Gabrielle Union Breaks Her Silence on AGT's 'Toxic Work Environment': 'I Felt Isolated'
The actress says she "ended up staying sick for two months straight" due to Simon Cowell's on-set smoking
Days later, a report by Variety claimed that Union had expressed concerns over alleged racial insensitivity on set, and that both women said they were subjected to "excessive notes" on their physical appearance. (In a statement at the time, Hough denied that she had a negative experience on the show and said she was "happy to continue my working relationship with NBC.")
Now, Union fronts the latest cover of Variety, breaking her silence for the first time about her one season on the NBC competition show.
"I signed up for the experience of being a part of a show that hails itself as the biggest stage in the world. Super diverse, and one about giving people an opportunity to shine where they otherwise probably wouldn't," she said. "What could go wrong?"
According to Union, things went wrong almost immediately, when the newly minted judge witnessed series creator and star Simon Cowell smoking on a closed soundstage during her first day on set. The actress, who is severely allergic to cigarette smoke, according to Variety, said the decision to complain was a difficult choice for someone being "literally met with the very definition of a toxic work environment ... carried out by the most powerful person on the production."
"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," she continued. "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."
"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 admitted. "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."
She said she addressed the issue with producers, who said complaints had been made in the past to essentially no avail.
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."
Union also addressed an incident with guest judge Jay Leno, who allegedly made a crack about a painting of Cowell and his dogs, saying the animals looked like food items at a Korean restaurant. (Leno declined to comment to Variety.)
"My first big interview in this industry, the first person who allowed me to come on their talk show, was Jay Leno. I've always held him in high regard, but I was not prepared for his joke," Union said. "I gasped. I froze. Other things had already happened, but at this point, it was so wildly racist."
Another incident involved a white male contestant who put on black gloves to represent a black performer. Union said she was concerned that any expression of blackface was not immediately shut down. According to the actress, the act was initially flagged as problematic, but the contestant was cleared to proceed and audition before the judges and audience.
"I'm a part of a show that hired one of my co-workers who had an unfortunate incident doing blackface," she said, referring Hough being photographed at a 2013 Halloween party with darkened skin for her costume as Orange Is the New Black's Uzo Aduba. Hough apologized after the backlash, tweeting, "It certainly was never my intention to be disrespectful or demeaning to anyone in any way. I realize my costume hurt and offended people and I truly apologize."
"I'd like to trust her at her word that she learned her lesson, and has educated herself amid the consequences she faced and is hopefully a better person," Union continued. "But you would think that perhaps the show and NBC might be more conscientious in exposing that, and it would be taken seriously. I took it seriously." (Hough did not respond to Variety's request for comment.)
Union and Hough's exits from the show last year launched an internal investigation of NBC and production companies Fremantle and Syco Entertainment. In a statement to PEOPLE on Wednesday, Fremantle, Syco and NBC said:
"We have a shared passion to make America's Got Talent a positive, inclusive and diverse show that is open to all individuals from any country or background. We are proud and grateful that our contestants and audiences support our ongoing mission, which is represented in the incredible people who participate in the show each year. We have heard from contestants and talent alike that their experience on AGT has had a positive impact on their lives. When we heard Ms. Union had concerns about her time on the show, we took them extremely seriously."
"NBC, Fremantle and Syco immediately engaged an outside investigator who conducted more than 30 interviews to review the issues raised by Ms. Union. While the investigation has demonstrated an overall culture of diversity, it has also highlighted some areas in which reporting processes could be improved."
Sources have told Variety that Union's rotating hairstyles were labeled by production as "too black" for mass audiences. Union would not address that specific charge in the new interview, but in Wednesday's statement, Fremantle, Syco and NBC denied the allegation:
"Through the investigation process, it has been revealed that no one associated with the show made any insensitive or derogatory remarks about Ms. Union's appearance, and that neither race nor gender was a contributing factor in the advancement or elimination of contestants at any time. The investigation has shown that the concerns raised by Ms. Union had no bearing on the decision not to exercise the option on her contract."
"NBC, Fremantle and Syco share Ms. Union's dedication to diversity and inclusion in the industry. We continue to remain committed to having an inclusive environment for everyone associated with the show, and to upholding AGT as one of the most diverse programs on television."
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Ultimately, Union said she feels compelled to speak out about her turbulent experience with the show.
"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?" she told Variety. "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."
"I know it's scary to stick your neck out, and get an ounce of power and have to share it," she added. "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."