Gabrielle Union Complained About Racism at AGT Before Being Fired Alongside Julianne Hough: Reports
News broke on Friday that the two stars — who joined the season 14 AGT judging panel back in February, replacing spots vacated by Mel B and Heidi Klum — would not be returning for the show’s upcoming 15th season.
On Tuesday, a new report by Variety offered some insight into the decision. It claims that while working on the show, Union, 47, had expressed concerns over racially insensitive situations during her time as a judge, including a joke guest judge Jay Leno made that was later edited out of the episode.
She and Hough, 31, were also both subject to “excessive notes” on their physical appearance, Variety alleges.
A spokesperson for NBC and production company Fremantle responded to such claims with a statement to PEOPLE, saying: “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.”
Representatives for Hough, Union, Leno, and Simon Cowell‘s Syco Entertainment did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.
Blog Love B Scott was first to report about complaints Union had allegedly made prior to her departure, an NBC source saying that she had spoken out about “problematic” situations on set.
According to Variety, during a taping of AGT over the summer, guest judge Leno allegedly made a joke about a painting on the wall that featured Cowell — who serves as a judge and executive producer — surrounded by his dogs.
Sources on the series told the outlet that Leno allegedly joked the dogs looked like something one would find “on the menu at a Korean restaurant,” alluding to the stereotype that all Asian people eat dog meat.
Multiple people who were on set during the joke, Variety reports, including one Asian staffer, were offended and made uncomfortable by it.
Union also soon learned of the joke and allegedly urged producers to report the joke to NBC’s human resources department in an effort to bring awareness to the problematic issue, three sources told Variety. Despite her push, several insiders told the outlet that it was never addressed by HR. It was eventually cut by producers from the Aug. 6 episode.
In another instance, sources told Variety that Union found herself again speaking up against racial insensitivity when a white male contestant auditioned with an act where he portrayed people of color and impersonated singers through multiple quick costume changes.
During his performance, the man impersonated Beyoncé and according to Variety‘s sources, emerged with black hands. The audition didn’t sit well with Union and she allegedly addressed the matter with a segment producer and an executive producer, explaining that the audience should not have to watch something so “racially insensitive.”
After the actress requested that they remove the audition from the show, the producers allegedly told her, “We’ll take it out later.”
Like Leno’s dog joke, the contestant’s audition was also reportedly cut from the show.
Variety‘s report went on to claim that Union and Hough often received “excessive notes” on their appearance — noting that Union was allegedly told that her ever-changing hairstyles were “too black” for AGT‘s audience, while Hough received constant criticism on her hair, makeup, and wardrobe.
In Hough’s case, the critique reportedly began to negatively impact the star’s morale and eventually led to tensions on the show. However, in a statement to Variety, the dancer/actress denied that she had a negative experience working on the show.
“I had a wonderful time on America’s Got Talent, I loved working with the cast, crew, and producers. I am happy to continue my working relationship with NBC,” said Hough, who is set to star in two upcoming NBC Christmas specials. “I’m looking forward to what the future holds.”
When it came to Union’s critique, four sources told Variety that the actress allegedly received the note “over half a dozen times.” But one NBC insider denied the frequency of that feedback and claimed that it was given to both judges due to their hair continuity throughout the episodes.
It has yet to be announced who will replace Hough and Union for the upcoming season.
Judges Cowell and Howie Mandel are expected to be back for the next season. Host Terry Crews — who also joined the show during season 14, taking over hosting duties from Tyra Banks — is also expected to return.
This isn’t the first time that NBC executives have been involved with apparent tensions regarding their on-air talent. In 2017, Nick Cannon announced that he would not be returning to host the NBC talent competition series prior to season 12 after “executives” allegedly threatened to fire him because of a racial joke in his Showtime comedy special.
“There is no amount of money worth my dignity or my integrity,” he wrote at the time. “My soul won’t allow me to be in business with corporations that attempt to frown on freedom of speech, censor artists, and question cultural choices.”