Gabrielle Union Says Simon Cowell’s On-Set Smoking Gave Her Bronchitis

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

America’s got talent, but you know what else it has? Strict smoking laws. In a cover story for Variety, former America’s Got Talent judge Gabrielle Union described a working environment where executive producer and lead judge Simon Cowell would smoke cigarettes on their indoor, closed set, triggering her smoke allergy and causing her to feel sick for months. Union, whose concerns about the work environment on America’s Got Talent led to multiple investigations, says the toxic clouds, both real and cultural, appeared on her very first day. She says she hesitantly brought up Cowell’s smoking with producers, who said they were aware of the problem, but that there was effectively nothing to be done. “I couldn’t escape,” Union told Variety. “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 her runny nose also affected fellow judge Howie Mandel, who lives with OCD and germaphobia. “It put me in a position from day one where I felt othered,” she explained. “I felt isolated. I felt singled out as being difficult, when I’m asking for basic laws to be followed.” Through a spokesperson, Cowell says “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 raised this complaint and several other instances of discrimination and hostile workplace behavior with producers. Following her dismissal and a Variety report about the “toxic” culture at AGT, an internal investigation into production companies Fremantle and Syco, and NBC was opened and is currently ongoing. A source familiar with the internal investigation told Variety they have not concluded that Cowell has changed his indoor smoking habit. SAG-AFTRA also opened an investigation into Freemantle, in light of both Union’s complaints and an incident involving actor Orlando Jones on its show American Gods. “At the end of all this, my goal is real change — and not just on this show but for the larger parent company,” Union said. “It starts from the top down. My goal is to create the happiest, most high-functioning, inclusive, protected and healthy example of a workplace.”

Gabby Union Says Simon Cowell’s On-Set Smoking Made Her Sick