Toxicity in the workplace is often invisible, but actor and producer Gabrielle Union says she’s never seen it defined more clearly than in her first moments on the set of the reality competition show “America’s Got Talent.”

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.

That moment would be one of many in which Union says she unsuccessfully raised issues about the physical and emotional toxicity at “AGT,” produced by FremantleMedia and Cowell’s Syco Entertainment, which has aired for 15 seasons on NBC.

Union has walked many sets in show business over her 25 years, from her turn in the iconic teen movie “Bring It On” to leading the critically praised BET drama “Being Mary Jane.” But something shifted in how she viewed her career when she hit 40. She finally learned self-acceptance, she says, and no longer sought approval from a business that was increasingly being called out for the way it marginalized women and minorities.

“There were so many spaces in this industry where I had to compartmentalize myself to feel like I was worthy of work,” Union tells Variety. “In my 40s, I embraced myself exactly as I am. I wanted to create projects and be a part of things, to have personal and professional relationships that brought me peace, joy, grace and allowed for compassion.”

All of those newfound requirements seemed to converge in the opportunity from “AGT” that came in the spring of 2019. The show had long anchored NBC’s summer schedule to top ratings and social media fanfare. Union was excited to discover emerging talent, and was already building a production company of her own to embrace outsiders, she says.

“I signed up for the experience of being a part of a show that hails itself as the biggest stage in the world. Super diverse, and one about giving people an opportunity to shine where they otherwise probably wouldn’t,” Union says, adding wryly: “What could go wrong?”

Last September, two months after the finale of Union’s inaugural season, Variety reported that she and fellow judge Julianne Hough had been dismissed from the show. Both had contractual options to return for another season, and both were survived by their male counterparts, executive producer and lead judge Cowell and comedian Howie Mandel. In the days following Union’s exit, Variety published an explosive report about the culture at “AGT” during her tenure — one marked by complaints of racially charged incidents at the hands of contestants, producers and guest judge Jay Leno. Cowell was seen as downplaying complaints and fostering a bad environment, like the smoking that violated public health laws and made Union ill. An internal investigation of Fremantle, Syco and NBC is ongoing. She remains incredulous that the entities did not take stronger action to safeguard the staff of “AGT.”

Lazy loaded image
Melodie McDaniel for Variety

Until now, Union has stayed silent about what went down.

“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,” she says. “My goal is to create the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected and healthy example of a workplace.”

Fremantle, Syco and NBC issued a joint statement in response to this story, saying they “immediately engaged an outside investigator who conducted more than 30 interviews to review the issues raised by Ms. Union. While the investigation has demonstrated an overall culture of diversity, it has also highlighted some areas in which reporting processes could be improved.” Details of these new processes were not immediately available.

One insider close to the show says some changes have been implemented, including the installment of sensitivity training and outlets to help screen and elevate issues to human resources more efficiently. Those changes are already in place on the new season of “AGT,” which premiered May 26.

In light of Union’s complaints and another incident involving actor Orlando Jones on its series “American Gods,” Fremantle is the subject of an ongoing investigation from actors union SAG-AFTRA.

“Since we were first made aware of the probe into the allegations made by Gabrielle Union last December, we have been fully cooperative with SAG-AFTRA and remain committed to getting to the facts. We also look forward to doing the same for ‘American Gods’ if and when requested to do so,” says a Fremantle spokesperson.

Union’s complaints joined a collection of larger cultural issues surrounding NBCUniversal, from its handling of the Matt Lauer sexual abuse and harassment scandal to accusations that its former news division chairman, Andy Lack, quashed Ronan Farrow’s reporting on convicted rapist Harvey Weinstein.

“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.”

As marginalized talent, Union says the decision to complain about Cowell’s smoking on her first day was a dire choice for someone “coming onto a set and you are literally met with the very definition of a toxic work environment, and it’s being carried out by the most powerful person on the production.”

Union says she hesitantly addressed the matter with producers, who acknowledged that complaints had been made about Cowell’s smoking in the past but, effectively, nothing was going to change.

“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.

Mandel did not comment on the matter.

“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,” she says.

Union confronted a question she’s faced many times over her career, particularly as a woman of color: “Do I cave? I didn’t feel like myself; I’m shape-shifting to make myself more palatable. I’m contorting myself into something I don’t recognize. I had to look at myself and say, ‘Do you want to keep it easy? Or do you want to be you, and stand up?’ Because I’m not the only one being poisoned at work.”

“In my 40s, I embraced myself exactly as I am. I wanted to have personal and professional relationships that brought me peace, joy, grace and allowed for compassion.”
Gabrielle Union

Cowell says through a spokesperson 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.” An individual familiar with the internal investigation of “AGT” says the matter was addressed, but the investigation hasn’t concluded that Cowell’s indoor smoking has stopped entirely.

Weeks later, Union was shocked by an incident involving guest judge and NBC royalty Jay Leno. While filming a commercial interstitial in the “AGT” offices, she says the former “Tonight Show” host 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.”

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.

Union also noted that the show did not have a standing policy of using contestants’ preferred pronouns.

“We’re doing a show that is talking about a global audience, and we’re not even asking for preferred pronouns? We should never be put in a position where we are guessing, not when we know better,” she says. “And again, no checks and balances. Everyone is allowed to operate without consequence or accountability, and it sends a message that this kind of thing is not only tolerated but encouraged.”

Sources also told Variety that Union’s rotating hairstyles were labeled by production as “too black” for mass audiences. At the time, an insider told Variety that Union had received notes to keep the continuity in her hairstyles. The accusation resurfaced a trending Twitter topic, #HairLove, as a celebration of black hair.

Union would not address that specific charge due to the ongoing investigation. In a joint statement, the producers of “AGT” said their ongoing investigation has thus far concluded that “no one associated with the show made any insensitive or derogatory remarks about Ms. Union’s appearance, and that neither race nor gender was a contributing factor in the advancement or elimination of contestants at any time.”

Union did say the show was ill-equipped to give all contestants equal attention in the hair and makeup chair — a recurring problem in many productions when it comes to minorities.

Lazy loaded image
Melodie McDaniel for Variety

“Some contestants get the full Hollywood treatment, and then some are left to dangle,” Union says. “When they hit that stage for the opportunity of a lifetime, they want to put their best foot forward and have all of the confidence that everyone else has. When you are making the conscious decisions in hiring, and failing to recognize that you have whole departments that lack the necessary skill set to provide adequate services to all of that diversity that you are touting, you are creating an unequal and discriminatory experience.”

An individual familiar with “AGT” says the hair and makeup staff is composed of 25 full-time artists, roughly half of whom are people of color representing people of Asian, Latinx and African American descent.

One of the most distressing incidents Union recalls is that of a white male contestant whose act involved transforming into various famous singers through quick changes.

“At the very beginning of his act, he put on black gloves to [represent] a black performer,” Union says. She was concerned, to say the least, that any expression of blackface — historically offensive caricatures of black and brown people performed by whites and often using dark paint — was not immediately shut down.

“I’m a part of a show that hired one of my co-workers who had an unfortunate incident doing blackface,” she says, referring to an event in 2013 in which Hough was photographed at a Halloween party with darkened skin, in imitation of African American actor Uzo Aduba of “Orange Is the New Black.”

“I’d like to trust her at her word that she learned her lesson, and has educated herself amid the consequences she faced and is hopefully a better person. But you would think that perhaps the show and NBC might be more conscientious in exposing that, and it would be taken seriously. I took it seriously,” she says. Hough did not respond to a request for comment.

Union says the contestant’s act was flagged as problematic before he hit the stage, but he was cleared to proceed and audition before the judges and audience.

Once again, she found herself “waiting for there to be some mechanism that kicks in, to protect an audience of 4,000 people in a Pasadena auditorium that just watched that — all of the production, all of the other contestants, the judges. There was nothing in place. They did not think enough about how we would experience this blatantly racist act that, as a company, they have established that they take seriously,” she says.

Union’s raising of this topic comes with eerie timeliness, given the Tuesday resurfacing of a 20-year-old “Saturday Night Live” sketch in which former cast member Jimmy Fallon imitated comedian Chris Rock in full blackface.

The clip was used to illustrate what one Twitter user said was hypocrisy on NBC’s part, for firing former anchor Megyn Kelly for defending race appropriation in Halloween costumes while “The Tonight Show” host Fallon continued in his role. Fallon apologized shortly after the sketch inspired the trending topic #jimmyfallonisoverparty.

After she wrapped season 14 of “AGT,” Union said she discussed her issues with NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer, who thanked her for sharing what she calls the production’s “blind spots.” A spokesperson for Meyer confirmed the conversation but did not comment further.

Union’s exit caused mixed reactions. Hough, judge Heidi Klum and show host Terry Crews said publicly that their experiences were different from Union’s. Crews faced the most backlash: Detractors pointed out Union’s support of him when he came forward, as one of the first male victims among the #MeToo movement, over an encounter where he was allegedly groped by a male talent agent. Union says she was “disappointed” by his statements about his time with “AGT,” but maintains she will always defend him. Crews later apologized to her on Twitter.

Lazy loaded image
Melodie McDaniel for Variety

Former “AGT” judges Sharon Osbourne and Howard Stern decried the environment created by Cowell. Stern said the show was designed to treat women as disposable, and Osbourne echoed the sentiment, calling it a “boys club.” Union didn’t necessarily agree, but was surprised that a personality as brash and critical as Cowell would deflect criticism of his own set.

“I never thought of him as a shrinking violet. I thought he dished out very direct criticism and commentary over the years. So I felt very comfortable giving direct feedback about the things that I thought needed changing and addressing. I assumed that as a businessperson, and seeing that I was by far the No. 1 judge, he would take it in stride and make the necessary adjustments. And we would come back to work, ready to go,” she says.

Cowell’s spokesperson says, “Simon does appreciate and respect feedback,” pointing to the smoking complaint.

According to ratings group Nielsen Social, Union was the top personality on all of network television while her season of “AGT” was on air, specifically in social media engagement, which she was contractually obligated to deliver.

“The investigation has not shown that the concerns raised by Ms. Union had any bearing on the decision not to exercise the option on her contract,” Fremantle, Syco and NBC said in their statement.

Throughout the turbulent experience, Union was reminded of the words of a former teacher at UCLA, where she studied sociology.

“I had a professor who told me that racism is an issue for people who have to experience it every day. If you don’t have to experience it every day, it’s a nonissue. And that was never more true than in this case,” she says. “When you talk about diversity, there is very little diversity behind the scenes to match all of the diversity that is in the audience on-site, at home watching and the contestants. There are so many blind spots. Your solution can’t be an edit button.”

The struggle has taken its toll on Union, who acknowledges the benefits afforded her thanks to her successful career and high profile.

“If I can’t speak out with the privilege that I have, and the benefits that my husband and I have, what is the point of making it? What is the point of having a seat at the table and protecting your privilege when you’re not doing s— to help other people? It’s absolutely terrifying to speak truth to power about anything. I’m trying not to be terrified, and some days are better than others,” she says.

Activist and #MeToo founder Tarana Burke warns of the consequences of taking on the role of “truth-teller” publicly and within slow-changing institutions.

“What happens often is that the person who tells the truth, we build off of that truth and we make changes and shift policy — but we don’t care for the material life of the truth-teller. Who protects Gabrielle Union?” says Burke. “We must make sure we protect our truth-tellers so that new ones come forward. She’s a person who is going to be physically uncomfortable not standing in her truth. It’s important to have people like that in your workplace and your life.”

Burke also encourages people to remember the cost. “We can tell a hero’s story, but it’s exhausting being that person all the time. What is the label she now has? You know there are executives who will say, ‘She was a bit of a problem on that other thing,’” Burke says.

For Union and many other Hollywood figures representing marginalized and intersectional groups, issues of race in show business and in the violent streets of America aren’t separate matters. On the day of Union’s conversation with Variety, video footage of the murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was splashed across cable news and the internet.

Lazy loaded image
Left: Howie Mandel, Union, Julianne Hough and Simon Cowell served as judges for Season 14 of “America’s Got Talent”; Trae Patton/NBC

“When it’s easier to come up with excuses of why someone is murdered in cold blood, and protect the perpetrators, I don’t know how we get to you seeing me as an equal in the office. I can’t separate the two, because I don’t have the luxury as a black woman in America. I take all of this experience with me everywhere,” she says.

Union has never shied away from sharing her personal struggles with the wider world, to a healing effect. She was raped and beaten at gunpoint at the age of 19, a harrowing experience that turned her book tour for the 2017 memoir “We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True” into widely attended discussions of black female identity and advocacy for women who have been sexually assaulted. She’s also shared her journey with surrogacy in welcoming her 1-year-old daughter Kaavia James Union Wade, and provided a huge signal boost for trans acceptance in openly embracing stepdaughter Zaya, whose father is Union’s husband Dwyane Wade.

“With all of the love comes the hate too,” Union says of Zaya’s journey.” It’s watching the love handle the hate that has been encouraging. We’re just loving and accepting our kids, which is not revolutionary. To some people it’s nuts. For those people who have spoken out so publicly against our family,” many more have rallied in support of the family, Union says. “I’m not standing on my own. The cavalry is arriving, and they are unafraid to stand in their truth and not be compromising when we look at right and wrong.”

Privilege does not shield her from everything, she admits.

“It’s interesting — when my husband and I enter into spaces where they are not used to seeing black faces, there is a freezing of sorts. From an airport lounge to a party or daring to walk through our own neighborhood where we pay taxes, not wearing clothes that reveal our faces quick enough,” she says. “LeBron James is arguably one of the most famous people in Los Angeles, and it still didn’t stop somebody from writing ‘N—a’ on the door of his $20 million Brentwood mansion. You’re still a n—a. They’re going to remind you of who you are, and your fame and your money only goes so far.”

One antidote she’s found has been bringing marginalized voices to the forefront with her production company, I’ll Have Another, which she runs with development head Holly Shakoor Fleischer.

Union’s creative reputation speaks for itself, says her former director and co-star Chris Rock, who cast her in his 2014 comedy “Top Five.”  Rock says Union is “one of the smartest, most brutally honest people I know. She also happens to be a great actress who not only brings her talent but also lends credibility and authenticity to anything she’s in. Anyone would be lucky to work with Gabrielle.”

As a producer, Union says she’s “so much more excited and motivated to put other people on and create opportunities to get their stories told. And to get paid! And actually be effective and listened to.”

Union’s slate is stacked, with two feature pitches sold to both Universal Pictures, and another two at Netflix. Both Netflix titles are vehicles for Union to star in, including an adaptation of the best-seller “The Perfect Find” in which Union will play a late-blooming beauty journalist who sparks with the younger son of her employer. Stuart Ford’s AGC Studios is financing. At Sony’s Screen Gems label, she has an untitled romantic comedy from writer-director Chester Tam. That follows an African American woman and a recently divorced Asian-American man whose love connection shakes up their respective families. 

In series development is “Afro.Punks” at HBO Max, and the YA adaptation “500 Words or Less” at Amazon Studios, featuring a female protagonist who’s half-Chinese and half-white. There’s also a bikini bar dramedy “Tips” at Spectrum, and queer relationship drama set at FreeForm. At Quibi, she’s placed the comedy “Black Coffee,” about a basketball player turned barista. Union is also the producer and star of “LA’s Finest,” a spinoff centered on her original character from the “Bad Boys” films. The show’s second season hits June 8 on Spectrum, and will air on Fox this fall. 

While she’s in charge, she is not immune to familiar and antiquated notes. “People thought I was crazy to hire or champion Jessica Alba months after she gave birth,” Union says of her co-star and fellow EP. “I was asked, ‘How are you going to have an action show with a breast- feeding mom? Are you crazy?’ But what drove Jessica out of [the] business is not what’s going to keep me from hiring her.”

Union is excited to prove that two marginalized women can carry a series as stars and leaders, and create a healthy and successful workplace in the process.

“I know it’s scary to stick your neck out, and get an ounce of power and have to share it,” she says. “It’s not what we’re taught, but you don’t have to sacrifice your soul to do it. There’s another way, and I’m committed to finding it.”