Gabrielle Union was ‘sick for two months straight’ from Simon Cowell’s AGT smoking

gabrielle variety

It feels like this happened ten years ago, but it was just last Thanksgiving when everything broke about Gabrielle Union and America’s Got Talent. Gabrielle’s AGT contract was not renewed and she thought that was suspicious. She had good reason – she had been vocal about several racist and problematic situations on the set, and she was targeted by various Beckys and Karens online for her skin color, her hair, her outfits and everything else. Nevermind that Gabrielle expanded the viewership. She was still asked not to return. Gabrielle said very little about the situation in the past six months, but now she covers Variety and she’s got some sh-t to say. You can read the full Variety piece here. Some highlights:

Simon Cowell’s smoking: It was when the newly minted judge stood on a closed soundstage and was enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke, to which she’s been severely allergic her entire life. Producers, fellow judges and set assistants looked on unfazed as series creator and star Simon Cowell finished his smoke while Union’s respiratory system went haywire.

When she complained about Cowell’s smoking, nothing was done: “I couldn’t escape. I ended up staying sick for two months straight. It was a cold that lingered, and turned into bronchitis, because I couldn’t shake it. It impacted my voice, which affects my ability to do my job,” she says. To make matters worse, Union says her constant runny nose rattled Mandel, someone open about his struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder and germophobia, who sat to her right onstage. “It was challenging to tend to my illness without being made to feel like I’m responsible for my own sickness. It put me in a position from day one where I felt othered. I felt isolated. I felt singled out as being difficult, when I’m asking for basic laws to be followed. I want to come to work and be healthy and safe and listened to.”

Her goal: “At the end of all this, my goal is real change — and not just on this show but for the larger parent company. It starts from the top down. My goal is to create the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected and healthy example of a workplace. There are so many people who are committed to making NBCUniversal and Comcast different, who truly want to be a part of the solution and on the right side of history,” says Union, who thinks NBC is hardly alone as a media institution in need of an overhaul. “In the same breath, there are some people who want the wheels of change to come to a grinding halt because they feel that their privilege is being challenged.”

The racist joke made by Jay Leno: He made a crack about a painting of Cowell and his dogs, saying the animals looked like food items at a Korean restaurant. The joke was widely perceived as perpetuating stereotypes about Asian people eating dog meat. “My first big interview in this industry, the first person who allowed me to come on their talk show, was Jay Leno. I’ve always held him in high regard, but I was not prepared for his joke,” Union says. “I gasped. I froze. Other things had already happened, but at this point, it was so wildly racist.”

She went to corporate about Leno: Union’s first instinct was to confront Leno directly, but she demurred, saying she was “going to guess there’s a corporate protocol.” In reality, she found, nothing happened. The reaction from production was one she would hear repeatedly throughout the season: “We’ll delete it. We’ll edit it out.” Union says this enraged her. Leno declined to comment. “You cannot edit out what we just experienced. There is not an edit button in my brain or in my soul. To experience this kind of racism at my job and there be nothing done about it, no discipline, no companywide email, no reminder of what is appropriate in the workplace?” she says.

[From Variety]

There were also sections about how the audience had issues with Gabrielle’s hair, and she brought it around to the fact that many of the contestants of color did not get the same amount of time in hair & makeup as the white contestants. She also talks a lot about the toxic work environment (in general) of AGT, and the many blind spots of the producers and of the NBC network. It just seems like there was no one person Union could go to – she was sent through a corporate bureaucracy which was not built for her. She still sounds wounded by the experience of simply being a black woman in that toxic white space.

Gabrielle Union arrives at the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party held at the Wallis Annenberg Center for...

Photos courtesy of WENN.

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34 Responses to “Gabrielle Union was ‘sick for two months straight’ from Simon Cowell’s AGT smoking”

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  1. horseandhound says:

    it’s really rude to smoke in front of people who have respiratory and other problems. I hate it how inconsiderate smokers tend to be.

    • Athyrmose says:

      It’s so rude and selfish to smoke in the presence of anyone that’s a non-smoker, especially people with respiratory issues.

      I’m a smoker, unfortunately, and don’t smoke indoors, and have always gone outside FAR away from others to smoke. It’s not that hard.

      • horseandhound says:

        I agree.

      • Erinn says:

        I love you for this, athyrmose.

      • whatWHAT? says:

        yeah, when I was a smoker, I tried very hard to avoid anyone who wasn’t when I lit up. and I HATED it when people would just drop their butts on the ground in absence of an ashtray. like, B*TCH, would you do that with a gum wrapper? a fast food wrapper or cup? an empty shampoo bottle?!!! it’s littering, no matter what you throw on the ground. field strip the burning part and put that butt in your pocket. oh, “but it smells!”? so does cigarette smoke, dummy, and so do YOU after you smoke one. and it’s only in your pocket or hand until you find a trash can.

        inconsiderate smokers are usually very inconsiderate toward others in their lives in general.

      • buenavissta says:

        Me too. I’m allowed to poison myself but not others. And I get furious when I see people litter their butts. I already smell!

      • OnceUponA says:


      • OnceUponA says:

        Rude smokers are killers. And let’s remember, smoking indoors like that is illegal. Not that Simon or his producers would care.

        But hey — how did Howie the germaphobe handle the smoking?

        You would think even a racist, sexist production would worry about the health of their popular white guy judge?

  2. SarSte says:

    I love her for speaking out about this, so many other people with more power in the situation never would. If you’ve read Catch & Kill, none of these things about NBC will surprise you. That place is rotten.

  3. Juls says:

    Simon strikes me as the type that smokes in his house in front of his kid. And in the car, with the kid in the back seat, windows rolled up. Such a douche. Gross, rude, and completely inconsiderate. He knew he was making her sick and didn’t care. Or was even secretly glad about it. Toxic trash.

  4. Alaina Bahler says:

    Wow. She sounds like such a whiny baby.

  5. Erinn says:

    I’m pretty sure cigarette allergies – if they exist – are super rare, and most people who say they’re allergic aren’t. Now, that said – I also get incredibly sick when I’m around smokers. It’s an irritant, and it irritates your mucus linings and things like that and causes allergy like symptoms – which allows things you’re ACTUALLY allergic to like pollen, dust, etc to REALLY hit you hard. And I’m sure it would make a cold extra awful and increase the risk of it turning into something more serious infection wise. That said, maybe she does have an allergy. But more likely than not, she is severely irritated from the air pollution associated with smoking. I’ll also get migraines from the stale smoke smell that clings to a lot of smokers jackets and stuff like that.

    I also understand how f-cking miserable it can be to speak up and advocate for your own health. I had to request seat moves, as well as make complaints about scent-free policy rule breakers after I had to go home vomiting from migraines after being forced to breathe in their perfume for extended periods of time. HR had me emailing them when the person was breaking the rules so that they could walk by and ‘catch’ them – when everyone in a 20ft radius could taste the perfume. I hated it. I hated being sick from someone else’s rule breaking, I hated being forced to report it, and I hated having to narc on them constantly. But when people who I KNOW have a poor sense of smell are saying ‘no, I can taste it too’ clearly it’s too much. I did not once complain about the people who were still breaking policy but had kept it a VERY minimal smell. If I had to be standing right next to you to notice it, I was perfectly okay with that kind of use and if I felt like a migraine could be coming on, I’d just stay clear of their desk.

    The thing is – businesses should be smoke free. Inhaling second hand smoke, or even third hand smoke DOES make you sick. It’s unfair to everyone else working in the area, and it’s absolutely absurd that they were so afraid of this douchebag to take proper actions when coworkers were being affected this much.

    • Sojaschnitzel says:

      I passionately hate perfum. Drives me up the wall. I cannot breathe and I feel like I need to vomit, so .. I feel your pain. Don’t feel guilty about reporting them. They knew the rules, they deserved the report.
      In germany smoking inside businesses is entirely forbidden, and it’s great. Sadly they also forbade it in clubs, so.. even I as a smell-sensitive person preferred the cigarettes over the smell of hundreds of dancing people :D but other than that it’s great. Now if only they forbade it in or at least near regular houses too. I cannot open a single window of my flat, ever, because multiple neighbours are smokers and their air gets sucked right into my upper floor windows. I need to move, simply because of that.

      • Keiji says:

        I live in Germany as well. I have to close my windows all through summer, and there’s no sitting on the patio in a restaurant, smokers everywhere. I found Canada had much more progressive laws. Canadians also smoke less, generally.

        When I was in Argentina years ago I got sick as well from the incessant smoking. Not bronchitis, but it took me out for a few days.

    • lucy2 says:

      I have the same issues, especially with cigarette smoke, but also perfume, candles, soaps, cleaners, etc – basically anything with that lovely vague ingredient of “fragrance”. My guess is Gabrielle is the same way, but it’s easier to just say “allergy” than go into the whole thing.
      I will be sick for days if I’m around too much of it. I cannot imagine having to work in it.

      If I’m not mistaken, it’s illegal to smoke in an enclosed place of work in California. She had EVERY right to complain, and it’s not just rule breaking, but law breaking. Simon is disgusting.

      I hate that she went through all this, but I’m really proud of her for standing up for herself against a corporate giant and not being afraid to tell the truth.

    • Kate says:

      Joining this smoke and perfumes make me sick thread! I used to work in a law firm within the last 10 years where one of the founding partners was still allowed to smoke in his office. He wouldn’t smoke when someone was in there with him (how considerate) but just chainsmoked all day otherwise. I got put in the office next door and I could smell as soon as he would light up and would immediately start getting a migraine which interfered with me doing my work. It SUCKED having to be in the position of either confronting the person who is my superior or tattling on him to HR. I chose the latter but he knew it was me since I was his only neighbor and he even tried pulling the “you should have just come to me” card – like no it’s not my responsibility to tell you to stop doing that illegal thing that’s making me sick. I had to do it a couple times and he was always cold to me after that. Thankfully they switched my office instead of firing me like they did Gabrielle! But yeah people who hold the purse strings can do whatever the hell they want and they know it.

  6. BlueSky says:

    It’s got to be so frustrating to try to make change when there is a system in place that is set up against you. Why any woman would want to work on that show after that is beyond me.

  7. Izzy says:

    Considering it’s NBC investigating itself, I think we all knew exactly how it was going to go.

    • NotSoSocialButterfly says:

      The home of Matt Lauer.

    • Noki says:

      How is that allowed to happen,how do you investigaate your self? That is why so many people are scared to report to HR even though they are suppose to mediate and be balanced it always seems an unfair outcome.

      • Izzy says:

        Exactly. Time after time, incident upon incident, NBC has investigated itself… and found no wrongdoing. Shocking, eh?

  8. Michelle says:

    Someone please correct me on this, but I thought that you could not smoke in buildings anymore. Is that different for this building they were working in, or was it because it’s Simon and they allow him to do whatever he wants? I live in tobacco country and we do not allow people to smoke in buildings. If I were her, I would have coughed and hacked in his face without covering my mouth repeatedly every time he lit up.

    • Elaine says:

      You can’t. That’s why she asks for “basic laws to be followed”. I guess Simon can just do what he wants though… gross.

  9. Bella says:

    It is against the law to smoke in buildings.PERIOD. There are no exceptions and he should be given a ticket/fine.

  10. Mabs A'Mabbin says:

    I wonder if Leno has ever eaten fish eggs, bottom-feeding shellfish and their brains and intestines. Liver, gizzards, pigs feet, burgoo….a McRib sandwich. Spam.

  11. Rose says:

    I thought perhaps Simon, being British, was accustomed to different workplace rules than the US, so looked it up and found that smoking in workplaces has been illegal since 2006 in Scotland and since 2007 in Wales, Northern Ireland and England. No excuse, great entitlement.

  12. Sunnyjyl says:

    Wow, the comments on the variety site are vicious! White privilege and racism on full display over there. I had to run back here to take cover.