The ouster of Gabrielle Union as a judge on “America’s Got Talent” unleashed a storm of criticism in recent days after reports that before she was let go she had experienced racially insensitive behavior on set.
Now, the biggest actors’ union is investigating the show, helmed by Simon Cowell, and the leader of the anti-harassment group Time’s Up is taking aim at the network, NBC, for “protecting the careers of powerful men at the expense of women who speak out.”
“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,” Tina Tchen, the chief executive of Time’s Up, said in a statement Monday.
On Nov. 22, the news broke that Union and Julianne Hough, who had joined Cowell, Howie Mandel and Terry Crews as hosts for the 14th season of “America’s Got Talent” this year, would not be returning. In the days that followed, Variety reported that Union had been let go after tense incidents that included her being repeatedly told that her hairstyles were “too black,” and her urging producers to report to human resources a joke Jay Leno made during a guest appearance in which he alluded to Koreans’ eating dog meat. (The joke was edited out before broadcast.)
According to Vulture, Union was also frustrated that producers had discouraged judges from supporting a 10-year-old black rapper (Vulture reported that she was told they needed an act “that America can get behind”) and that Union was further deemed problematic to work with after she complained about Cowell’s smoking indoors and asked several performers what their preferred pronouns were.
Representatives for Union and Leno did not return requests for comment. Union, 47, a Hollywood star known for roles in movies including “Bring It On” and “10 Things I Hate About You” and the BET drama series “Being Mary Jane,” has not spoken publicly about her complaints. But she took to Twitter over the holiday weekend to thank supporters, and on Sunday she retweeted a message about how to apologize.
Among her public supporters were Kerry Washington, Ariana Grande, Ellen Pompeo, Sophia Bush and Union’s husband, the retired basketball star Dwyane Wade, who tweeted “ I am even more proud of her standing up for what she stands for and that’s US.”
On his SiriusXM radio show on Monday, Howard Stern, a former “America’s Got Talent” judge himself, called Cowell’s show “the ultimate example of a boys’ club.”
In a joint statement, NBC, Syco, which is Cowell’s company, and the company Fremantle, which also produces the show, said they had reached out to Union to hear more about her concerns and would take appropriate next steps.
“We remain committed to ensuring a respectful workplace for all employees and take very seriously any questions about workplace culture,” the statement read. A spokesperson said the companies had retained outside counsel and expected to speak with Union and her representatives this week.
A longtime music executive unafraid of sharing lacerating opinions onscreen, Cowell became a reality-talent-show powerhouse following his turn as a judge on the first season of “American Idol” in 2002, and went on to produce the “X Factor” and “Got Talent” franchises. “America’s Got Talent” is now holding auditions for its 15th season.
NBC came under renewed scrutiny in recent months after the journalist Ronan Farrow reported in his book “Catch and Kill” that the network shut down his investigation of Harvey Weinstein. Farrow went on to publish his findings in The New Yorker, winning a Pulitzer for public service that he shared with The New York Times. NBC has said that Farrow distorted how the network handled his reporting.
The book also included an account of a woman who said she had been raped by Matt Lauer, who was fired from the network for sexual harassment in 2017; Lauer denied the accusation.
SAG-AFTRA, the union representing over 100,000 actors, journalists and other performers, said in a statement that it had taken steps to investigate Union’s departure from “America’s Got Talent” but so far had nothing to report.