Did NBC fire Gabrielle Union from AGT because she spoke up about racism? (update)

"America's Got Talent" Season 14 Finale Red Carpet

This week, we heard that Julianne Hough and Gabrielle Union would not return to NBC’s hit reality competition show, America’s Got Talent. They were judges on the show (which I do not watch) and Gabrielle in particular was quite popular. It felt like it was a bad look for NBC to fire the two women, especially when the men – Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel and Terry Crews – would all be returning. It gets even worse though – in Gabrielle’s case, she had a specific history of speaking out to producers about racial insensitivities, if not outright racism. It’s looking like Gabrielle was fired because she repeatedly asked for people in authority to help her create a culture of inclusivity and more. Yikes. Variety did a lengthy piece on what went down behind the scenes. There were several incidents:

Jay Leno’s “joke” about Korean people: In April of this year, former late night host Jay Leno visited NBCUniversal in Los Angeles to appear as a guest judge on the network’s unscripted program “America’s Got Talent.” While taping, Leno made a crack about a painting on display in a hallway of Simon Cowell, the show’s executive producer and judge, surrounded by his dogs. Leno joked that the pets looked like something one would find “on the menu at a Korean restaurant,” four people present for the taping told Variety. Individuals at the long-running program found the joke to be offensive — especially for what one insider described as “the very few Asian staffers” employed by the show, one of whom was present when Leno spoke the line directly to camera. Union, a new hire for the 14th season of “America’s Got Talent,” urged producers to report the joke to human resources at NBC, multiple insiders familiar with the show said. Her argument was that production needed to understand why the joke might offend the staff and audience of “AGT,” according to three people who overheard conversations with Union and producers. The issue of reporting to human resources was specifically raised with an NBC executive on set, but several insiders said it was never escalated to that department.

The toxic culture at NBC: The line was cut from the episode when it eventually aired on August 6. However, the Leno incident is one of several examples of what insiders called a toxic culture at the show. The season concluded with NBC deciding not to renew the contracts of Union and Hough, sources said, both of whom could have been renewed for another season under their contractual options.

The women got all the “notes”: Union and Hough were also said by sources to have received excessive notes on their physical appearance. Two insiders familiar with the set said Hough had received consistent criticism on hair, makeup and wardrobe, which impacted her morale and led to tensions. Hough denied this in a statement to Variety as not accurate to her experience. Union was subjected to a very specific critique — that her rotating hair styles were “too black” for the audience of “AGT,” a note she received over half a dozen times, according to four sources with direct knowledge of the exchanges who spoke on the condition of anonymity. One network insider disputed the volume of notes, saying there was only feedback about hair continuity for both judges.

The “Beyonce” incident: Sources also shared a related incident that occurred during another audition taping this season, where Union and other staffers expressed concerns over a white male performer crossing a line in portraying people of color. The contestant’s gimmick involved rapid costume changes inside a larger garment, while impersonating a multitude of famous singers. In one such quick change, the contestant emerged in the guise of Beyoncé Knowles. His hands appeared as black, meant to be a character accent, three witnesses to the audition said. Union immediately recommended to a segment producer and an executive producer that the contestant be removed from the lineup, sources said, adding that the producers disagreed and used a familiar refrain heard on the “AGT” set: “We’ll take it out later.”

[From Variety]

Variety went on to note that even though ratings are down for AGT, Union brought a lot of interest to the show and there was a ton of social media engagement around Union. The “notes” on Gabrielle’s hair is… just another example of how everything sucks, and white corporate culture sucks especially hard. I hate this. I feel so sorry for Gabrielle. She shouldn’t have to do her job AND try to educate these fools on what is and is not appropriate and racist. And she definitely shouldn’t be fired for merely identifying this problematic sh-t.

Updates: Yashar Ali had even more about all of the toxic & racist sh-t that went down at NBC. Gabrielle also tweeted out her thanks for all the support.

"America's Got Talent" Season 14 Finale Red Carpet

Photos courtesy of WENN.

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40 Responses to “Did NBC fire Gabrielle Union from AGT because she spoke up about racism? (update)”

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  1. Mignionette says:

    If this is true then good for her. She will come out on top when the details leak as they inevitably do…

  2. ME says:

    Why was Hough let go though? She has no issue with Black face remember? Good for Gabrielle for speaking up. These networks aren’t used to having people speak up. They probably thought Gabrielle would just “be happy to be there” and keep her mouth shut. Nope, she’s better than that !

    • KB says:

      @ME I wondered the same. My best surmise is that they figured it was more acceptable to come across as sexist than racist. In that they’d prefer to get rid of both women and take on the potential fire of sexism than the black woman stirring up problems with all her complaints and challenges (or even addressing “the angry black woman”) and deal with criticism over racism. As a non-American black woman, whose eyes have really been opening to racism here in the last decade, sadly, this seems to be common to me. People would rather talk about other issues or sweep racism under the carpet of other more palatable/comfortable injustices to address. So many times I’ve seen moments where there could be discussion and awareness of racism and inequality on the issue of race/ethnicity blanketed in a general discussion about other inequalities. Women’s representation or pay in entertainment overshadowing representation of minorities or inequality of pay for racial minorities in entertainment. Lack of diverse characters, writing or shows for racial/ethnic minorities in entertainment blanketed by lack of the same for the LGBQT community. Lack of medical care for black women pushed aside to address medical care for women in general. The most prominent one to me is police brutality against blacks turned into just a discussion on police brutality.

      I was quite shocked Obama was elected president over Hilary. I was sure the US would have a first female president before a black one. Don’t get me wrong. Those injustices all need to be addressed but it’s disheartening to see that once again the color of your skin/ethnicity seems to always keep you at the bottom of the totem pole in this country….even when it comes to addressing the issue. Anyway, that’s just my two cents.😗

  3. Shirleygailgal says:

    How do we rise up to support her?

  4. Caty Page says:

    There go the only two judges who made that steaming pile watchable. Now AGT will just be a host of white bros making judgmental statements under the guise of “honesty.”

    • Lexilla says:

      I imagine they’ll be careful to hire replacements who are not white, male and old, but who will “know their place” better than Union. One of the many infuriating ways these injustices become implicit rather than explicit.

    • phaedra7 says:

      Only under Take-A- 💩’s “administration”!

  5. Susannah says:

    I guess we can expect leaks about how Gabrielle was causing trouble behind the scenes, was uppity and wasn’t acting royal enough, oh wait, that’s Meghan. It’s hard to keep all the smears against black women who speak up for the empowerment of women and against racism separate…

    • Erin says:

      Get em girl. That’s exactly what’s happening. She’s gonna come out looking like the queen she is and these men and NBC are gonna look like the tired old racists they are.

    • Some chick says:

      Exactly. This, all day.

  6. Jb says:

    God when can cancel Jay Leno? That man is the perfect example of failing up… he was never funny and then what he did to Conan OBrien and now confirmation he’s a racist pig? Ugh

    • SamC says:

      No kidding. He was the “entertainment” at a. conference I attended last year. His stuff was much more “blue” than I expected but also SO dated and old. Unfortunately, 3/4 of the audience was older white guys who thought he was hysterical.

    • Darla says:

      He’s so awful!

    • Trashaddict says:

      I never did get the attraction of Jay Leno. Also, “too black”? What freaking year is this?

  7. Jess says:

    So gross. Good for Gabrielle for speaking up but how exhausting and maddening that she and other representatives of marginalized communities have to keep dealing with this crap. Meanwhile, Fox News is out there telling white dudes that they have it harder than anyone. Gross.

  8. Christina says:

    This just makes me so, so sad for both of them. They both got the sexism and Gabrielle got the racism. AGT has a lot of “traditional” men on it.

    Many women are working to fight this stuff. People always say, “but she didn’t report it! She didn’t SAY anything”. I always complained about sexism when I was younger, and I ALWAYS paid a price, like losing my job. Now that I am older, I am trying to call out racial and sexual bias at my job, and my job is trying to work on those things to their credit, but I am afraid given all of the awfulness that fighting sexism brings. My stepdad was also deported to Mexico, and my elderly American-born mom is finally too old to drive back and forth. Stephen Miller’s racism definitely effects my family.

    All of this is exhausting. I’m exhausted for Gabi, Julianne, and all of us who still fight and have everything to lose. Unfortunately for minorities and women, this is just day-to-day life.

  9. Gingerbread says:

    Gabrielle is such a boss, I love her. You know that there will be many leaks soon saying how “difficult” working with her was. Cause you know, pointing out the racism/sexism of the workplace is considered aggressive to old white men. How Howie or Simon have careers is beyond me. And don’t even get me started on jay leno.

  10. Tiffany :) says:

    I totally support Gabrielle. She was in the right in all of these examples. I’ve heard that she’s a kind and lovely person.

  11. Amy Too says:

    That line about “hair continuity” bugs me. “Oh no, we weren’t upset that she’s black and was doing black hair styles. That’s not it. We were just upset that her hair style didn’t have ‘continuity.’” Seriously?! Like the audience is going to be like “oh no! Who’s this!? And where’s Gabrielle Union? I don’t recognize this person who had the exact same face, body, and voice as Gabrielle Union but who has a different hairstyle!” And I’m sure that there wouldn’t be concerns about hair “continuity” if it was a white woman who had her hair down some days and then up in a ponytail or two braids on other days. It’s only a problem because the various black hairstyles and different texture option are so “exotic” as to make people feel “uncomfortable” and have trouble “recognizing” her. But that’s just a coincidence. It’s not racism. They’re not racist. It’s just a coincidence that the variety of hairstyles the black woman is wearing are the ones that give us “hair continuity” issues.

    • Darla says:

      You really hit it here. It’d be funny, if it were not so outrageous.

    • Tiffany :) says:

      Their complaint is such racist BS. I’ve NEVER heard of “hair continuity” being a thing, ever.

    • Holly hobby says:

      That excuse is generally used for soap operas because of storyline and it’s usually about short hair/long hair. For a reality show the excuse doesn’t wash.

      If they like continuity they’ll probably have a fit over Beth’s hair in this is us because she wears different styles.

  12. Stef says:

    I really likes both women on AGT.

    The hair continuity is strange, especially if you look at Gwen Stefani on the Voice. Her hair is complete different each show, often looks terrible and super fake (wigs etc) yet we don’t hear complaints about it.

    Good on Gabrielle for speaking up about racist jokes and acts.

    • Tig says:

      That’s not quite hair continuity. For example, for the Voice, blind audition occur over several days. It is important that Gwen and Kelly’s hair look the same all of the days so the producers can rearrange the auditions as needed. Once the next part, there can be a change of hairstyles. Once the shows get to lives, every judges look will change. It’s just the taped sections

      • Stef says:


        So wouldn’t this mean they have to wear the same outfits for all the taped sections? If that’s the case, then wouldn’t it mean they’d have to look the same? So did Gabrielle just go ahead and change her hair when she wasn’t supposed to?

        Guess I’m still a bit confused on this

  13. Rapunzel says:

    Gasp! Shock! I for one do not believe that the Network which brought us Matt Lauer would have such a toxic set on another show. Completely unbelievable.

  14. osito says:

    Despite the absolute sh*ttiness of this news, I’m actually really heartened to hear about a celebrity using her status and platform to promote positivity and inclusivity, and stomp on racism and privilege. I know there are tons of reasons that people don’t speak up, but Gabrielle just highlighted a new option for people with similar status and security to hers (*ahem*ScarJo*cough*hack), which is to not accept unacceptable rhetoric or behavior.

  15. stepup says:

    But “wypipo” and their allies won’t be hand-wringing and squealing about “cancel culture” over this. Even though a woman lost her job for…speaking her opinion.

    Where are all the “free speech” advocates here? Where’s all the concern trolling about Union actually being “canceled” for pointing out racism.

    “Cancel culture concerns” are little more than backlash / white fragility against “valid criticism regarding implicit bias gaffes.”

    • Tuntmore says:

      Huh? Union wasn’t “cancelled” — she was fired from a job for bogus reasons, and people are praising her (rightly so) for speaking out, bringing attention to the racism and sexism at NBC, and staying true to her principles. That’s sort of the exact opposite of “cancel culture.”

      • stepup says:

        No, no. I was speaking to the people who are always complaining about “cancel culture.” Not necessarily the people here. To give context, when I wrote this, I had just finished watching Mara Gaye on MSNBC mewl about how everyone was being mean to Mayor Pete and how toxic cancel culture is. (It was infuriating because nobody “canceled” Mayor Pete, these just criticized his words and actions.) But she said not one word about Union being “cancelled” (fired) from AGT for speaking her mind. I was making a point that when it comes to moaning about cancel culture, it only seems to come up when a white person is aggrevieed about being critisized or called out.

    • otaku fairy.... says:

      Good point.

  16. Over It says:

    Until more women are in the executive positions, men rule. Gabrielle and Julienne are smart, strong women. They must be scaring those old white men. #metoo did not elevate women in the work force. #womenup? We should all boycott AGT. AND let them know why. That’s our only power.

  17. Louise177 says:

    It says a lot that AGT keeps firing the women and minorities.

  18. Charfromdarock says:

    She’s a smart beautiful star responsible for buoying up a sinking show and they fire her for speaking up.

    And people wonder why no one speaks up. Imagine how non-stars are treated in that environment.

    Shame on agt and NBC.

    Whatever Gabriel’s next project is, I’m showing up and buying tickets.

  19. Watcher says:

    Good for her for speaking up and not backing down no matter how many times she encountered these tired old attitudes. It’s amazing that NBC doesn’t hire some good HR people to clean that place up, but clearly they’re just waiting for the next scandal to blow up in their faces.

    On the other hand, as a longtime watcher of AGT, both she and Houghton were super boring. Just didn’t have anything interesting to say. Always looked great (which makes the critiques about their appearance extra baffling), but nothing pertinent ever came from them in the judging.

  20. Izzy says:

    So AGT let the real talent go, and kept the steaming turd piles. Got it.