Was Gabrielle Union Fired From 'American's Got Talent' For Pushing Back Against Racism At NBC?

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Why Was Gabrielle Union Fired From America's Got Talent? NBC Producers Accused Of Racial Insensitivity

NBC has been the subject of a fair share of its own bad press this fall. Executives have come under fire, facing serious accusations of doing things such as covering up sexual misconduct, stifling journalism, and paying off women in order to prevent them from filing harassment complaints.

Now, controversy is swirling around the network's recent firings of "America's Got Talent" judges Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough, with Union's husband — NBA legend Dwayne Wade — taking to Twitter with what appears to be claims Union was fired for speaking up against racism and sexism she encountered on set.

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Union was hired alongside Julianne Hough to replace Mel B and Heidi Klum on "AGT" in season 14. Both women were popular with audiences, and Union, in particular, struck a chord with fans on social media.

But on Friday, November 22, the network announced neither woman would be back again for season 15.

Shortly after, Variety posted a scathing report about the toxic culture of racism and sexism on the show, detailing allegations of inappropriate criticism faced by both women, as well as instances in which Union attempted to push back against the network's refusal to take action on her multiple reports of racial insensitivity, including an incident involving guest judge Jay Leno.

Why was Gabrielle Union fired from "America's Got Talent"? Read on for all the details we know so far.

1. Jay Leno's alleged racial insensitivity on set

In April of 2019, Jay Leno showed up on set to appear as a guest judge on the talent show.

During taping for a short bit, Leno riffed on a portrait of "AGT" creator and judge Simon Cowell with his dogs. Leno allegedly made a joke along the lines of the dogs looking like something you'd see "on the menu at a Korean restaurant."

The joke fell flat, with some people present, including one of “the very few Asian staffers,” finding the reference to a stereotype of Asians eating dog meat to be offensive.

Union requested that producers report the incident to HR, but while the joke was cut from the program, the issue was never escalated to the human resources department.

2. Producers are said to have hyper-focused on both Hough and Union's appearance

Women in show business are used to getting critiques on their looks, but people behind the scenes at "AGT" say Union and Hough both "received excessive notes on their physical appearance."

In particular, Variety reports the network said Union hairstyles were “too black” for the show's audience.

Hair is a cultural flashpoint for people of color, and discrimination related to hairstyles is a documented problem for people of color in schools and workplaces, with some states now introducing legislation to ban workplace discrimination on the basis of hairstyle.

3. Union's complaint about a white contestant performing with black hands is also reported to have been ignored

It wasn't just the guest judge who crossed the line.

According to the Variety, Union and others asked producers to omit a white male contestant whose audition included a Beyoncé impersonation during which a costume made his hands appear to be black. When producers responded that they would remove the bit from the show before it aired, Union insisted the studio audience deserved the same respect as the TV audience.

She was overruled and the impressionist was sent by producers to perform live anyway.

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4. NBC denies any wrong-doing

NBC, which has been dealing with internal tensions ever since Ronan Farrow published his tell-all "Catch and Kill", attempted to smooth over the allegations without addressing specifics.

The joint statement made by NBC and AGT production company Freemantle said only, "'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 line-up 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.”

5. Former "AGT" host Nick Cannon also complained of racial insensitivity before he quit in 2017

In February 2017, Cannon left the show abruptly, announcing his resignation in a lengthy and detailed post on Facebook.

"I find myself in a dark place having to make a decision that I wish I didn't have to," Cannon wrote, "but as a man, an artist, and a voice for my community I will not be silenced, controlled or treated like a piece of property."

An anonymous NBC source told entertainment writer B. Scott, “[Gabrielle’s] contract was not renewed after being the #1 talent on the show, NBC and network TV. She set the record for her Golden Buzzer. They only replace the women and blacks at Simon’s whim. She wouldn’t walk away from $12 million because she’s ‘busy.’ Based on weekly interactions on social media, by the time AGT finale aired Gabrielle was the #1 talent on network TV for 2019. Why not pick up someone’s option in extreme success?"

"Nick Cannon wasn’t crazy," the source continued. "He walked away from 8-figures over how [AGT] operates.”

6. Union's husband and Miami Heat legend Dwayne Wade came to her defense on Twitter

The decision to not to renew Union as a judge for season 15 seems particularly odd, as he was arguably the most popular host this past season.

In an age where social media engagement is key to maintaining relevance in entertainment, "America's Got Talent" found a gold mine in Union.

The show has been in a rating slump for several seasons, but Union's tenure on the show revived Interest in the show on social media, with engagement driven by her appearance on "AGT" ranking third after Kim Kardashian and Ellen DeGeneres "according to Nielsen’s measurements of 'owned engagements' across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter" for the week of September 9.

There can be no mistaking that fans felt connected to Union and enjoyed watching and interacting with her.

And her biggest fan is probably her husband, basketball great Dwayne Wade.

Today, he took to Twitter with a series of posts about Union's departure from "AGT."

Judges Simon Cowell and Howie Mandell — who had the same hairstyles all season and thus probably didn't have to listen to notes about their looks each week — will be returning next season, along with host Terry Crewes.

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There has not been an announcement about who will replace Union and Hough.

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. Her work has been seen at Ravishly, Babble, Scary Mommy, The Mid, Redbook online, and The Broad Side. She is the creator of the blog Stay at Home Pundit and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.