If “America’s Got Talent” producers thought firing new judges Julianne Hough and Gabrielle Union after one season would avoid controversy, they miscalculated badly.
Outcry over Union’s firing, in particular, has continued to grow ever since NBC made the announcement on Wednesday. Celebrities including Ellen Pompeo, Ariana Grande, Debra Messing and Lin-Manuel Miranda have publicly come out in support of Union, and taken NBC to task for axing her.
According to Variety, reports have since emerged that both Hough and Union complained to producers about the “toxic culture” behind the scenes of the family-friendly talent competition.
Variety highlights a specific incident involving a joke told by guest judge Jay Leno, when he quipped that a painting of Simon Cowell surrounded by dogs looked like it belonged “on the menu at a Korean restaurant.”
On December 2, TMZ released a video of Leno making his way out of the Comedy and Magic Club in California where he briefly made comments about Union.
“I love Gabrielle Union. She’s a great girl. I really enjoyed working with her, she’s really good,” he said.
When asked about whether she was treated fairly with regards to the firing, Leno had little to say.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
Union, reports Variety, found the joke to be offensive and perpetuating Asian stereotypes, with “multiple insiders familiar with the show” confirming that she “urged producers to report the joke to human resources at NBC.” The joke was edited from the broadcast and never aired.
In addition, two insiders told Variety that both Union and Hough “received excessive notes on their physical appearance,” with Union told on several occasions that her varied hairstyles were “too black.” Hough subsequently issued a statement to Variety claiming this was “not accurate to her experience.”
A report from Vulture additionally claimed that Union clashed with fellow judge/series exec producer Simon Cowell over his smoking. According to the report, Union is allergic to cigarette smoke, and requested staffers ask Cowell refrain from smoking indoors, as the smoke had been seeping into her dressing room.
“Sources say Union was told by an NBC executive and production staff on the program that no one could stop Cowell from smoking and that previous attempts by a fire marshal and NBC executives had been unsuccessful,” reported Vulture. “According to three sources, Cowell has smoked indoors for years, much to the frustration of staff, crew, and talent. NBC has given Cowell near-total control over ‘America’s Got Talent’. Virtually no decisions are made by the network on the show without his approval, according to three well-placed sources.”
Meanwhile, entertainment writer B. Scott reported that Union was fired because she spoke out about “problematic” situations, with a source identified as an “NBC insider” alleging, “The idea the network wants to ‘switch things up’ only applies to women and black folks.”
NBC and series producers Fremantle issued a statement in response to the allegations. “‘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.”
Fremantle and Simon Cowell’s Syco issued a separate statement to confirm they have reached out to Union’s reps. “We remain committed to ensuring a respectful workplace for all employees and take very seriously any questions about workplace culture,” the statement reads. “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.”
If there was an apology hidden amidst those statements, Gabrielle Union is not accepting it. Shortly after the statements were issued, Union took to Twitter to retweet a post from journalist Joelle Monique, who outlines three steps necessary for “a solid apology,” with Union adding her agreement.
While Union has been silent on the matter until now, her husband has not been so subdued. Her spouse, former NBA great Dwyane Wade, took to Twitter after her firing to blast NBC and the show in a series of fiery tweets that led the hashtag #BoycottAGT to trend on Twitter.
“So 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.