Gabrielle Union was allegedly fired from her position as a judge on America’s Got Talent because she questioned the toxic culture of the show.
Union’s first year at AGT became her last after she continued to speak up in “problematic” situations, as first reported by B. Scott, and since corroborated by Vulture, Variety, and other outlets. Her outspokenness continually drew her into conflict with the show’s executive producer, Simon Cowell. The two judges butted heads over a racist joke by Jay Leno, Cowell’s indoor smoking, the misgendering of contestants, and how to respond to racially insensitive performances. Additionally, producers allegedly critiqued Union’s appearance and wondered whether her hairstyle was “too black.”
Union is allergic to cigarette smoke, and Cowell’s incessant — and illegal — indoor smoking caused tension almost immediately. Things escalated early in production for season 14, when Jay Leno was a guest judge, and he joked that a painting of Cowell with his five dogs “looked like something on the menu at a Korean restaurant.” Union pushed for the segment to be cut, which led to her being labelled as “difficult.”
Union also annoyed producers when she asked performers in drag about their preferred pronouns, to keep them from being misgendered on the show. In another instance, a contestant from Italy cycling through musical impressions put on black gloves to imitate Beyoncé, which Union referred to as “blackface hands.” She voted to eliminate the contestant and the clip was never aired.
But according to Vulture, Union and the producers reached a breaking point over the handling of Dylan Gilmer, a 10-year-old black rapper. Despite an enthusiastic audience response, the show’s producers pushed to move away from Gilmer, saying the show needed acts “that America can get behind.” Instead, the producers favored an all-white dance troupe, despite a more tepid reception by the studio audience. Gilmer was ultimately cut by the show.
With the departure of Gabrielle Union and fellow season 14 judge Julianne Hough, America’s Got Talent has seen a tremendous amount of turnover the last few years, especially among women and people of color. Longtime hosts Mel B and Heidi Klum left after season 13, host Tyra Banks lasted just two seasons, and before that host Nick Cannon quit after NBC executives threatened retaliation for a racially charged stand-up special. At the time, Cannon said, “My soul won’t allow me to be in business with corporations that attempt to frown on freedom of speech, censor artists, and question cultural choices.”
The two white male judges, Simon Cowell and Howie Mandell, are now the only on-screen personalities who’ve been with the show longer than one season.
When NBC first made the decision not to retain Gabrielle Union, they initially described the parting as amicable. Union’s three-year contract was structured as a one-year deal with an additional two-year option, and NBC suggested that Union had herself made the decision to walk away. Sources close to Union have consistently rejected that characterization, including her husband Dwayne Wade, who vented about her firing on Twitter.
In a statement, NBC Entertainment pushed back at the notion that their decision was racially motivated.
“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.”
Gabrielle Union is allegedly exploring legal options against NBC. In the meantime, she has prominent role in the upcoming blockbuster Bad Boys for Life, as well as starring in a Bad Boys spin-off for Charter Communications called L.A.’s Finest.
So when i got the news that my wife was being fired—my first question was obviously why!? Iam still waiting on a good answer to that question. But if anyone knows @itsgabrielleu or have heard of her you know she’s an advocate for our community and culture.
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) November 27, 2019
As proud as i were of her being selected as a judge on #AGT— Iam even more proud of her standing up for what she stands for and that’s US.
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) November 27, 2019