Gabrielle Union Files Discrimination Complaint Against America's Got Talent
When it comes to America’s Got Talent, we’re usually busy chatting about showstopping performances and inspiring artists earning the coveted golden buzzer. But the events after season 14’s conclusion have unearthed a lot of controversy, and it all began with the Nov. 22 announcement that new hosts Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough had been dismissed.
Union and Hough joined the talent competition for season 14 and subsequently became two of the most popular hosts of the season. Initially believed to be an amicable parting, reports soon revealed that alleged behind-the-scenes tension led to their firings. Various sources claimed that Union and Hough complained about AGT‘s “toxic culture,” with Union repeatedly raising concerns on several racially insensitive situations. Couple these allegations with those that Union was given feedback about her hair being “too black” for AGT audiences, and NBC has a serious problem.
There have been plenty of A-list celebrities ready to chime in with their thoughts, as well as responses from both NBC and SAG-AFTRA. Most recently, Union filed a discrimination complaint against NBC and the show’s producers. Keep reading for a detailed timeline on everything that’s happened since Union’s firing was announced.
Nov. 22, 2019: Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough Leave America's Got Talent
On Nov. 22, news broke that Union and Hough were officially not returning for another season of the NBC competition show. Both women joined the judges panel for season 14, which aired over the Summer. Their short stint on the show is the second time a judge has left after one season. Brandy Norwood, an original AGT judge, was replaced by Sharon Osbourne after the series’s debut season.
Nov. 24, 2019: Reports Reveal Union Was Fired For Speaking Out Against "Problematic" Situations
LoveBScott first broke the news that Union’s firing allegedly came as a result of her “speaking up about problematic situations.” Other publications soon followed with reports that both Union and Hough complained of toxic work culture, with Variety highlighting an incident involving a joke by comedian Jay Leno that Union urged producers to bring up to human resources. The issue was never escalated, but the joke was cut from the episode when it aired on Aug. 6.
According to Variety‘s sources, Union and Hough also received “excessive notes” on their physical appearances, with a specific critique on Union’s hairstyles being “too black” for AGT audiences. While one insider said both judges were given feedback about “hair continuity,” four other sources told Variety that Union received notes on her hair over half a dozen times.
Nov. 26, 2019: Hough Denies Reports She Received Criticism on AGT Set
On Nov. 26, Hough broke her silence over her dismissal after reports surfaced that she received so much criticism on her physical appearance – including her hair, makeup, and wardrobe – that it “impacted her morale and led to tensions.”
“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,” she told Variety. “I’m looking forward to what the future holds.”
Hough’s near future includes two upcoming NBC shows she is slated to star in: Holidays With the Houghs, featuring her brother Derek, and Christmas in Rockefeller Center in December.
Nov. 27, 2019: Celebrities Begin Speaking Out on Behalf of Union
Soon after Union’s controversial firing was revealed, celebrities began rallying behind her and slamming NBC. Presidential hopeful Julián Castro praised Union for speaking out, tweeting, “Corporate America tells employees and consumers they take racism and sexism seriously. But often the person reporting the problem is hurt by management. Kudos to @itsgabrielleu for having the courage to speak out. Still waiting for answers from @nbc.”
Grey’s Anatomy‘s Ellen Pompeo echoed Castro’s thoughts in a series of tweets, writing, “I support @itsgabrielleu’s commitment to speaking up to injustice. It takes courage.” The ABC leading lady went on to address the importance of solidarity among women in workplaces, possibly referring to Hough’s denial of issues with NBC. “Workplace cultures will continue to be toxic until there is unity and solidarity among all women. If you go for self in these moments you undermine the work we are out here trying to do,” she wrote.
NBC stars Debra Messing and Jameela Jamil also chimed in online, as well as Ariana Grande and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Union responded in a tweet thanking everyone for their messages. “Just when you feel lost, adrift, alone… you got me up off the ground,” she wrote.
On Dec. 2, Howard Stern weighed in on the controversy, specifically calling out creator and judge Simon Cowell on his treatment of past female judges. “He sets it up that the men stay, no matter how ugly they are, no matter how old they are, no matter how fat they are, no matter how talentless they are,” he said on The Howard Stern Show. Stern served as an AGT judge for four seasons from 2012 through 2015 and added that he believes it’s “obvious” that the series consistently switches out female judges for “hotter chicks and younger chicks.”
Nov. 27, 2019: Dwyane Wade Speaks Out Defending His Wife
In a series of tweets, Wade spoke out defending his wife as her firing hit the internet. Noting that Union has been proven to be the most popular AGT judge (as Variety noted, the show’s social presence has doubled since Union and Hough joined, with half of 25 million social media impressions engaging directly with Union), Wade championed his wife as an advocate for the Black community and culture.
“As proud as I [was] of her being selected as a judge on #AGT – I am even more proud of her standing up for what she stands for and that’s US,” he wrote. “So 🥂 to you @itsgabrielleu on not losing sight of the lessons we’ve talked about teaching our daughter and for kicking ass while you were on that platform.”
Dec. 1, 2019: NBC and AGT Producers Announce They're "Working With" Union
On Dec. 1, after the wave of backlash from celebrities and public figures alike, NBC and AGT producers Fremantle and Syco released a statement regarding Union’s firing and allegations of toxic work culture.
“We remain committed to ensuring a respectful workplace for all employees and take very seriously any questions about workplace culture,” the group said in a joint statement. “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 has yet to comment on the situation, though she did retweet a message by entertainment and culture writer Joelle Monique, outlining the three steps to a “solid apology.”
Dec. 1, 2019: SAG-AFTRA Launches Investigation Into Union's Departure
On Sunday night, a spokesperson for SAG-AFTRA revealed to Variety that the performers’ union had covertly launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Union’s departure from AGT.
“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,” the union said in a statement. “Our enforcement action is usually handled confidentially to protect the member involved, and we typically do not publicize these matters unless the member requests that we do so. While we have taken steps to investigate this matter, we have nothing to report now.”
Dec. 2, 2019: Time's Up Now Petitions NBC to Take Union's Allegations Seriously
On Dec. 2, President and CEO of Time’s Up Now Tina Tchen released a statement saying Union’s experience “is exemplary of the double bind that black women face at work.”
“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,” she added. “The company labeled her as ‘difficult’ before ousting her from the show altogether.”
Dec. 4, 2019: Union Breaks Her Silence on Twitter
The former AGT judge revealed that she had “a lengthy 5-hour, and what I thought to be, productive meeting” with NBC and the show’s producers on Tuesday, Dec. 3. She noted that she was able to “express my unfiltered truth. I led with transparency and my desire and hope for real change.”
“The initial conversation was candid and productive,” NBC said in a statement. “While there will be a further investigation to get a deeper understanding of the facts, we are working with Gabrielle to come to a positive resolution.”
Dec. 4, 2019: NBC Opens Formal Investigation Into AGT and Simon Cowell
Deadline revealed that after its conversation with Union, NBC opened a formal investigation into the reality competition series, with creator and judge Cowell at the center of it all. “The ball is in NBC’s court to see if they can get Cowell to agree to make some changes to the way things are done on the show,” a source told the site.
Dec. 4, 2019: Hough Responds to Union's AGT Exit
After her initial denial of having issues during her AGT run, Hough responded to the controversy while appearing on Today with her brother Derek Hough to promote their NBC holiday special, Holidays With the Houghs.
“When I see [Union’s statement on Twitter], that excites me so much because that is what we need to start conversations and I just commend Gabrielle for speaking her truth and starting a conversation,” she said. “I’m really proud of NBC, as well, for also showing up and starting a narrative and that’s what’s going to change the work place and the paradigm that we’ve been working in for many, many years and it’s shifting and I think that’s really exciting.”
Dec. 12, 2019: Union Won't Tolerate "Anti-Blackness"
Alongside a video montage of her many looks over the years, Union let her fans know on Instagram that she’s going to continue staying true to herself. “Unapologetically me. Be comfortable and confident with your whole ass self. It might give others the fluuuxxx but never stop being you,” she wrote. “You can shine on your own terms. And if you got something to say 🤷🏾♀️ I don’t take notes rooted in anti-blackness. I love me as I am.”
Jan. 15, 2020: Heidi Klum Says She Had an "Amazing Experience" on AGT
During the Television Critics Association, Klum was asked about her thoughts on the controversy surrounding Union’s firing. “I’ve only had an amazing experience,” she said, speaking on Union’s reported claims of a toxic work environment. “I can’t speak for her. I didn’t experience the same thing. To me, everyone treats you with the utmost respect. I’ve never seen anything that was weird or hurtful.”
Klum left AGT along with Spice Girl Mel B when Union and Hough replaced them for season 14. The former model is currently a judge on the spinoff series AGT: Champions.
After her comments received public criticism, the Champions host released a statement to People expanding on her words. “I told the reporter that I had not experienced similar issues while I was a judge on the show – my experience was a positive one. I can only speak of my own truth, and by no means is that meant to negate or question Gabrielle’s truth,” Klum said. “I am aware that my experience may not be the same as Gabrielle’s. What I can tell you is that I am a fierce advocate for all people, no matter their race, age, religion, gender or sexuality. Everyone should be treated equally and with utmost respect.”
The host went on to mention that she herself experienced “very hurtful things” during her marriage to singer Seal, saying, “I want nothing more than for a just world and for people to be kinder to one another.”
Jan. 23, 2020: Terry Crews Speaks Out About AGT Controversy
During an interview on The 3rd Hour of Today the AGT host was asked about his thoughts on the controversy. “First of all, I can’t speak for sexism because I’m not a woman, but I can speak on behalf of any racism comments,” Crews said. “That was never my experience. In fact, it was the most diverse place I have ever been in my 20 years of entertainment.”
He went on to note that the allegations came from an “unnamed source” saying, “It’s funny because I believe you should listen to women, you should always believe women, so I asked my wife what I should do. She was like, ‘First of all, if it’s coming from an unnamed source – because Gabrielle Union has not made any statement to this day about any of these allegations publicly. . . . If she hasn’t made a statement, why would you?'”
Jan. 24, 2020: Union Responds to Crews
Shortly after Crews made his comments, Union spoke out again on Twitter. “Truth telling, wanting change & having MULTIPLE witnesses who bravely came forward to let EVERYONE know I didn’t lie or exaggerate, really exposes those who enthusiastically will throw you under the bus, forgetting quickly who stepped up 4 THEIR truth,” she wrote.
Jan. 31, 2020: Crews Apologizes to Union
In a series of tweets, Crews issued an apology to Union a week after she addressed his initial remarks. “I want to apologize for the comments I made. I realize there are a lot of Black women hurt and let down by what I said and also by what I didn’t say,” he wrote. “I hear you, I respect you and understand you. I am sorry and I am here to support you. I spoke from my own personal point of view without first taking into consideration someone else’s experience.”
He then admitted to reacting poorly to the AGT kerfuffle. “I allowed disrespectful comments directed at me and my family to cause me to react angrily instead of responding thoughtfully,” he wrote. “This certainly caused more harm, and it is my hope that I can amend any pain I have caused to those who were hurt by my words.”
Crews went on to address Union directly. “I want you to know it was never my intention to invalidate your experience – but that is what I did. I apologize,” he tweeted. “You have been through a lot in this business, and with that I empathize with the struggle toward fairness and equality in the workplace. You are a role model to the entire black community and In my desire to be professionally neutral as your co-worker, I should have at the very least understood you just needed my support.”
May 27, 2020: America's Got Talent Announces Results of Investigation
In May, NBC and America’s Got Talent released a joint statement detailing the results of the investigation. “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 statement read. “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. 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.”
June 4, 2020: Union Files a Discrimination Complaint
After America’s Got Talent and NBC shared the results of their investigation, Union filed a harassment, discrimination, and retaliation complaint with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing. In addition, the document also alleges that NBC Entertainment Chairman Paul Telegdy “threatened Union through her agent and warned Union’s agent that Union had better cease from pursuing her claims of racism while filming AGT.”
“When Gabrielle Union informed NBC of radically offensive conduct during the taping of America’s Got Talent, NBC did not ‘stand’ with her in ‘outrage at acts of racism,'” Union’s lawyer Bryan Freedman said in a statement. “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. 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. 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.”