Born Gabrielle Monique Union, October 29, 1972, in Omaha, NB; daughter of Sylvester E. (a military sergeant and business executive) and Teresa (a phone company manager) Union; married Chris Howard (a sports therapist), May 5, 2001. Education: Attended the University of Nebraska–Lincoln; University of California at Los Angeles, B.S. (sociology), c. 1995; attended Cuesta College, San Luis Obispo, CA.
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Actress in films, including: She's All That, 1999; 10 Things I Hate About You, 1999; Love & Basketball, 2000; Bring It On, 2000; The Brothers, 2001; Two Can Play That Game, 2001; Deliver Us from Eva, 2002; Abandon, 2002; Welcome to Collinwood, 2002; Cradle 2 the Grave, 2003; Bad Boys II, 2003. Television appearances include: 7th Heaven, 1996–99; H–E Double Hockey Sticks (movie), 1999; City of Angels, 2000. Television guest appearances include: Saved by the Bell: The New Class, 1995; Moesha, 1996; Malibu Shores, 1996; Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, 1997; ER, 2000; Friends, 2001; Sister, Sister ; Clueless ; Good Behavior ; Dave's World ; Hitz.
AOL Time Warner Rising Star Award, American Black Film Festival's Film Life Movie Awards, 2003.
Although actress Gabrielle Union did not intend to have a career in acting, an internship at a modeling agency in Los Angeles, California, led to a guest role on the television series Saved by the Bell: The New Class in 1995, a number of other television roles, and a promising film career. After appearing in a number of roles in teen movies such as 1999's She's All That and 2000's Bring It On, Union had roles in successful ensemble works, including 2001's Two Can Play That Game and 2002's Deliver Us from Eva. She co–starred in her first blockbuster film Bad Boys II in 2003. Union also had the distinction of being the first African–American actor or actress to appear on NBC's hit situation comedy Friends in 2001, as a woman who dated two of the male characters on the show.
Union is the middle of three daughters of Sylvester E. Union, and his wife, Teresa; she was born in 1972. Union's father served in the military to the rank of sergeant, and later worked as a manager at Western Union and AT&T. Union's mother also worked as a manager at the phone company. Union was born into one of the most famous black families in Omaha, Nebraska, a descendant of Emma Early Bryant–Fisher.
In 1981, Union's father was transferred to an office in Pleasanton, California, where she spent the rest of her childhood. Though she grew up in California, she spent her summers in Nebraska. Her heartland roots remained important to her. Union told Tony Moton of the Omaha World Herald, "From the time we left, it was important to my parents I stay familiar with my family. Basically, I didn't want to lose my Midwestern values. Home is where the heart is, and we are very much Nebraskans, rather than Californians."
In both Nebraska and California, sports were an important part of Union's childhood. She played basketball, softball, and soccer, among other sports. By the time she was in high school, she focused on soccer, basketball, and track. Union's father especially encouraged her in her pursuit of athletics, but taught her a lesson that helped her when she began acting in Hollywood. Union told Clarissa Cruz in Entertainment Weekly, "[My father] said, 'You are the only black person in the whole class. You're gonna have to prove to them every day that you're just as smart, if not smarter. Just as good, if not better. Just as fast, if not faster.' So not only am I trying to beat all my classmates, I'm trying to prove to my dad that I'm living up to his expectations."
After graduating from high school in Pleasanton, Union went back to Nebraska for college. She spent a semester at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where she played soccer. She then returned to California, where she transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Union also attended Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, California.
While a young college student, Union was the victim of a horrific crime. In 1992, when she was 19 years old, Union had a summer job at a Payless shoe store. As she was closing the store one night, a man with a gun came in, robbed the store, and sexually assaulted her. The rapist was an employee of another Payless store and had also raped another female Payless employee. He later turned himself in, and was convicted of the crime. Because Payless had not told its employees of the potential problem, Union was able to win a lawsuit against the company for gross negligence. Union was able to overcome the emotional trauma of the assault with the help of a college rape survivor group, and she later spoke out in support of rape victims after she began her acting career.
Union studied sociology at UCLA, and intended to go to law school after completing her degree. During her senior year, she had an internship at a modeling agency, where she was often mistaken for a model. After Union earned her bachelor's degree, her former employer asked her if she wanted to try modeling. Facing the burden of student loans and still hoping to go do law school, she agreed. This led to an acting career. Though she had no training in drama, Union soon had an agent and was auditioning for acting roles.
On Union's first audition, she impressed the casting agent and landed her first television role: a guest spot on the syndicated show Saved by the Bell: The New Class. Union continued to work in television in the late 1990s, primarily in guest–starring roles on programs such as Sister, Sister and Moesha. In 1996, Union had her first recurring role on television, playing Keesha Hamilton, the eldest daughter of the Reverend Hamilton, an African Methodist Episcopal minister, on the family oriented drama 7th Heaven. She credited her success in acting in part to her photographic memory as well as her outgoing personality.
In 1999, Union landed her first film role in the teen comedy She's All That, as Katie, the mean friend of the lead played by Freddie Prinze, Jr. Many of Union's early film roles were as teenagers, though by this time Union was in her mid–twenties. Despite her age, she was believable in these parts because of her youthful appearance. Other roles Union played in the teen genre included Chastity in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You and a groupie after Omar Epps' character Q in 2000's Love & Basketball.
Many of Union's teen roles were as mean–spirited girls. In 10 Things I Hate About You —a modern teen version of William Shakespeare's play The Taming of the Shrew —Union's Chastity betrays her best friend Bianca (played by Larisa Oleynik) by stealing her boyfriend. Of her roles as the bad girl in teen movies, Union told the Omaha World–Herald 's Moton, "I would rather play a snobby black girl going to school and being [cruel] rather than being a drug dealer's pregnant girlfriend. I don't want to be involved in anything that perpetuates stereotypes of minorities."
In 2000, Union appeared in her breakthrough film, Bring It On. While this was again a teen flick, it was also athletic, focusing on cheerleading, and Union had a leading role. She played Isis, the head of an inner–city cheerleading squad, the Comets. She and her team aspire to make the national competition with their flashy moves despite the lack of funds to get there. Even though Union had been athletic for much of her life, she found that training for the role was demanding. Her hard work paid off when her performance was praised in the press, and Bring It On did well at the box office.
After this teen film role, Union briefly returned to television for her first lead in a television series. She played Dr. Courtney Ellis on the short–lived medical drama series City of Angels on CBS in 2000. Though the show was cancelled after a half season, Union was the primary female and it was her first real adult role. The following year, she had a breakthrough role as the first black character in her guest–starring role on the long–running NBC hit situation comedy Friends. Her character dated two of the male leads, Joey and Ross, on the show.
When Union returned to film in 2001, she appeared in adult roles in several ensemble films featuring primarily African–American casts. In 2001's The Brothers, a film about four men and their relationships with women, Union played freelance photographer Denise Johnson, an independent and self–sufficient woman. Union's Johnson is attempting to convince her boyfriend, a pediatrician named Jackson (played by Morris Chestnut) to commit to a relationship, though this was something he has desperately shied away from as he preferred to play the field. Later that year, Union appeared in the ensemble comedy Two Can Play That Game as Conny, a woman attempting to steal Keith, the boyfriend of the main character and narrator, Shante Smith (played by Vivica A. Fox). Smith declares war to win back her man from Conny, her professional nemesis.
As Union's professional life continued to soar, her personal life was also blossoming. On May 5, 2001, she married Chris Howard, a former professional football player who had played for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The running back became a sport therapist and worked for Fox Sports after his athletic career ended. The pair had met at a party in Jacksonville in 1999.
In 2002, Union had the leading role in another black ensemble comedy, Deliver Us from Eva. As the title character, Eva Dandridge, she played the oldest of four sisters who gave up her life to raise them after the death of their parents in a car accident. When the movie begins, the women are adults, but Union's Eva still rules their lives. The younger sisters' boyfriends and husbands conspire to get rid of Eva by paying Ray (played by rapper/actor LL Cool J) to romance her and get her out of town. They eventually fall in love with each other in this loose take on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew.
Union's next film roles were smaller, but more challenging and diverse. In 2002, she played the best friend of the lead character played by Katie Holmes in Abandon, a psychological thriller set at a college. Union was similarly challenged in that year's Welcome to Collinwood, playing a teenaged blind girl named Michelle. The film starred William H. Macy, and her character was the younger sister of a character played by Isaiah Washington. Union researched the role by spending time with a young, blind, African–American girl at the Braille Institute. Union went to the opposite end of the movie spectrum in 2003, when she co–starred in the action film Cradle 2 the Grave, which also featured Chinese martial arts star Jet Li and rapper/actor DMX. This film, which opened at number one at the box office, focused on a jewel theft.
While many of Union's films to this point in her career had been small to medium Hollywood pictures, in 2003, she co–starred in her first Hollywood blockbuster. She had the high–profile role of Sydney Burnett in Bad Boys II, the sequel to the 1995 box office smash, Bad Boys. Her character was the younger half–sister of Marcus Burnett (played by comedian/actor Martin Lawrence) and the love interest of his Miami Police Department partner, Mike Lowrey (played by actor/rapper Will Smith). Union's character is an undercover federal agent on assignment to bust a drug dealer in Miami, whose life and career are put in jeopardy. Union's success in this film was seen as paving the way to bigger projects in the future.
Though a rising starlet in Hollywood, Union remains down to earth, enjoying shopping at Target and sipping Capri Sun juice drink. She insists on living very practically, and remains levelheaded about money. Though her future in acting looks bright, she has plans if her career ever ends, including perhaps getting a master's degree. Of her prospects in show business, Mark Brown, the director of Two Can Play That Game, told Kelly Carter of USA Today, "She just came on the scene and exploded. I think she has a very promising future, certainly as a leading lady. She has star appeal."
Celebrity Biographies, Baseline II, 2003.
Chicago Sun–Times, March 23, 2001, p. 31; September 7, 2001, p. 33; January 29, 2003, p. 39; February 7, 2003, p. 30.
Daily News (New York), February 7, 2003, p. 60.
Entertainment Weekly, April 25, 2003, pp. 71–72.
Hollywood Reporter, July 18, 2002.
Jet, February 17, 2003, p. 58; August 4, 2003, p. 34.
Newsday (New York), July 18, 2003, p. B3.
Omaha World Herald (Nebraska), July 11, 1999, p. 1e.
People, March 10, 2003, p. 37; August 11, 2003, pp. 75–76.
USA Today, September 7, 2001, p. 2E; July 18, 2003, p. 4E.
"Sizzlin' Sixteen 2002," E! Online, http://www.eonline.com/Features/Features/Sizzlin2002/Girls/union.html (December 18, 2003).
— A. Petruso