For 14 seasons, students, families, and fans could be found plopped down on their living room couches during the workweek watching NBC’s hit show, America’s Got Talent (AGT). However, the world seemed to be both shocked and suspicious when newly added judge, Gabrielle Union, was released from her contract for the upcoming season. Despite her departure, Union has remained vocal about issues regarding the work culture of the show.
According to Variety, Union’s contract was not renewed after she raised complaints regarding a string of reported toxic and racially charged incidents during production. One of the most notable incidents occurred when comedian and former late-night talk show host Jay Leno allegedly made a racially insensitive joke about Korean restaurants while taping AGT. Union allegedly expressed her concerns with the joke to producers and requested that it be reported to human resources.
Union and her fellow co-star Julianne Hough also both reportedly received excessive critiques on their appearance---reporting that Union’s routinely-changing hairstyles were allegedly “too black” for the show’s audience.
Vulture also reported Union expressed frustration when producers discouraged the AGT judges panel from supporting a 10-year-old black rapper. Producers allegedly told Union the show needed an act “that America could get behind.”
Another report by Vulture stated there was alleged tension i between Union and Simon Cowell, an executive producer and judge on the show, over the fact that Cowell was smoking on set, which is prohibited in California.
News of Union’s experience has garnered unwavering support from social media and Hollywood. Celebrities like Eva Longoria, Ariana Grande and Ellen Pompeo have petitioned that NBC be called out for its reported actions on Twitter.
In a sequence of tweets, Pompeo stated:
Time’s Up, an advocacy organization, has joined in solidarity with Union in an effort to hold NBC accountable for the reported events. The group previously called for NBC to amend its work culture after sexual harassment allegations came out against former anchor Matt Lauer.
In a statement, Tina Tchen, chief executive of the organization, said the following:
“Not only did Union reportedly endure and witness racist and inappropriate behavior — including racially insensitive comments and excessive criticism about her physical appearance — but it also appears she was punished for speaking out: The company labeled her as ‘difficult’ before ousting her from the show altogether.”
NBC, Fremantle and Syco Entertainment later released a follow-up statement to directly address the momentum surrounding Union’s reports:
"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."
Union’s vocality about her experiences with AGT has been used as a platform to discuss the topics of diversity and inclusion in the media landscape. Sarah Springer, an adjunct professor at USC, expressed that this is not an isolated incident.
“[T]hese are things that you will face...if you are a woman especially if you’re black ... Latinx … if you are underrepresented in these spaces there will be moments where you will see or you will experience these types of things because we still have a ways to go.”
Springer said Union’s termination was a consequence of speaking out, and consequences like that are what many working professionals suffer quietly.
“There are a lot of people who are speaking up but they don’t have the clout or celebrity that Gabrielle Union has...there’s a lot of people struggling in the media space especially when bringing up issues of discrimination...the problem is the repercussions.”
Ellice Ellis, a senior at USC and president of the university’s chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, discussed the importance of communities coming together in cases like Union.
“It really is important when a person of color, a queer person, a minority or underrepresented person speak up about injustices about them or another group it is of the utmost importance to have white people to say hey this is wrong let’s not sweep this infer the rug,” said Ellis.
She continued, “Representation matters … I think it’s important to have people stand in their identity, in Gabrielle’s case stand in their blackness, like ‘No I’m going to wear my hair how I wear it. I’m going to switch it up. I’m going to speak up.’”
Asa Dugger, a marketing and development team member for AwesomenessTV and former NBC intern, expressed that the incidents concerning Union give NBC an opportunity of correcting a pattern of issues.
“Gabrielle Union did a great thing because NBC has a work culture that they need to work on,” Dugger said. “They say that they’re big on diversity but when it comes to actual inclusion it’s not,” she continued.
Dugger concluded, “It’s time for people of color to get a seat at the table and also have space to speak.”
As Union and her supporters continue to use their voice, the spotlight now lies on NBC. The actors’ union SAG-AFTRA announced plans to launch an investigation concerning the work environment of AGT. On Wednesday, Union shared on Twitter that she was able to have a “productive” meeting with NBC where she was able to express her “unfiltered truth.”