“The more you are transparent and the more you speak truth to power, it creates more space for other people to claim their reality, to claim their pain, to claim their healing, and, if you want, to claim your justice.” So says Gabrielle Union in her cover story for Marie Claire’s October digital issue, which went live Monday morning.
Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom with makeup by Sir John and hair by stylist Larry Sims (also Union’s partner on her relaunched Flawless haircare line), Union’s images are ethereal. But her interview with veteran journalist Lola Ogunnaike reveals a multitasking mogul and mother as incisive as ever. Like many of us, Union has been experiencing her share of stir-craziness and “[a]nxiety on top of anxiety on top of anxiety” this year, explaining to Ogunnaike:
“I haven’t been in this particular space probably since shortly after I was raped at 19...Terror just feels very present in my body, more than it has been in more than 25 years.” Nevertheless, she adds, “I’ve found real joy in my family...and I’ve found a lot of peace.”
If there was one stressor Union was able to release this year, it was her discrimination complaint against NBC Entertainment, Fremantle and Simon Cowell’s Syco Entertainment, which was waged after her abrupt dismissal from America’s Got Talent and recently “amicably” settled for an undisclosed amount after months of bad publicity for the network. Marie Claire provides a recap of the controversy:
She signed on to the series last year thinking it would be fun. It wasn’t. The show’s producers gave her “excessive notes” about her appearance, she says, and allegedly called her hairstyles “too wild,” which Union believes was code for “too Black.” She maintains that her ability to rock an assortment of looks should’ve been viewed as a bonus and not a liability. “That is the beauty of being a Black woman,” she declares. “I should be able to exist however the [fuck] I want to exist, 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.”
After Union spoke out about the alleged mistreatment, she was left without public support by Black men employed by NBC, including Al Roker and, most memorably, AGT host Terry Crews. Addressing the impasse, Union was surprisingly gracious, blaming an industry that perpetuates racism rather than her colleagues directly.
“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 says. “They will discredit and malign you, and you will never work again. ... Being blackballed in this industry is very real.”
Nevertheless, Union will never apologize for speaking her truth—or be silenced by a settlement, asking aloud: “How much do you need to have in the bank before you feel comfortable speaking truth to power? What’s the magic number?”
“You are not going to gaslight me into minimizing my trauma, which is exactly what allows this to continue on for the next person,” she tells Ogunnaike, later adding, “They want you to feel like ‘It’s not me, it’s you, you’re crazy, you’re doing something that’s causing this, you are complicit in your own oppression, your own trauma, your own abuse.’”
According to the 47-year-old Union, it’s wisdom gleaned from not only two-plus decades spent in the industry, but being fully grown and in full possession of herself. It’s a milestone she says came with turning 40—one that once was the harbinger of doom for Hollywood actresses, but has also found Union thriving as a producer, beauty entrepreneur, designer, bestselling author, wife and mother, and outspoken advocate for parents experiencing infertility, the LGBTQ community, and her own transgender child in her fifth decade.
“I emptied out my basket of [fucks],” she says of her life now. “I cannot center fear in my life. I can’t center functioning from a fear of scarcity. They say silence is violence, and I refuse to be complicit in my silence. I have to be fully present in my body and fully free.”
The October digital issue of Marie Claire, starring Gabrielle Union, is online now.