After 2019’s season of America’s Got Talent, judges Julianne Hough and Gabrielle Union were cut from the show after only one season. After they left the show, a number of disturbing stories and rumors circulated, leading multiple organizations to launch investigations into the show. Simon Cowell, who wholly owns the show and its creative control, reportedly perceived Union as “difficult.”
The two judges had only been a part of AGT for the 14th season of the show; it was announced in December 2019 that their contracts would not be renewed. Since then, Union has consistently described a toxic work environment on the set. Hough remained silent on the firing initially, eventually saying she had a “wonderful time” filming the reality competition. She came forward to praise Union for sitting down with NBC to talk about the issues she was having, though.
What Does Union Say Happened?
A number of racist and transphobic incidents have been reported by Union, the first taking place early in the production of season 14 of the show. A painting of Cowell and his dogs was presented to the judges, leading guest judge comedian Jay Leno to make a remark about the painting looking like “something on the menu at a Korean restaurant.” Union felt this remark was racist and played into stereotypes, saying she saw an Asian staff member on set become upset by the remark. The footage was not aired.
According to Esquire, producers were “annoyed” by Union’s habit of asking contestants dressed in drag what their preferred pronouns were. Reportedly, when a 10-year-old black rapper named Dylan Gilmer tried out for the show, producers told Union that they “needed to pick an act America can get behind.” Union was upset about the implications behind that statement, as well as statements made by Cowell and fellow judge Howie Mandel in the same meeting regarding a South African choir. Cowell and Mandel have not commented on the incident.
On top of those complaints, Union also reported that Cowell smoked cigarettes on set, which is illegal in California. Union is allergic to cigarette smoke, but no one could stop Cowell from smoking. Cowell reportedly met with Union after this issue, asking that she come straight to him with complaints rather than go to executives.
Union and Hough were also subject to extensive notes on their physical appearances; Hough reportedly received much criticism on her makeup, hair and wardrobe choices and Union was told her hairstyles were “too black” for their audience.
Union sat down with NBC executives in a five-hour meeting after her departure from a show. She discussed what went wrong on set in what she called a “productive meeting” in which she was able to express her “unfiltered truth.”
What Was Cowell’s Response?
Cowell’s company Syco Entertainment, along with NBC and production company Fremantle, released a joint statement regarding the accusations. In the statement, they said they were committed to running a respectful workplace and take questions about workplace culture very seriously.
“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,” the statement read.
Randy Jackson, a long-time friend and coworker of Cowell’s, spoke out in defense of Cowell but noted he wasn’t aware of what might be happening behind the scenes, but he trusted that NBC was doing what needed to be done.
“Cowell’s my boy,” Jackson said. “I mean, I love him. [AGT] is a great franchise. I’m sure they’ll work it out and figure it out.”