Gabrielle Union says NBC chairman ‘threatened’ her after she reported racism
Gabrielle Union has filed a complaint of employment discrimination against production companies Fremantle and Syco, NBC and Simon Cowell after reporting alleged racist behavior on the set of “America’s Got Talent.”
Using language from NBC’s recent statement about Black Lives Matter, a statement released Thursday on Union’s behalf claims that the network retaliated against her when she expressed concerns about “acts of racism” she experienced on the competition program.
“When Gabrielle Union informed NBC of racially offensive conduct during the taping of America’s Got Talent, NBC did not ‘stand’ with her in ‘outrage at acts of racism,’” read the statement from Union’s attorney, Bryan Freedman, referencing NBC’s social-media pledge to “stand with our black employees.”
“Instead, NBC did not care enough to either promptly investigate Ms. Union’s complaints or even ask HR to get involved. Rather, NBC stood against her and directed its ‘outrage’ at Ms. Union for whistleblowing about the racially offensive conduct she experienced.”
Union also accused the chairman of NBC Entertainment, Paul Telegdy, of threatening her when she spoke up about a toxic environment and “secretly planning to undermine” the external investigation launched into her claims. The “L.A.'s Finest” star exited “America’s Got Talent” in 2019 after serving as a judge for one season.
“In sharp contrast to NBC’s recent statement on race, what was truly an ‘outrage’ was the fact that Paul Telegdy, Chairman of NBC Entertainment, actually threatened Ms. Union in an attempt to silence her from telling the truth about racist actions that took place on the show,” Freedman’s statement continues.
“There is no place for this type of racial bullying in the workplace, and it is going to take more than a Tweet from NBC to demonstrate that NBC intends to create an environment free from racism.”
NBC denied Union’s claims Thursday afternoon in a statement provided to The Times.
“The allegation that anyone involved in this process threatened Ms. Union is categorically untrue,” the statement read. “We took Ms. Union‘s concerns seriously, and engaged an outside investigator who found an overarching culture of diversity on the show.
“NBCUniversal remains committed to creating an inclusive and supportive working environment where people of all backgrounds are treated with respect.”
After investigating Gabrielle Union’s dismissal from “America’s Got Talent,” NBC says no “insensitive or derogatory remarks” were directed at Union.
In a rapid response, Union’s attorney doubled down, particularly on her accusations toward Telegdy.
“It’s very telling that NBC fails to substantively address the DFEH complaint that Ms. Union filed based on racial discrimination,” Freedman wrote in a statement. “Instead, NBC wants to try and play word games by saying that their Chairman, Paul Telegdy did not directly threaten Gabrielle Union.
“NBC of course ignores Paragraph 5 of the DFEH complaint which specifically states: ‘On or about February 4, 2020, Telegdy threatened Union through her agent and warned Union’s agent that Union had better cease from pursuing her claims of racism while filming AGT.’
“To hide behind the fact that Telegdy did not call her directly but her agent instead does not absolve him from his wrongful conduct. Should Mr. Telegdy wish to see phone records or call sheets from the date of his threat, we can make those available for the world to see. It is frankly sad but not surprising that, rather than addressing its own racial discrimination, NBC wants to try and avoid the systemic issues that permeate it’s company.”
Fremantle and Syco did not immediately respond Thursday to The Times’ requests for comment.
Further allegations listed in Union’s complaint include racist jokes and performances, discrimination based on sexual orientation, and “excessive focus on female judges’ appearances, including race-related comments.”
A number of accusations are leveled against head judge and executive producer Cowell, who allegedly disregarded Union’s request to stop smoking indoors while taping the show in Pasadena, Universal Studios and the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.
Though representatives for Cowell did not immediately respond Thursday to The Times’ request for comment, Cowell told Variety last month that “when he was directly informed of the smoking complaint during the first couple of days of the season, he immediately changed his behavior and the issue was never raised again.”
Union also alleged that NBC permitted a contestant to “perform in blackface hands, even though Cowell and his production team articulated concerns that the act was racist.”
The document goes on to detail racist behavior Union allegedly experienced personally, including being “singled out due to her physical appearance and discriminated against due to the fact that her hair did not fit within the white image that NBC apparently sought to convey to the audience of AGT.”
From Gabrielle Union on “America’s Got Talent” to an ejected “Survivor” contestant, the #MeToo era demands accountability from TV networks.
According to the complaint, the senior vice president of alternative programming at NBC and a producer on “America’s Got Talent” allegedly complained that Union’s hair was “too wild” and needed to be “toned down,” implying that her hair was “too black,” per Union’s interpretation.
Also mentioned in the complaint are long-running “America’s Got Talent” judge Howie Mandel and comedian Jay Leno. Mandel is accused of making racist comments toward a Spanish-singing contestant, allegedly telling her “America would not be able to ‘understand’ her singing.”
Leno is accused of making a racist joke while taping a segment for the show, allegedly comparing a painting of Cowell’s dogs to “something one would find on the menu at a Korean restaurant.”
Representatives for Mandel and Leno did not immediately respond Thursday to The Times’ requests for comment.
A lot has transpired since NBC fired Gabrielle Union from “America’s Got Talent” after she alleged a toxic and racist culture on the show.
“By virtue of Union refusing to silently endure the racist and misogynistic conduct on AGT, she was labelled as ‘intimidating’ and viewed as the problem, thus resulting in her termination,” Union’s complaint reads.
“However, based on the preliminary results of the investigator’s findings, it is clear that there are systemic problems on AGT. Instead of taking Union’s complaints seriously and using them as a catalyst for real meaningful change, Telegdy, NBC, Fremantle and Syco seek to blame the victim, Union, in order to maintain the status quo.”
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.