The Shady Truth About America's Got Talent

America's Got Talent may as well be called America's Got Drama, due to the sketchy things that tend to go on not only behind the scenes, but even on live TV. The NBC hit has seen its share of feuds, accidents, attorneys, and shocking allegations. As a result, the talent competition reality show has boasted a revolving door of judges (including Piers Morgan, Howard Stern, Simon Cowell, Howie Mandel, David Hasselhoff, Brandy, Sharon Osbourne, Mel B, Gabrielle Union, Julianne Hough, and Heidi Klum) and hosts (such as Regis Philbin, Jerry Springer, Nick Cannon, America's Next Top Model alum Tyra Banks, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine's Terry Crews) since its inception.

Whether AGT's mishaps and alleged misconduct made its backstage environment a poor one for participants, the show's ratings never really suffered until more recent years: By 2019, Season 14's premiere had a record low of 9.75 million viewers — down more than 2 million viewers from year before. That said, could controversy toward the end of that decade spark a ratings revival in 2020? Only time will tell. In the meantime, here's the shady truth about America's Got Talent.

Nick Cannon quit AGT because he thought NBC was too controlling

Nick Cannon — who'd hosted America's Got Talent since 2009 — angered network brass with a crack he made about NBC taking away his "black card" during a Showtime comedy special in 2017. According to TMZ, NBC higher-ups reportedly believed Cannon "was disparaging the network — a violation of his contract." Sources claimed that network execs considered firing Cannon, but ultimately decided against it. However, Cannon quit AGT days later, with sources telling TMZ he felt he was treated differently than other celebs who'd previously made jokes about their networks.

"After days of deliberating over some extremely disappointing news that I was being threatened with termination by executives because of a comedy special that was only intended to bring communities closer together, I was to be punished for a joke," Cannon wrote on Facebook at the time. He later told Yahoo! Entertainment, "It was a freedom of speech process and me standing firm for my own beliefs and culturally who I am, and really for all the employees who have been thumb-pressed by their bosses. I kind of stood up and said, 'Yo, I was threatened for some content that I created.' And they wanted me to shape up and get in line and watch my choice of words or how I speak about the network ... I told them, 'You can't fire a boss. I quit!'"

Gabrielle Union accused AGT of having a toxic on-set culture

In November 2019, Variety reported that Season 14 judge Gabrielle Union had complained about a racially charged joke from guest Jay Leno that April. Though Union allegedly "urged producers to report" the incident, it was supposedly never brought to HR, but the joke was cut from the show's broadcast when it aired months later. Union also reportedly also expressed concerns over a racially insensitive act from a contestant during auditions, which was also cut from broadcast.

However, insiders claimed these incidents were just one of many that contributed to a "toxic culture" on the AGT set. Alleging that Union and Julianne Hough were both criticized for their appearances, sources claimed that Union was singled out multiple times because her hairstyles were considered "too black" for the show's audience. Hough denied the claims, while an NBC insider said the appearance notes both women received were for "hair continuity" purposes. 

While Hough and Union were both let go from the show after a single season, NBC and Fremantle Media, which produces AGT, said in a statement to Variety: "America's Got Talent has a long history of inclusivity and diversity in both our talent and the acts championed by the show. The judging and host line-up has been regularly refreshed over the years and that is one of the reasons for AGT's enduring popularity. NBC and the producers take any issues on set seriously."

Sharon Osbourne slammed AGT as a 'boys' club'

Sharon Osbourne, who judged America's Got Talent from 2007 to 2012, spoke out after Gabrielle Union's exit and accused producers of sexism in both casting and wages. "It is a boys' club," Osbourne said during a December 2019 episode of The Talk. "The boys take care of each other, and the women are not paid as much as the men." 

After pointing out that she was on the show before Howie Mandel and that AGT's ratings were better during her tenure than when Simon Cowell joined the panel, Osbourne noted how Cowell and fellow judge L.A. Reid always worked alongside younger, attractive women on X Factor USA. "I was open — I told L.A. Reid, and I told Simon — it's nothing I wouldn't say to their face: 'You look like two dirty old men.'" Osbourne also alleged that Mandel got better non-monetary perks than she did, including private jet flights — but noted that she held no ill will toward Mandel personally.

Osbourne's co-host, Carrie Ann Inaba, then read a statement from NBC espousing the network's support of inclusivity and taking workplace culture complaints very seriously. To which Osbourne griped, "NBC can kiss my a**." It's worth nothing that Osbourne previously alleged that Cowell fired her from X Factor in the U.K. because she was "too old."

Howard Stern accused Simon Cowell of being sexist

Howard Stern is another former America's Got Talent judge who's had words for Simon Cowell. In 2015, the infamous Sony hack revealed that Cowell lobbied NBC to hire him in replacement of Stern on AGT (via the New York Daily News). Fast forward to August 2019, when Stern lashed out at Cowell on his radio show about the hiring and firing mess. "My only beef with him is he had a campaign behind my back, which I wouldn't have known if the Koreans hadn't hacked Sony," he griped (via Radar Online). "They exposed these emails he had going, 'We can get rid of Stern and I'll work for so much cheaper.' And by the way, if I had really wanted that job, then I would've been p**sed. But I just find him sleazy and he is a liar."

After Gabrielle Union's unceremonious exit from AGT, Stern accused Cowell of being sexist. Claiming that Cowell was behind Union's termination, Stern speculated that the current lineup of male judges (Howie Mandel and Cowell) wasn't likely to change (via Deadline). "He has set it up that the men stay, no matter how old they are, no matter how fat they are, no matter how ugly they are, no matter talentless they are," Stern alleged. "But what he manages to do on all his shows is he constantly replaces the hot chicks with hotter chicks and younger chicks. Which is so obvious."

America's Got Talent may not be kind to comedians

It isn't just the judges and hosts on America's Got Talent who've aired grievances about their experiences on the show. Comedian Joe Matarese accused the reality series of editing one of his sets to make it appear that he performed poorly. Matarese had competed during Season 9, but was eliminated just before the quarter-finals. Prior to that, he did exceptionally well (Howard Stern in particular loved him). However, he may have been inadvertently set up for failure in his final round: Matarese had to perform for just the judges and not an actual crowd, creating a truly awkward predicament for a stand-up comic.

"I don't even look at myself as blowing it, because there was no audience in the next round, and there was supposed to be an audience, which made it even worse," Mataese claimed on his Life of Joe podcast. "They had technical difficulties, so they had to change the whole thing. So all the material I prepared, I prepared because I thought there was going to be 2,000 people there ... I did jokes that work on performance and the pause ... There [were] act-outs in the jokes, and the act-outs are way off when you have an audience there to time it out." 

Matarese also claimed that it's especially hard for comedians without management teams and connections to make it past the AGT audition process.

Several AGT stunts have gone SERIOUSLY wrong

Some specialty performers on America's Got Talent have unfortunately gotten hurt on the show. Back in 2007, an acrobatic breakdancer named Ivan fell headfirst into metal chairs and lied on the stage floor motionless for moments. Then-host Jerry Springer later announced that Ivan received medical attention and would be okay, but wouldn't return to the competition post-mishap.

Similarly in 2016, Canadian stuntman Ryan Stock appeared on the show with fiancée AmberLynn Walker, who was supposed to shoot a bullseye near his face with a crossbow and flaming arrow. Instead, the arrow hit Stock in the throat. After the incident, Simon Cowell told Us Weekly, "I've heard he was OK, but this has never happened before. We always kid that they need to make it more dangerous, but then this happens. I thought it was part of the act, but then I realized this was bad. I just had a feeling, they looked nervous before they started. But he's OK."

Two years later, married couple Mary and Tyce (the latter of whom is nearly blind) of Duo Transcend performed a trapeze act on AGT. When Mary took a nasty fall after slipping through Tyce's grasp, the show quickly cut to commercial. Thankfully, the pair had a protective mat that broke her fall, so she was fine ... though the audience (including her mother and baby boy) may have been at risk for heart attacks.

Did Mel B and Simon Cowell stage an on-set AGT fight?

Before Mel B was cycled out of the America's Got Talent judges' panel, she periodically had tense moments with Simon Cowell on air — and that tension came to a head in 2017. After a contestant's magic act went awry, Cowell cracked, "I kind of imagine this would be like Mel B's wedding night: A lot of anticipation, not much promise or delivery."

Mel B, whose divorce from ex-husband Stephen Belafonte was rife with allegations of sexual abuse, substance abuse, and domestic violence, appeared to not take kindly to Cowell's remark and threw her water on him before storming out of the studio. However, they reconciled not long after the incident, with Mel B saying (via Variety), "He should know if you say something inappropriate he's gonna, like, get stuff thrown at him. In a friendly way. I made sure there was no ice in it this time. I told him he was an a**hole and that was it, and he goes, 'Oh, whatever.'"

All that said, a source cited by Radar Online claimed that the entire tiff was actually staged, alleging that Mel B knew Cowell's remark was imminent, which was why her Dunkin Donuts-sponsored cup "was full of water and not coffee." The insider added that Cowell would allegedly do almost anything to drum up drama — including skipping the press line post-show, even though Mel B happily chatted with reporters. Hmm.

Terry Crews butted heads with Gabrielle Union over her AGT diversity complaints

During a January 2020 interview on the Today show, Terry Crews was asked about America's Got Talent's ongoing toxic set allegations. "I can't speak for sexism because I'm not a woman, but I can speak on any racism comments," he replied. "That was never my experience. In fact, it was the most diverse place I have ever been in my 20 years of entertainment."

Gabrielle Union, of course, didn't take too kindly to his remarks, tweeting that she had "multiple witnesses" to back up her case. Alluding that Crews tried to "throw [her] under the bus," she later claimed that he'd lied, before following up with more tweets about the alleged lack of diversity behind the scenes, even in the hair and makeup departments.

Following Union's response and some subsequent social media backlash, Crews apologized in a series of tweets, writing that he needed to "acknowledge the pain of other people." He continued, "@itsgabrielleu, I want you to know it was never my intention to invalidate your experience — but that is what I did. I apologize. You have been through a lot in this business, and with that I empathize with the struggle toward fairness and equality in the workplace." Crews added, "You are a role model to the entire black community and In my desire to be professionally neutral as your co-worker, I should have at the very least understood you just needed my support."

Gabrielle Union said the America's Got Talent set made her physically ill

In an interview with Variety published in May 2020, Gabrielle Union said the trauma she allegedly suffered on the set of America's Got Talent didn't just affect her emotionally and mentally — she also became physically ill. Union claimed that she's allergic to cigarette smoke and that Simon Cowell's smoking on set severely hindered her health for two months. "It was a cold that lingered, and turned into bronchitis, because I couldn't shake it," she explained. "It impacted my voice, which affects my ability to do my job." Union also alleged that her respiratory illness irked notorious germaphobe Howie Mandel, going on to claim that when she brought up these incidents to producers, nothing happened.

Union also spoke about the racist jokes and material she allegedly witnessed, as well as the show reportedly not having a policy in place to ask contestants about their preferred pronouns. Having attempted to culturally course-correct for the show to no avail, Union added, "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."

Gabrielle Union wasn't thrilled to work with Julianne Hough for a very specific reason

Gabrielle Union told Variety that one incident in particular infuriated her: A white male contestant's act included quick transformations into different celeb singers, and for one portion of his performance, he wore black gloves to "transform" into a black artist. Union claimed she brought up concerns about blackface and was ignored, even though the contestant's performance was "flagged as problematic" pretty early on, before he was ultimately allowed to perform. 

She also shaded fellow judge Julianne Hough, who infamously darkened her skin to be "Crazy Eyes" from Orange Is the New Black for Halloween in 2013. "I'm a part of a show that hired one of my co-workers who had an unfortunate incident doing blackface," Union said. "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."

Gabrielle Union filed a discrimination complaint against AGT producers

Gabrielle Union didn't just speak out about the alleged racial discrimination she faced on the America's Got Talent set — she also filed an official complaint with California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing against NBCUniversal, Fremantle Productions, and Syco (Simon Cowell's production company). 

In documents obtained by TMZ in June 2020, Union claimed that she was subjected to or witnessed "racist jokes, racist performances, sexual orientation discrimination, and excessive focus on female judges' appearances, including race-related comments." These included Union allegedly being told to tone down her hair, and she claimed she raised 60 concerns with higher-ups about various incidents of racial and gender discrimination. Per Variety, she also alleged that NBC Entertainment Chair Paul Telegdy threatened her for speaking out about the discrimination she claimed to experience on the set of AGT. Though the exact nature of the reported threat wasn't revealed, Union believes she was fired over coming forward with her allegations.

NBC said in a statement (via TMZ), "The allegation that anyone involved in this process threatened Ms. Union is categorically untrue. We took Ms. Union's concerns seriously, and engaged an outside investigator who found an overarching culture of diversity on the show. NBCUniversal remains committed to creating an inclusive and supportive working environment where people of all backgrounds are treated with respect." By denying Telegdy's alleged threat, rather than "substantively address the DFEH complaint" that Union filed, her attorney accused the network of playing semantics.

Gabrielle Union met with NBC about inclusivity after the scandal

Though Gabrielle Union was let go from America's Got Talent, she reportedly still wanted to make a difference in how talent was treated on the show moving forward. "Gabrielle believes there is a toxicity that has become normalized at Talent," a source cited by Deadline claimed in December 2019. "She wants to help fix that, because she loved a lot of her time on the show last season, even with the issues with Simon and what have you. But she could never go back, even if they did a [180] and asked her to for another season — no." 

Page Six reported that Simon Cowell's company, Syco, lawyered up ahead of the meeting, noting that attorneys would be present to gain information about the alleged on-set environment. Thankfully, Union later tweeted that she and NBC spoke for five hours in what she called a "productive meeting," adding, "I was able to, again, express my unfiltered truth. I led with transparency and my desire and hope for real change." Meanwhile, NBC stated to The Associated Press, "While there will be a further investigation to get a deeper understanding of the facts, we are working with Gabrielle to come to a positive resolution."

While that all sounds like a big mess for AGT, it was only the beginning, as Variety soon reported that the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) was also launching it's own investigation in to the allegations. 

The Screen Actor's Guild investigated AGT's production company

In December 2019, SAG-AFTRA announced it was investigating NBC, Fremantle Media, and America's Got Talent following Gabrielle Union's allegations of a toxic work environment rife with racial discrimination and health hazards. Later that month, SAG-AFTRA announced it wasn't just investigating AGT, but also American Gods, another Fremantle Media production, for allegations of racial discrimination after star Orlando Jones, who starred as Mr. Nancy, was let go from the series. Jones said he was fired for "sending the wrong message to Black America."

The union said in a statement (via IndieWire), "After initial meetings with Gabrielle Union and her representatives about her experiences on America's Got Talent, and after learning more about Orlando Jones's experience on American Gods, SAG-AFTRA is expanding its investigation of Fremantle Media. Our enforcement actions are handled confidentially to protect the members involved, and we typically do not publicize these matters unless the affected members request that we do so," it reads. "We have nothing further to report at this time." Fremantle Media said that they would cooperate with the investigations, which are ongoing as of the time of this writing.

Dwyane Wade and Time's Up spoke out in support of Gabrielle Union

After NBC denied Gabrielle Union's allegations about the America's Got Talent set, her husband, NBA star Dwyane Wade, spoke out in her defense. He replied to a tweet about her complaint in June 2020, "So instead of making sure your work environment is a better place for everyone. Y'all have decided that she what? Made it all up because she lost a job? She's a black [woman] in Hollywood she has lost out on many jobs." In a followup tweet, Wade wrote, "When these negotiations started my house started being watched and my family started being followed. My daughter couldn't even go to swim class without us being trailed by people looking for answers. Well y'all have the answers and y'all still don't wanna listen to them."

Previously, the President and CEO of the TIme's Up Now, Tina Tchen, spoke out in favor of Union, as well, telling Deadline in part, "Not only did Union reportedly endure and witness racist and inappropriate behavior — including racially-insensitive comments and excessive criticism about her physical appearance — but it also appears she was punished for speaking out: the company labeled her as 'difficult' before ousting her from the show altogether."

AGT and Gabrielle Union eventually hugged it out

In late September 2020, America's Got Talent and Gabrielle Union's teams released a joint statement about the work environment on the set and the actions that NBCUniversal, the AGT producers and staff had taken to rectify it. "We've reached an amicable resolution," the statement read (per Variety). "NBC Entertainment appreciates the important concerns raised by Gabrielle Union and remains committed to ensuring an inclusive and supportive working environment where people of all backgrounds can be treated with respect."

No details were given about whatever agreement they reached in regards to Union's formal complaint or discrimination lawsuit, nor whether there was a monetary settlement. However, Deadline reports that Union received a "significant" sum from the network, and claims that the exit of Paul Telegdy as chairman of NBC Entertainment in August 2020 was also "clearly another victory" for Union: The outlet alleges that Telgedy "threatened Union's agent" when she came forward with her accusations about the discriminations she witnessed on the AGT set.

Gabrielle Union spoke out after the AGT matter was allegedly settled

In an interview with Marie Claire released just weeks following the settlement with NBC, Gabrielle Union fumed at the racism she allegedly faced on the set. I should be able to exist however the f–k I want to exist," she told the magazine for its October issue. "Because if you're hiring Gabrielle Union for my talent, then my talent is going to come out of my body in every way, shape, and incarnation that I can imagine. You're getting more bang for your buck the more you allow me to exist as I see fit." Union also vehemently denied that her battle with the network was for publicity, claiming that those sorts of allegations are a form of gaslighting and are what allowed the alleged misconduct to continue for so long.

She added that it didn't surprise her that other NBC Black talent, including Terry Crews and Al Roker, didn't speak out in her defense, but that she was still disappointed by it, noting, "These racist institutions and systems have done an amazing job at keeping us very fearful of speaking up, asking for equality, and asking for accountability because they have shown us time and time again that we are disposable." She added that the fear for career repercussions was real: "They will discredit and malign you, and you will never work again ... Being blackballed in this industry is very real."