Simon Cowell Gabrielle Union: What Actually Happened? • Daily Feed

By Dan Strayer

19th February 2020

Simon Cowell Gabrielle Union: What Actually Happened?

Gabrielle Union and Simon Cowell
SOURCE: Los Angeles Times

The Simon Cowell Gabrielle Union feud shaping up in the United States has the makings of a public relations nightmare. Union’s proposed lawsuit against Cowell is due to Cowell’s allegedly heavy smoking indoors that “put her life in danger.”

Leading entertainment attorney Bryan Freedman will subsequently represent Union. Freedman is a frequent mention by The Hollywood Reporter (now for more than a decade) as one of the most powerful lawyers in show business.

Why the need for a lawsuit?

Cowell and Union have served as judges on America’s Got Talent, at least until Union was forced off the show in November. Union settled with Cowell and his production company amidst allegations of a toxic working environment where producers engaged in racially insensitive suggestions toward Union.

But left unmentioned was Cowell’s tendency to smoke indoors, a clear violation of state laws. Union, 47, would file the lawsuit in the state of California, where AGT films. The most populous state in the US and renowned as home to many of the leading entertainment industries of the world, California has strict laws forbidding smoking in the workplace.

Namely, state laws here forbid:

‘knowingly or intentionally permitting… the smoking of tobacco products in an enclosed place of employment’. 

Racism allegations

The toxic culture question surrounding AGT became a Twitter firestorm in November when it emerged Union was off of the show. As a result of the news became public, a racism furore broke out when Union revealed that producers mentioned that her hair and clothes were ‘too black’.

Additionally, Leno made a joke deemed derogatory toward people of Korean descendants that never went on the air but nonetheless shocked many staff members.

Because AGT is run by Cowell and his production company Syco, Union claims she had no place to turn. Particularly in finding an impartial window to complain about the conduct she witnessed or was subject to.

“Gabrielle kept complaining about Simon’s total autonomy on set. There were no other channels to go through to make a complaint about conditions. She was shocked when she was told that her hair and wardrobe was ‘too black’ and she immediately tried to lodge a complaint, but there wasn’t a place to go.”

To summarise: a poor HR setup, racial rows and ineffective complaints procedures. Accordingly, it becomes more and more understandable how a collision course was set for a Simon Cowell Gabrielle Union lawsuit.

The HR setup in the Simon Cowell Gabrielle Union feud

Piers Morgan has been a judge on America's Got Talent

So what was the reporting process in house to address the Simon Cowell Gabrielle Union issue?

Amidst these questions about workplace culture sat fellow AGT judges Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough and Howie Mandel. Just as with Britain’s Got Talent, three other judges work with Cowell on set.

The judging and host line-up has been shaken up regularly over the years. As a result, other judges and hosts past and present included a Who’s Who in entertainment circles.

  • Music mogul/judge Sharon Osbourne,
  • Models Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum,
  • Actor Terry Crews,
  • Talk-show hosts Howard Stern, Jay Leno, Regis Philbin, Jerry Springer and Piers Morgan.

Consequently, so many A-list personalities can invite some turmoil.

Terry Crews (left) is the current host of America's Got Talent

Regular Turnover

Such star power and continuous turnover give the show credence and a newsworthy talk model to keep it in the news across 14 seasons. Thus driving AGT’s enduring popularity as the equivalent to Britain’s Got Talent and The Voice for NBC. However, a byproduct of the constant newsworthiness is expendable judges.

Consequently, Hough and Union were out as AGT in November.

Conversely, as Union spoke up, other judges felt compelled to defend their place on the set and in Cowell’s working environment. Consequently, Hough (whose contract runs out but whose work now involves several other NBC projects) is not backing up Union’s claims of toxic work culture. In a statement, Hough says:

‘I had a wonderful time on America’s Got Talent, I loved working with the cast, crew and producers. I am happy to continue my working relationship with NBC.’

Union receives support

However, Union has her backers beyond the AGT culture. Namely, actress Elizabeth Banks came to her defence:

‘Thank you @itsgabrielleu for speaking up about a toxic culture at @NBC‘s #AmericasGotTalent,’ ‘It’s time for NBC to take these allegations seriously. Join me & @TIMESUPNOW in calling for accountability & concrete action.’

As a result, the story now has a #MeToo level of persuasion. As one insider told Metro:

This is her #MeToo moment and she’s doing this because she genuinely wants to change an outdated system and wants to make it better for the women who come after her.’

The response

The Gabrielle Union Simon Cowell feud may have found a new level with Union considering a lawsuit
SOURCE: File Photos

AGT producers responded shortly before settling with Union:

We remain committed to ensuring a respectful workplace for all employees and take very seriously any questions about workplace culture.”

“We are working with Ms. Union through her representatives to hear more about her concerns, following which we will take whatever next steps may be appropriate.’

NBC producers and Fremantle productions add: ‘America’s Got Talent’ has a long history of inclusivity and diversity in both our talent and the acts championed by the show.”

Gabrielle Union career timeline

So what to make of all of this? In looking at the Gabrielle Union-Simon Cowell feud, it’s clear that judging by her rise to fame, Union is not someone that takes a knockdown very well.

To that end, she might say “Bring it on.” Gabrielle Monique Union-Wade has been a film star and voice artist since the 1990s, but also has a considered track record as an activist as well as her former role as an AGT judge.


Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union were married in 2014
SOURCE: File Photos

Fans of American sports, particularly basketball, will recognise Union as the better half of former NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade. Wade won three NBA titles with the Miami Heat, paired with fellow standouts LeBron James and Chris Bosh in two of those seasons. In 2006, Wade was the NBA Finals MVP, scoring 34.7 points per game in leading an undermanned Heat side to a 4-2 series win over the favoured Dallas Mavericks.

As a stepmother, Union has embraced Wade’s three children as her own; additionally, she gave birth via a surrogate mother to their daughter in 2018. Union identified that she had struggled with miscarriages previously.

Stepdaughter Zaya

Recently, Union and Wade have spoken about Wade’s son (named Zion at birth). Zion has identified as transgender by the name of Zaya. Dwyane Wade explained his handling of the matter as a parent on Ellen earlier this month.

“We are proud parents of a child in the LGBTQ+ community and we’re proud allies as well. And we take our roles and our responsibilities as parents very seriously.”

“Zion, born as a boy, came home and said, ‘Hey, so I want to talk to you guys. I think going forward I am ready to live my truth. I want to be referenced as ‘she’ and ‘her.’ I would love for you guys to call me Zaya.’’ 

Both Union and Wade have accepted Zaya’s request. Wade says that as her father, it was essential to ensure he gave her request due diligence to enable Zaya to become “her best self.”

Pronoun issues

Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade
SOURCE: File Photos

Distressingly, another apparent “mark” against Union’s return to AGT dealt with a similarly constituted gender issue. According to a report, AGT producers say they found Union to be difficult to work with. One reason? Asking contestants which pronoun they would prefer to be called.

Gabrielle’s marriage to Wade marks Union’s second union. The first was to former NFL running back Chris Howard in 2001, which ended in divorce in 2006.

Film and television

Gabrielle Union is an accomplished actress in both film and television
SOURCE: Getty Images

So what brought Union to fame? Throughout the 1990s, she sought a breakthrough in the entertainment industry via television, film and music videos. Some of her earliest television work saw her guest-starring in television roles on shows in the early 1990s like:

  • Family Matters
  • Moesha
  • 7th Heaven
  • Sister, Sister
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

In the film industry, Union took on smaller roles starting in 1999, for movies such as:

  • 10 Things I Hate About You
  • She’s All That
  • Love & Basketball.

Union breaks through

But her breakthrough came opposite Kirsten Dunst as the rival cheerleading squad captain Isis in Bring It On. The role netted Union a Black Reel Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture and positioned the then-28-year-old as a rising star.

She was nominated for the awards for her performance in the award-winning television film Something The Lord Made, featuring Alan Rickman and Mos Def. Other films that followed off the success of Bring It On included featured roles in:

  • Deliver Us From Eva
  • Bad Boys II
  • Cradle 2 The Grave
  • The Honeymooners
  • Think Like a Man and Think Like a Man Too.

Union’s guest spots on television later included Friends, ER, The West Wing and Family Guy.

Acclaim as an actress

Overall, Union has been nominated at least once for the following awards as an actress:

  • Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films.
  • American Black Film Festival.
  • Behind the Voice Actors Awards.
  • BET Awards.
  • BET Comedy Awards.
  • Black Reel Awards.
  • Gold Derby Awards.
  • NAACP Image Awards.
  • NAMIC Vision Awards.
  • Palm Beach International Film Festival.
  • Teen Choice Awards.
  • Young Hollywood Awards.
Gabrielle Union (left) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 10 Things I Hate About You
SOURCE: File Photos

Wins include:

  • BET Comedy Awards – 2004: Deliver Us From Eva
  • NAACP Image Awards, Best Actress in a Television Movie – 2014: Being Mary Jane
  • Black Reel Awards, Top Newcomer – 2001: Bring It On
  • Palm Beach International Film Festival, Best Actress – 2006: Neo Ned
  • Teen Choice Awards, Choice Action TV Actress – 2019: L.A.’s Finest

More recently, Union was the lead on Young Mary Jane, a highly acclaimed show on BET that ran for six seasons. Regularly, Union’s performance as television anchor Mary Jane Paul has been nominated for awards. The show’s run ended in 2019, albeit somewhat unceremoniously: Union had to go to court with BET to recoup lost wages.

Next, her latest work is a reprisal of her role on Bad Boys II in the cop show L.A.’s Finest, co-starring Jessica Alba and Ernie Hudson.


True to her strengths as a strong presence on and off-screen, Union has been lauded for her activism. Her areas of focus include victims of assault, sexual assault, transgender issues, breast cancer and racial justice.

Gabrielle was honoured with an award for activism in 2013 that touched on several ways she has changed since she came to Hollywood. So inspiring was her speech that Oprah Winfrey herself described how it motivated her:

I had never heard anyone be that honest in public or private about the competition and fierce drive to be seen and succeed in Hollywood.

That competition is even more charged for women of color because of the dearth of roles.

On racial matters, Union has been outspoken on everything from the TSA to the Trayvon Martin shooting death. Union and Wade have also started a line of t-shirts in support of LGTBQ rights.

OK: So how bad is Cowell’s smoking habit?

Other than “bad enough to spark a hazardous work environment lawsuit?”

Well, by Cowell’s own admission, it’s a problem he has struggled to manage. He’s even taken to Twitter to share his struggle to overcome the addiction. Namely, in 2013, Cowell sought help from Twitter followers on the safety of e-cigarettes.

Not all remedies to cigarettes have worked permanently, however: Cowell has not kicked the habit. Some outlets have reported that Cowell often lights up 80 times a day. And if the Gabrielle Union Simon Cowell lawsuit is to be believed, some of those 80 occasions are occurring indoors, a clear violation of the law.

So pervasive and constant was Cowell’s smoking, allegedly, that he didn’t even bother to contain second-hand smoke from the dressing rooms of his fellow judges on set. According to Vulture:

“The theatre didn’t have walls between dressing rooms, so they were separated by pipes and draped fabric, and cigarette smoke seeped into Union’s dressing area. Union, who is allergic to cigarette smoke, was repeatedly rebuffed when she asked other staff members to request that Cowell stop smoking inside.”

The Gabrielle Union Simon Cowell lawsuit now alleges Cowell smoked regularly indoors
SOURCE: File Photos

NBC was seeming of no help, all but accepting that Cowell’s violation of state laws was part and parcel of broadcasting AGT. One executive told Union that:

“no one could stop Cowell from smoking and that previous attempts by a fire marshal and NBC executives had been unsuccessful.”

But Twitter giveth and taketh away, too. Followers have pointed out his derogatory nature before, dating back to 2012:

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