Watching America’s Got Talent (AGT) was a weekly tradition for my family. I was ecstatic to sit down on the couch with a mug of ice cream and watch act after act, from jaw–dropping danger stunts to elegant opera singers, performing in front of judges Howie Mandel, Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, and Howard Stern.
While panels of judges have come and gone, and the acts are relatively different each season, America’s Got Talent is still what it used to be at its core: a reality TV show where contestants show up for a performance of their lifetime in competition for a million–dollar prize and a Las Vegas show.
Now, as an adult, I occasionally get AGT clips in my YouTube recommendations and I now realize something I didn’t notice before. While the show involves real contestants and votes, much of it is produced to exaggerate. Just like any other reality TV show, America’s Got Talent is not meant to be a talent competition—it’s meant to draw in viewers and make money.
America’s Got Talent season one premiered in 2006 with host Regis Philbin and only three judges: Piers Morgan, David Hasselhoff, and Brandy Norwood. It was created alongside other Got Talent shows such as Britain’s Got Talent, AGT's British counterpart that was also judged by Cowell.
The show appears to be an exciting opportunity for contestants of any background to follow their dreams and make it big. Similar to many competitive reality TV shows, it poses as a complete meritocracy—if you’re better than everyone else, you will win. AGT tells stories of supposed “underdogs,” drawing in audiences by contrasting competitors' tragic upbringings with their successes on the show (such as winning a Golden Buzzer), increasing certain contestants' visibility and pushing them far ahead of their peers.
On the surface, it seems innocent. But underneath, America’s Got Talent is riddled with controversy. During AGT's seventh season, singer–songwriter Timothy Poe claimed to have gotten badly injured after being deployed in Afghanistan. In his introduction, he even included an image of a soldier claiming it was him, when the picture really depicted a different man named Sergeant Norman Bone. The Minnesota National Guard even confirmed that Poe was not injured in combat. While the show itself did not plan this, it does raise questions about the environment the show creates that encourages contestants to make up and exaggerate sob stories to position themselves better in the competition.
AGT is no stranger to legal controversy either. During Tyra Banks’ hosting tenure, she allegedly attempted to physically manipulate a young girl in order to embarrass her as her parents performed on stage. Supposedly directed by the show's producers, Banks reportedly "shook [the girl's] shoulder" and "pulled her hair back" while also "insinuating that she was accidentally conceived." In doing this, Banks allegedly tried to get the girl to act embarrassed in front of cameras as her parents sang in order to further humiliate the couple during their audition. The girl’s mother later sued the show’s production company for emotional damages.
Recently, one of the biggest recent controversies AGT has faced was when judges Gabrielle Union and Julianne Hough left the show after season 14. Union came out claiming that she was made uncomfortable when guest judge Jay Leno made a racially insensitive comment that was cut out of an episode, where he referred to Cowell’s dogs as something that could be found “on the menu at a Korean restaurant.” When Union brought the issue to the producers, it allegedly was not brought to the attention of human resources. There was another incident with a white man impersonating Beyoncé while having his hands painted with dark makeup performing on the AGT stage, despite Union and some others objecting that it should not have been allowed.
While it’s not clear why both Union and Hough were not included in season 15 and on, their absence was suspicious. Considering past seasons, Union and Hough replaced Klum and Mel B while Mandel and Cowell remained on the judging panel. The pattern has continued: After Union and Hough left, Klum and Sofía Vergara took their place for season 16. Previous judge Stern commented on this gendered disparity and Cowell’s role in perpetuating Union's firing by stating, “[Cowell sets] it up that [the male judges] stay, no matter how ugly they are, no matter how old they are, no matter how fat they are, no matter how talentless they are.”
It’s not surprising that America’s Got Talent does not treat its contestants with care when it does not even treat their judges equally. As a kid, I wanted to believe that everything in the show was realistic—rooting for someone and seeing them achieve their dreams made me feel like I could do the same. Regardless, it’s become difficult for me to watch without being reminded of everything that happens when the cameras stop rolling.