Last year, it was reported that Union was dismissed from the show after raising concerns about a toxic work environment.

By Kimberly Truong
Updated May 27, 2020 @ 11:15 am
Advertisement

Gabrielle Union spoke at length about her exit from America's Got Talent for the first time.

Last year, it was reported that Union brought up concerns of a toxic workplace environment after she was cast as a judge on the show, and was subsequently dismissed. In a new interview with Variety, the actress said discussed the offensive behavior she witnessed behind the scenes, including an incident in which guest judge Jay Leno made an inappropriate joke perpetuating stereotypes about Asian people eating dog meat.

Union said she was "not prepared for his joke" — "I gasped. I froze. Other things had already happened, but at this point, it was so wildly racist." After she brought up the incident to production, she said, the response was: "We’ll delete it. We’ll edit it out."

"You cannot edit out what we just experienced," she said. "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?"

Union also discussed the reported incidents in which lead judge Simon Cowell would smoke during tapings, violating public health laws and making Union — who has a smoke allergy — ill.

“I couldn’t escape. I ended up staying sick for two months straight," she said. "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. It was challenging to tend to my illness without being made to feel like I’m responsible for my own sickness. It put me in a position from day one where I felt othered. I felt isolated. I felt singled out as being difficult, when I’m asking for basic laws to be followed. I want to come to work and be healthy and safe and listened to."

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Cowell's spokesperson told Variety 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." A source familiar with the investigation told the outlet that the matter was addressed, but the investigation hasn’t concluded that Cowell’s indoor smoking has stopped.

While Union did not address the report that she was told her rotating hairstyles were “too black” for audiences due to an ongoing investigation, she did say she thought the show did not provide all contestants with equal attention in the hair and makeup chair, which could lead to problems for minority contestants.

"Some contestants get the full Hollywood treatment, and then some are left to dangle," she said. "When they hit that stage for the opportunity of a lifetime, they want to put their best foot forward and have all of the confidence that everyone else has. When you are making the conscious decisions in hiring, and failing to recognize that you have whole departments that lack the necessary skill set to provide adequate services to all of that diversity that you are touting, you are creating an unequal and discriminatory experience."

While Union previously seemed to have addressed the support she received after news broke she had spoken out against the toxic environment, this is the first time she has given details about the incidents publicly.

“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 s— to help other people?" she told Variety. "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."

She added, "I know it’s scary to stick your neck out, and get an ounce of power and have to share it. It’s not what we’re taught, but you don’t have to sacrifice your soul to do it. There’s another way, and I’m committed to finding it."