The full story behind Gabrielle Union and Simon Cowell's controversy
Over at NBC’s America’s Got Talent, the backstage intrigue surrounding the show’s high-profile judges has surpassed any on-stage drama producers could manufacture. A week ago, judges Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough were cut from the show after only one season of judging in a high-profile ouster, with a number of disturbing stories surfacing about the toxic culture that led to their departures. With multiple organizations launching formal investigations into misconduct behind the scenes, the truth about the culture at AGT is slowly leaking out.
Here’s what you need to know to get caught up.
Why were Union and Hough fired?
Multiple sources report that Union was perceived as “difficult” by judge Simon Cowell, who wholly owns the show and has been given near-total creative control by NBC. Union tangled with Cowell and AGT’s producers multiple times during her one-season tenure at the show, largely over a string of racist and transphobic incidents.
Early in the production of Season 14, a painting of Cowell and his five dogs was presented to the judges. Comedian Jay Leno, a guest judge, remarked that the painting looked like “something on the menu at a Korean restaurant.” Union felt that the remark played into racist stereotypes about Koreans, especially given that an Asian staff member on set appeared to be upset by the comment. She successfully pushed for the footage not to be aired. Producers were also reportedly “annoyed” by Union’s habit of asking contestants dressed in drag what their preferred pronouns were.
Tensions skyrocketed over an incident involving 10-year-old black rapper Dylan Gilmer. Union was reportedly told by producers that the show “needed to pick an act America can get behind.” Union was reportedly disturbed by the racist implication that Americans couldn’t get behind Gilmer, as well as by comments from fellow judge Howie Mandel in the same meeting. In discussing a South African choir composed of black members, Mandel said, “Maybe they can sing something from The Lion King.” Cowell and Mandel have not offered a comment about the incident.
Union, who is allergic to cigarette smoke, also complained about Cowell smoking inside the theater, which is prohibited by California law. Sources say that Union was told by an NBC executive that no one could stop Cowell from smoking, as fire marshals and NBC executives had tried, to no avail.
Later during her tenure, after Union had reported a number of on-set incidents to NBC executives, Cowell met privately with Union, asking that she come directly to him with concerns rather than report them to the NBC brass. Union reportedly felt frustrated and concerned by the conversation, which she perceived as an attempt by Cowell to cover up major issues.
Union and Hough both were reportedly subjected to extensive notes on their physical appearances. Insiders familiar with the on-set culture allege that Hough received consistent criticism on her hair, makeup, and wardrobe, leading to unhappiness and tension.
Hough, who has two upcoming holiday specials set to air with NBC, released this statement: “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.”
Meanwhile, Union received racist criticism about her hair, with the show complaining six times that her hairstyles were “too black” for AGT’s audience. Now, Union is exploring her legal options against the network, according to sources close to the actress.
What was NBC’s response?
In response to Union’s grievances, NBC Entertainment and Fremantle, the production company behind AGT, commented to Vulture: “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.”
A few days later, NBC and Fremantle issued a second statement to Deadline: “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.”
What happens next?
NBC is launching an investigation into what happened at AGT, beginning with a nearly five-hour fact-finding meeting that brought Union and the network to the table. The network described the meeting as “candid and productive.” NBC will appoint an independent investigator to get to the bottom of the matter; how much of the process Cowell will be involved in remains unclear. The meeting reportedly addressed concerns about Cowell’s behavior.
Union tweeted that she shared her “unfiltered truth” in the meeting with NBC, which included discussions of racism in the show’s programming, as well as against Union herself.
We had a lengthy 5-hour, and what I thought to be, productive meeting yesterday. I was able to, again, express my unfiltered truth. I led with transparency and my desire and hope for real change.— Gabrielle Union (@itsgabrielleu) December 4, 2019
The Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has launched an investigation into what happened behind the scenes at AGT. In a statement provided to CNN, SAG-AFTRA said, "We take issues of workplace health and safety very seriously. We immediately reached out to Ms. Union's representatives when these reports came to light. It is our practice to work closely with members who reach out to us and their representatives in instances like this, as that usually affords the best protection and best resolution for the affected member."
How is Hollywood responding?
A series of high-profile celebrities have thrown their support behind Union, including Patricia Arquette, Ellen Pompeo, Ariana Grande, Kerry Washington, and Union’s husband, Dwayne Wade.
Fellow ex-AGT judges have weighed in on the situation, with Howard Stern saying, “How is it that that freak Simon Cowell has orchestrated this? He has set it up that the men stay,” Stern continues, “no matter how old they are, no matter how fat they are, no matter how ugly they are, no matter talentless they are. But what he manages to do on all his shows is he constantly replaces the hot chicks with hotter chicks and younger chicks. Which is so obvious.”
Ex-AGT judge Sharon Osbourne weighed in, as well, implying that she, too, has bad blood with NBC:
"It's hard, because everybody's experience on a show is different, and I was at that show for six years. I didn't get let go. However, I left. And that's the truth. I left because of NBC, not because of the show… when I was there, everybody was amazing to me, everybody, except the network."