Gabrielle Union is speaking out for the first time about her experience working on America's Got Talent that led to her exit after one season.
The 47-year-old actress was a judge on season 14 of the NBC talent show before her departure in November. A Variety report later claimed that Union had expressed concern about the show's "toxic culture" to NBC's Human Resources department. Although NBC and Fremantle responded to the report at the time with a statement praising AGT's long history of "inclusivity and diversity" and said that Union and fellow judge Julianne Hough's exits were part of the routine cycling out of judges on the show, Union's husband, Dwyane Wade, claimed on Twitter that she was fired.
In a new Variety interview published on Wednesday, Union talks directly about her experience at AGT. She says the problems started right from her first moments on set, when show creator and judge Simon Cowell smoked in front of her even though she's severely allergic. She claims she addressed it with producers, who said that nothing was going to be done -- even though it directly affected her ability to do her job.
"[I was] coming on to 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," she says of Cowell's smoking. "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."
Union says her having a constant runny nose also affected judge Howie Mandel, who sat by her onstage, due to his well-known germophobia.
"It was challenging to tend to my illness without being made to feel like I'm responsible for my own sickness," she says. "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."
In a statement to Variety, Cowell's spokesperson says that when he was made aware 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."
Meanwhile, in a joint statement to ET on Wednesday, show producers Fremantle and Syco as well as NBC also said that 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."
"Through the investigation process, it has been revealed 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," the statement continues, in part. "The investigation has shown that the concerns raised by Ms. Union had no bearing on the decision not to exercise the option on her contract."
Aside from the issue with Cowell, in the new interview, Union also calls out alleged race issues with the show, including her shock when she says guest judge Jay Leno made a racist joke. According to Variety, the comedian made the joke when referring to a painting of Cowell and his dogs, saying the animals looked like food items at a Korean restaurant.
"My first big interview in this industry, the first person who allowed me to come on their talk show, was Jay Leno," Union says. "I've always held him in high regard, but I was not prepared for his joke. I gasped. I froze. Other things had already happened, but at this point, it was so wildly racist."
"You cannot edit out what we just experienced," she adds of production's response that they would edit out the joke from airing. "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?"
Later, Union described her dismay during another incident, when a white male contestant -- whose talent was to transform into famous singers, including costume changes -- put on black gloves to imitate a black singer. Union says she was shocked that the audition was allowed to happen, and brings up Hough's 2013 controversy, when the dancer was photographed dressed up as Uzo Aduba's character on Orange Is the New Black for a Halloween party and darkened her skin. Hough has since apologized.
"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," Union says of Hough. "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. ... 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."
Union says she struggled with the decision to speak out about her concerns.
"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?'" she recalls. "Because I'm not the only one being poisoned at work."
"At the end of all this, my goal is real change -- and not just on this show but for the larger parent company," she continues. "It starts from the top down. My goal is to create the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected and healthy example of a workplace."
For more on Union's AGT departure, watch the video below: