Gabrielle Union Opens Up About AGT Investigation and Simon Cowell's on-Set Smoking
"I decided to participate in this investigation. ... Silly me, I thought independent was independent," Gabrielle Union said
During a recent appearance on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, the L.A.'s Finest star, 47, discussed today's civil rights movement — which began in response to the killing of George Floyd and the many injustices that people of color have faced — as well as her decision to call out racism that she says she's witnessed while working in Hollywood.
"I thought it was the easiest show," Union said of joining AGT as a judge. "How hard is it to ... watch jugglers? That's what I thought I signed up for."
However, Union shared things weren't easy for her from the start — including with series creator and fellow judge Simon Cowell.
"Day one, Simon Cowell is smoking cigarettes inside. I've worked a long time. I've worked with all kinds of people. I've never experienced that," Union, who is severely allergic to cigarette smoke, alleged to Noah.
"When your boss — the person who has the ability to determine who gets opportunities and who doesn't — doesn't believe that the law applies to him or the rules apply to him, and he does it in full view of NBC, Fremantle and Syco and no one cares about Simon Cowell exposing all of these employees to second hand smoke, that's day one," she claimed. (Cowell has been open about his smoking habit, most recently telling host Ellen DeGeneres in September that while he opted for a strict vegan diet, he hasn’t stopped drinking or nicotine. But he does not appear to have addressed the allegation that he has smoked indoors, in violation of California law.)
"What message do you think that sends to anyone that has an issue with the very real racism and the lack of accountability? And it goes on and on and on," Union continued.
PEOPLE is out to Cowell's rep for comment. Cowell previously 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 then talked to Noah about the investigation into the NBC competition series that was commissioned by the network, and which she said she thought was going to be "independent."
"I decided to participate in this investigation. ... Silly me, I thought 'independent' was independent. But when NBC and [producers] Fremantle and Syco pay for that investigation, they control it," Union charged.
"They turn over what they believe to be inflammatory things, or things that are not advantageous to me," Union alleged.
Union then said that things got so bad that NBC chairman Paul Telegdy threatened her agent. Union had previously accused Telegdy of trying to silence her in her complaint against the media conglomerate filed on June 4.
" 'Gabrielle better watch who she calls a racist,' " Union alleged Telegdy told her team.
"In the middle of an investigation about racism and discrimination? This is what's happening from the top of the company," Union continued.
PEOPLE is out to AGT reps for comment about Telegdy.
As for how Hollywood can better help black people? "There has to be an increase in representation across the board from the top to the bottom," Union told Noah/
"We have to be able to be okay with change that doesn't always benefit us," Union continued. "Some people believe that ... the only way to lead is to center yourself in every argument. But what I'm learning throughout this whole process is, sometimes the best way to lead is to get out of the way and make room for someone else. We have to dismantle the whole thing. We can't put a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound."
Union filed the complaint — through attorney Bryan Freedman — against the media conglomerate, Cowell, Fremantle and Syco earlier this month.
In a statement to PEOPLE, Union's lawyer Freedman said: "Gabrielle Union informed NBC of racially offensive conduct during the taping of America’s Got Talent, NBC did not 'stand' with her in 'outrage at acts of racism.' Instead, NBC did not care enough to either promptly investigate Ms. Union’s complaints or even ask HR to get involved."
"Rather, NBC stood against her and directed its 'outrage' at Ms. Union for whistleblowing about the racially offensive conduct she experienced while working for NBC on America’s Got Talent," he said.
He then referred to NBC's recent support of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed.
"In sharp contrast to NBC’s recent statement on race, what was truly an 'outrage' was the fact that Paul Telegdy, Chairman of NBC Entertainment, actually threatened Ms. Union in an attempt to silence her from telling the truth about racist actions that took place on the show," Freedman alleged. "There is no place for this type of racial bullying in the workplace, and it is going to take more than a Tweet from NBC to demonstrate that NBC intends to create an environment free from racism."
In a statement to PEOPLE, NBC responded to Union's complaint. "The allegation that anyone involved in this process threatened Ms. Union is categorically untrue," the network said. "We took Ms. Union's concerns seriously, and engaged an outside investigator who found an overarching culture of diversity on the show. NBCUniversal remains committed to creating an inclusive and supportive working environment where people of all backgrounds are treated with respect."
In the complaint obtained by PEOPLE, Union alleged she was terminated from the show after just one season due to "her refusal to remain silent in the face of a toxic culture at AGT that included racist jokes, racist performances, sexual orientation discrimination, and excessive focus on female judges' appearances, including race-related comments."
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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.")
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 previous statement to PEOPLE, 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."
"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," the statement continued.
"NBC, Fremantle and Syco share Ms. Union's dedication to diversity and inclusion in the industry," said the statement. "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."