according to sources close to the production of the show. The theater didn’t have walls between dressing rooms, so they were separated by pipes and draped fabric, and cigarette smoke seeped into Union’s dressing area. (It is against California law for an employer to allow smoking in an enclosed workspace.)
Union, who is allergic to cigarette smoke, was repeatedly rebuffed when she asked other staff members to request that Cowell stop smoking inside. Sources say Union was told by an NBC executive and production staff on the program that no one could stop Cowell from smoking and that previous attempts by a fire marshal and NBC executives had been unsuccessful. According to three sources, Cowell has smoked indoors for years, much to the frustration of staff, crew, and talent. NBC has given Cowell near-total control over America’s Got Talent. Virtually no decisions are made by the network on the show without his approval, according to three well-placed sources.
As reported by Variety, early on in the production of season 14, a painting of Cowell and his five dogs was presented on-camera to the judges. According to sources, former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, who was a guest judge at the time, remarked that the painting “looked like something on the menu at a Korean restaurant.” Union was disturbed by the remark, which seemed to play in to a racist stereotype about Koreans, especially since an Asian staff member on set appeared to be upset by it. Union pushed for the footage to not be aired, which further solidified her “difficult” reputation.
Another incident involved a male contestant from Italy whose audition involved impressions of various singers. When the contestant was preparing to do an impression of Beyoncé, he slipped on black gloves, which Union read as an attempt to indicate a change in skin tone. She referred to them as “blackface hands,” according to two sources, and voted to eliminate the contestant. Neither of these segments aired, and in both cases, Union was concerned that staff members, and in the case of the male singer, the audience, would be exposed to racist or racially insensitive performances.
Two sources say that Union also earned the reputation of being difficult because she asked contestants dressed in drag what their preferred pronouns were, a move that seemed to annoy producers. But tensions hit an irrevocable high after an incident involving a 10-year-old black rapper named Dylan Gilmer. According to two sources, Union was told in a production meeting by producers that the show needed to pick an act “that America can get behind.” Union objected to their suggestion that a dance group from Texas made up of white contestants could be that act, as it did not receive as much of an enthusiastic reply from the audience as Gilmer, according to two sources.
A source close to the production of the show denied that producers said they needed to pick an act “that American can get behind,” and said that producers would never use such language.
In that same meeting, after contestants from a choir from South Africa (made up of black African members) were brought up, sources recall Howie Mandel saying, “Maybe they can sing something from The Lion King.” Cowell and Mandel, reached through NBC Entertainment PR, did not offer a comment.
Union was frustrated, according to three sources. She felt producers were implying that American audiences couldn’t get behind a 10-year-old black rapper, a viewpoint she felt was racist. But the decision was made to cut Gilmer from the show. (He later was a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Tyler Perry gave him his own show on BET.) Union was so angry, according to two sources, that she went outside to get fresh air, and returned after about five minutes to find Cowell furious that she had left.
A source close to the production told Vulture that Cowell later told Union that if it was that important to her, he would be willing to spare Gilmer. But other sources said Cowell was hostile and aggressive when he delivered that message, and at that point, Union had had enough.
The situation was so tense that Union was pushed by Cowell and his agents at CAA (which also represents Union) to meet with Cowell privately, along with her manager, in an attempt to patch things up, which sources told Vulture she did at his home last May. It’s unclear how their conversation went, but the show then went on hiatus, and Union was let go ahead of filming for season 15. Now, Union is exploring her legal options against the network, according to sources close to the actress and producer.