Gabrielle Union's 'America's Got Talent' Exit Prompts Outcry and Culture Concerns

SAG-AFTRA has launched an investigation into Union's departure from the NBC competition series.
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Gabrielle Union

Gabrielle Union’s one-and-done tenure at America’s Got Talent is not ending quietly.

After NBC confirmed that the actress would not be back to judge the reality competition, joining fellow newcomer Julianne Hough in getting benched, a report of “toxic culture” and public outcry from Union’s husband Dwyane Wade over her dismissal have prompted renewed speculation over the show’s treatment of people of color and some calls for a boycott on Twitter.

The bulk of the accusations, laid out in a Nov. 26 Variety piece, focus on an egregious joke made by show guest Jay Leno — one in which he commented that a painting of dogs with creator Simon Cowell looked like it belonged “on the menu at a Korean restaurant” — that was cut from the show and, far worse, claims that Union was told on several occasions that her rotating hairstyles were “too black.”

A source close to the show confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that the Leno joke happened, and was never considered fit to air, but could not corroborate the claims involving Union’s hair.

No parties involved with the show have addressed either issue directly, though NBC and series producers Fremantle issued the following statement: "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 lineup 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."

Producers Fremantle and Syco also confirmed that they would be working with Union's representatives on the matter in a statement sent Sunday to THR: "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."

After days of backlash, including Time's Up and other Hollywood actresses throwing their support behind Union, SAG-AFTRA confirmed on Sunday that the union has launched an investigation into the star's departure from the series.

"We take issues of workplace health and safety very seriously," a spokesperson said in a statement to THR. "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."

The statement continues, "For certain matters, our investigation and enforcement needs to happen independently and we are prepared to handle this issue accordingly, as warranted. 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."

Union has not issued any statement on the matter, but did give a subtle response Sunday in a retweet of journalist Joelle Monique's outlining of what is needed for a "solid apology," including to "sincerely admit wrong doing directly to the offended party; "be twice as loud correcting your mistake as you were making the mistake;" and to "lay out steps to correct your behavior in the future." "This! This! AND THIIISSSSSSS!!!!!!," the actress tweeted.

Union's husband and retired NBA shooting guard Wade made it clear that her parting was not amicable in a series of Wednesday tweets about his wife. “When i got the news that my wife was being fired — my first question was obviously why!? I am still waiting on a good answer to that question,” he wrote in one post, before continuing: “As proud as I [was] of her being selected as a judge on #AGT — I am even more proud of her [for] standing up for what she stands for and that’s US.”

Wade’s comments prompted a surge in dialogue about Union’s exit on Twitter and the hashtag #BoycottAGT.

Making matters worse, this is not the first time America’s Got Talent has seen talent depart amid accusations of racial insensitivity. Former host Nick Cannon, who was on the show during seven of its most successful years, quit in a long Facebook post saying that he had been “punished for a joke” by NBC — referencing a Showtime stand-up special in which he said his role on America's Got Talent kept him from using the N-word in his material. Cannon was replaced by Tyra Banks — who was in turn succeeded by Terry Crews.

The fact that both Union and Hough only lasted a season on America’s Got Talent is atypical. The show, which has a 15th season on deck and the recent spinoff Champions, has historically seen talent stick around for long tenures. Past judges include Melanie Brown, Howard Stern and Sharon Osbourne, while the remaining current lineup consists of Cowell and Howie Mandel. Sources close to the series say America’s Got Talent, now essentially airing two seasons a year, is targeting a judging format more akin to The Voice — one where talent cycles in and out. But on The Voice, it has been rare for any talent to just come in for one season. And, for that matter, no departed panelist has ever publicly described an exit as being “fired.”

America’s Got Talent’s next season, the winter cycle of Champions, features Cowell, Mandell, Heidi Klum and singer Alesha Dixon. Crews will also return as host.

Reps for Union did not immediately respond to comment.

Dec. 1, 11:09 a.m. Updated with statement from Fremantle and Syco. 
Dec. 1, 12:48 p.m. Updated with Union's retweet.
Dec. 2, 6:40 a.m. Updated with SAG-AFTRA's statement.