Gabrielle Union Is Defining Success on Her Own Terms


(Image credit: Chrisean Rose)

Welcome to our podcast, Who What Wear With Hillary Kerr. Think of it as your direct line to the designers, stylists, beauty experts, editors, and tastemakers who are shaping the fashion-and-beauty world. Subscribe to Who What Wear With Hillary Kerr on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Anyone following Union knows that she's often one to speak truth to power. One could argue that Union's unfettered openness is due to her 30-plus years as an actor, producer, and author in the entertainment industry. After all, this woman has written not one but two New York Times best-selling memoirs and continuously uses her platform to lobby Congress for systemic change. On top of that, she's starred in some of the most unapologetic Black films. Love & Basketball, Bad Boys II, Deliver Us From Eva… The list continues.

But what makes Union so compelling isn't her acting résumé or entrepreneurial pursuits—she's the founder of the haircare brand Flawless and the co-founder of the baby care brand Proudly and the children's snack food line Bitsy's. It's her dedication to finding and defending fulfillment on her own terms. An effort that became apparent after a long conversation with the star of Who What Wear's July cover story. Keep reading for excerpts from the interview, and tune in to hear it all.


(Image credit: Chrisean Rose)

Since you have worked on so many different shows and films, what makes you want to sign on to work on something at this point in your career?

Usually, I ask myself: Can I live without it? And if that answer is, yeah, then it's probably not the job for me. But if I'm going to obsess about it, I should do it. That's kind of my North Star on if I should sign onto a project.

You've had the privilege of working with and knowing some of the most incredible Black creatives in the film industry and beyond—how have you been able to redefine how you view community?

There are people I have been in community with who have not been in community with me. But when it's a symbiotic relationship, it means people are okay with making themselves uncomfortable. If there's a greater good at stake, it means showing up and standing shoulder to shoulder and being the cavalry when needed. There has to be mutual respect and mutual love on some level, and when that is there, we're unstoppable. And anytime I've stepped out on faith and done a hard thing, I was never alone. Certainly, the Black entertainment community and the global Black community have always been 10 toes down for me, and that's how I've come to define community. It's asking yourself: do you live this? Do you breathe this? Will you lose sleep if you don't stand together? I think for a lot of us, it took us a while to get to that point, but now we are arriving in droves at that place. 


(Image credit: Chrisean Rose)

You've been very honest about witnessing segregation in Hollywood, and it's no secret that so many creatives are often typecast into roles that are a caricature of the "Black" experience. Over the years, how have you navigated that system? In what ways have you tried to challenge the way Black people are portrayed through your work? 

I know what it is; I lived it. And I try to make the experience different on my projects. I try to make sure that it's respectful. That lack of respect that I experienced, and still experience on occasion, compels me to make my productions different. For many in Hollywood, It's not about the community. It's not about how to make this better for everybody. It's been about How I line my pockets and make life better for just me? That is a way. We've seen it. But I don't like it. And so I'm not going to emulate that behavior. I'm going to try something different. 

It seems like we are at this point of inception—we've seen this push for diversity and inclusion over the past few years. And because of the ongoing and pending protests with unions, there are more conversations around labor and fair wages. Do you feel like Hollywood is actually moving toward change?

Just because people claim that they are doing all of this for diversity and inclusion doesn't mean we actually ever had systemic change. The first jobs to go are the diversity inclusion jobs. The first projects to be shelved are the Black and Brown projects. The first writers to be lowballed will be the writers of color, specifically the Black writers. Hundreds of millions of dollars were committed to Diversity and Inclusion at corporations nationwide. But when you circle back and see all the exposes on what actually happened to that money, the proof is in the pudding. And there's no pudding; we got Jell-O; you can see through it. So I think people love to talk about DEI and pat themselves on the back like they're part of the solution. But when it's time to actually put one foot in front of the other and show improvement, there are no receipts. I would love to see us do a little forensic accounting on what happened to the hundreds of billions committed. Where did all that effort go?

I saw many people post their little black squares and then return to their homogeneous friend group and workgroup and make zero changes. You're an ally, love? I would love to see that in practice. I would love to see Black or Brown writers get to hold Hollywood's feet to the fire and ask: Where did you go after 2020? I would love for us to be able to ask people who have production companies: How many people of color have you empowered? How many sets did you make sure they were that they reflected the global community? I know we get asked, and we're not the problem.


(Image credit: Chrisean Rose)

Speaking of projects, you just produced a rom-com for Netflix called The Perfect Find. What was that like for you? 

I wanted to find other creatives with the same vision that it can be different—let's make it different. All these people who have been doing the work somehow get overlooked. I wanted to ensure their brilliance was shining. And that feels good. And even as we move into post-production, I wanted to ensure we center the Black experience and viewers first. Everyone can enjoy these films and projects, but when you center the core audience and our needs, everybody wins—specificity is the key. When you forget the core audience, you miss the mark. So, from top to bottom, I've been fighting for this film to be at the American Black Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival because our movies deserve all the bells, whistles, and marketing dollars.

There's a limiting definition of what success looks like in Hollywood, especially for Black creatives. In what ways have you learned to shift your perspective on how you define success for yourself? 

I just got to the point where I recognize that being joyous in my Blackness and doing projects that are for and about Black people—that is my joy. Centering the narratives and creatives of color who have been marginalized brings me so much joy. That thing I was chasing was never actually real. What is real is my peace of mind. I had to find it within instead of looking to be validated by this industry, by any one project, by any one producer or director or actor that was never going to satiate me. And I was programmed to believe it should be. I'm not trying to break the bank with Hollywood. I love collaborating. Could we all could we do these things individually? Sure. But having the community there with you is much more fun and rewarding. I found joy in every part of our community. And I will never apologize for it.


(Image credit: Chrisean Rose)

One of the wonderful things about The Perfect Find is that you can feel the joy throughout the project. But I'm curious, what was it like to work with the team to bring this story to life? 

We had a clear direction in wanting to pay homage to Black Hollywood while also stepping into the fashion world. We were all in alignment with where we wanted to take the project. So as the producer and leading star, it was just about allowing people to be great. I don't need to micromanage or note anybody to death. I hired the best talent for this job, so I had to trust them to bring the vision to life. I'm humble enough to know that I don't know everything and to let others lead too. 


(Image credit: Chrisean Rose)

Another great thing about this film is that it subtly explores how ageism influences relationships and, more specifically, the desirability wider society prescribes to women based on their age. What was it like to challenge societal conceptions around how older women "should" be through this project? And how, if at all, has this project reflected your own journey? 

It feels glorious as an actor to embody this character. I'm still a human being that has desires, wants, and needs, and they are actively being met. I'm not invisible. That alone felt good to have that reflected within the film. Pretty much [at] 35, people start treating you like you've got osteoporosis, and you start becoming invisible. It's a weird, empty feeling to feel like you're disappearing in front of your own eyes because you start taking on the same attitude as a society that believes you lack value because you're older. And if you're 40 and don't have a kid, whatever happens to you is your fault. And if you don't have a man, that's your fault, too—if you don't have a significant other, that's your fault.

You get blamed for how the shitty way that society treats you when you're just living and existing. I don't want anyone else to feel that invisibility and that sense of worthlessness that I've struggled with at different points in my life because the only people we need to validate us are us.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Next, check out our interview with Halle Bailey.

Jasmine Fox-Suliaman

Jasmine Fox-Suliaman is a fashion editor living in New York City. What began as a hobby (blogging on Tumblr) transformed into a career dedicated to storytelling through various forms of digital media. She started her career at the print publication 303 Magazine, where she wrote stories, helped produce photo shoots, and planned Denver Fashion Week. After moving to Los Angeles, she worked as MyDomaine's social media editor until she was promoted to work across all of Clique's publications (MyDomaine, Byrdie, and Who What Wear) as the community manager. Over the past few years, Jasmine has worked on Who What Wear's editorial team, using her extensive background to champion rising BIPOC designers, weigh in on viral trends, and profile stars such as Janet Mock and Victoria Monét. She is especially interested in exploring how art, fashion, and pop culture intersect online and IRL.