Gabrielle Union is going in depth about her experience on America's Got Talent for the first time since her dismissal from the reality competition last year amid reports of her speaking out against a toxic work environment and incidents of racism on set. In a new interview with Variety, the actress opened up about her efforts to make Hollywood a more inclusive place and refusal to shrink herself, regardless of the consequences.
"There were so many spaces in this industry where I had to compartmentalize myself to feel like I was worthy of work," Union told the outlet. "In my 40s, I embraced myself exactly as I am. I wanted to create projects and be a part of things, to have personal and professional relationships that brought me peace, joy, grace and allowed for compassion."
Signing on for America's Got Talent, Union said she was excited to work on a "super diverse" show of performers. Still, just two months after the finale of her first season, news broke that she and fellow judge Julianne Hough were dismissed from the show, despite contractual options to return for another season. Both executive producer Simon Cowell and longtime judge Howie Mandel remained on the panel. Details soon began to emerge that Union had spoken out against several "toxic" workplace behaviors, including Cowell's indoor smoking.
"I couldn’t escape. 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," she said of the impact Cowell's smoking had on her health, despite her initial complaints to producers. The Bring It On actress called tending to her illness "challenging," as she felt "singled out as being difficult" for asking that health and safety laws be followed. "I want to come to work and be healthy and safe and listened to," she said.
Cowell told Variety through a 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." But Union recalls a much more fraught choice she had to make. "Do I cave? I didn’t feel like myself; I’m shape-shifting to make myself more palatable. I’m contorting myself into something I don’t recognize," she said of continuing to advocate for her health. "I had to look at myself and say, ‘Do you want to keep it easy? Or do you want to be you, and stand up?’ Because I’m not the only one being poisoned at work."
Another incident came when comedian Jay Leno came on the show and made a joke that perpetuated racist stereotypes about Asian people eating dogs. "I gasped. I froze. Other things had already happened, but at this point, it was so wildly racist," Union recalls, adding that she assumed there would be a "corporate protocol" for addressing the comment, which was eventually edited out of the show. Leno declined to comment to Variety.
Union was shocked, saying there is "not an edit button in my brain or in my soul," and for the company to not reprimand the star for the joke or issue a statement about acceptable workplace behavior was outrageous. "At the end of all this, my goal is real change — and not just on this show but for the larger parent company. It starts from the top down,” she said. "My goal is to create the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected and healthy example of a workplace."
Adding there are "so many people" working at NBCUniversal and Comcast to make things different, who want to "be a part of the solution and on the right side of history," the actress adds there are people "who want the wheels of change to come to a grinding halt because they feel that their privilege is being challenged."0comments
"If I can’t speak out with the privilege that I have, and the benefits that my husband [Dwyane Wade] and I have, what is the point of making it?" she asked. "What is the point of having a seat at the table and protecting your privilege when you’re not doing s— to help other people? It’s absolutely terrifying to speak truth to power about anything. I’m trying not to be terrified, and some days are better than others."
Fremantle, Syco and NBC said in a joint statement to Variety that they had "immediately engaged" an outside investigator who conducted interviews to review the issues Union brought to their attention. "While the investigation has demonstrated an overall culture of diversity, it has also highlighted some areas in which reporting processes could be improved," they said.