Last November, it was announced that Union and Julianne Hough would not be returning to AGT next season. Days later, Variety published a report claiming there was a “toxic culture” on the set of AGT that included racist jokes and excessive focus on female judges’ appearances.
The new interview was published on Wednesday, the same day an investigation of her complaints of racism on the set of the show concluded that her allegations were unfounded, according to NBC and the show’s producers.
“I signed up for the experience of being a part of a show that hails itself as the biggest stage in the world,” Union told the outlet. “Super diverse, and one about giving people an opportunity to shine where they otherwise probably wouldn’t. What could go wrong?”
The Being Mary Jane actor continued, “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. … 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.”
Union had previously said she clashed with head judge Simon Cowell due to her concerns about his smoking cigarettes inside the theatre where the show filmed. It’s against the law in California for an employer to allow smoking in a workplace.
The Bring It On actor addressed Cowell’s smoking again, saying, “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 added.
“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 said.
Cowell’s spokesperson told Variety that “when he was directly informed of the smoking complaint during the first couple of days of the season, he immediately changed his behaviour and the issue was never raised again.”
Union also addressed Jay Leno, who was a guest judge on Season 14 and she alleged that he made an inappropriate joke. Leno has declined to comment on the matter.
“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 said. “I gasped. I froze. Other things had already happened, but at this point, it was so wildly racist.”
She said production told her, “We’ll delete it. We’ll edit it out.”
“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 said.
Union said that her goal now is to enact real change at shows like AGT.
“It starts from the top down,” she said. “My goal is to create the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected and healthy example of a workplace.”
NBC and AGT producers said the outside review found that Union’s claims had “no bearing” on the show’s decision to drop her as a judge, said the network and production companies FremantleMedia and Syco in a joint statement Wednesday. Syco is series host and producer Cowell’s joint venture with Sony Music.
Union appeared on the talent showcase for a season, until she and fellow freshman judge Hough weren’t asked to return.
Variety previously reported that Union, who is black, believed she was fired because she had asked NBC and the show’s producers to respond to an environment that tolerated racist jokes and remarks. That included what Union said were multiple notes from producers saying she was wearing her hair “too black” for the AGT audience.
NBC sought the investigation into Union’s accusations.
“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,” NBC and the producers said.
The findings, which were based on some 30 interviews, did highlight “some areas in which reporting processes could be improved,” the companies said without offering details.
—With files from The Associated Press