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Gabrielle Union was fired from America’s Got Talent. What we’ve learned since then about AGT’s “toxic culture”

Gabrielle Union was fired from America’s Got Talent. What we’ve learned since then about AGT’s “toxic culture”
Gabrielle Union during the America's Got Talent season 14 semifinals 2 episode (Photo by Trae Patton/NBC)

For season 14, America’s Got Talent replaced Heidi Klum and Mel B on its judging panel with Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough, and now has dropped both of its new judges—the shortest tenure in the history of any judge except for season one’s Brandy Norwood.

Since then, several news stories have detailed a “toxic culture” at America’s Got Talent that Gabrielle Union challenged, with members of the production labeling her as “difficult.” As the CEO of the Times Up organization, Tina Tchen, said in a statement, “Union’s story is deeply troubling on its own, but her experience is particularly problematic because it follows a pattern of NBCUniversal protecting the careers of powerful men at the expense of women who speak out.”

This began with a story in Variety the Friday before Thanksgiving that said Union and Hough were simply “vacating their chairs,” which sounds pleasant and amiable.

New judges for next summer’s America’s Got Talent season 15 have not yet been announced, though Heidi Klum returned to judge America’s Got Talent: The Champions season two, which premieres in January, alongside new judge Alesha Dixon.

Soon after news of Union and Hough’s exit, B. Scott reported that “her firing came as a result of her speaking up about ‘problematic’ situations,” and quoted anonymous “NBC sources” who said “Let’s just say they didn’t start the racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia etc. in season 14.”

A few days later, on Nov. 26, Variety reported a story that directly contradicted its own “vacating their chairs” story, at least for Union.

Hough—who has two NBC specials coming up—said she “had a wonderful time on ‘America’s Got Talent” and is “happy to continue my working relationship with NBC.”

Variety detailed “what insiders called a toxic culture at the show,” including:

  • Union and Hough being given “excessive notes on their physical appearance,” with Hough having “received consistent criticism on hair, makeup and wardrobe, which impacted her morale and led to tensions.” (Hough, who has two NBC specials coming up, denied that.)
  • Union being told “that her rotating hair styles were ‘too black’ for the audience of ‘AGT,’ a note she received over half a dozen times, according to four sources with direct knowledge of the exchanges who spoke on the condition of anonymity,” Variety says, though one of its sources “disputed the volume of notes, saying there was only feedback about hair continuity for both judges”
  • “Union and other staffers expressed concerns over a white male performer crossing a line in portraying people of color,” a performance that eventually never aired
  • A racist joke by Jay Leno that Union “urged producers to report … to human resources at NBC” because “production needed to understand why the joke might offend the staff and audience.” And Variety reports that, while “reporting to human resources was specifically raised with an NBC executive on set, but several insiders said it was never escalated to that department.”

NBC and the show’s production company, Fremantle, declined to comment on the specifics but essentially denied all of this by talking about how awesome they are:

“‘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.”

The next day, Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, Vulture reported on more problems inside America’s Got Talent that Gabrielle Union tried to address:

  • “perceived racist incidents”
  • “Cowell’s habit of smoking indoors”
  • “attempts to keep the show from misgendering contestants”

Vulture also reported that when Union talked with NBC executives on set, nothing ever happened. Instead, “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.”

She also was labeled “difficult” “because she asked contestants dressed in drag what their preferred pronouns were, a move that seemed to annoy producers.”

Simon Cowell asked Gabrielle Union to stop talking to NBC

America's Got Talent season 14 judges and host
America’s Got Talent season 14 judges Howie Mandel, Gabrielle Union, Simon Cowell, and Julianne Hough, with new host Terry Crews. (Photo composite via NBC)

Executive producer Simon Cowell met with Gabrielle Union to tell her to stop talking to the network: “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,” Vulture reported.

Union was fired the Friday before Thanksgiving. Vulture says “multiple sources allege was because she was perceived as ‘difficult’ by Cowell and his team of producers.”

On Dec. 1, NBC, Fremantle, and Simon Cowell’s production company released a new, less-dismissive 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.”

Monday, the union SAG-AFTRA said it is now investigating what happened:

“We take issues of workplace health and safety very seriously. We immediately reached out to Ms. Union’s representatives when these reports came to light. It is our practice to work closely with members who reach out to us and their representatives in instances like this, as that usually affords the best protection and best resolution for the affected member.

For certain matters, our investigation and enforcement needs to happen independently and we are prepared to handle this issue accordingly, as warranted. Our enforcement action is usually handled confidentially to protect the member involved, and we typically do not publicize these matters unless the member requests that we do so.

While we have taken steps to investigate this matter, we have nothing to report now.”

For her part, Gabrielle Union hasn’t directly or publicly commented, though she did tweet 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 ❤”

Dwyane Wade, Gabrielle Union’s husband, wrote this series of tweets:

(1) “Men lie, Women lie, numbers don’t” Over this past year I’ve been approached by many people saying that my wife @itsgabrielleu is the main reason they’ve started watching #AGT or that they love her insight and sincerity on the show.

(2) So when i got the news that my wife was being fired—my first question was obviously why!? Iam still waiting on a good answer to that question. But if anyone knows @itsgabrielleu or have heard of her you know she’s an advocate for our community and culture.

(3) 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.

(4) So ? to you @itsgabrielleu on not losing sight of the lessons we’ve talked about teaching our daughter and for kicking ass while you were on that platform. Number 1 judge on one of the biggest shows in the world‼️

Union has received support from other celebrities on social media, and is reportedly meeting with NBC this week.

Deadline quoted a source at NBC who said that, at the network, “Nobody asked too many questions about AGT, because everything seemed fine and the numbers were so good year after year.”

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  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.


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