October 29, 1973 • Omaha, Nebraska
While many who have seen her perform mention her beauty, natural ability, and star quality, Gabrielle Union did not set out to be an actress. After an internship in the office of a modeling agency during her college years, Union was invited to get in front of the camera. She gave it a try, and the modeling soon led to small roles in television shows. Those in turn led to small roles in feature films, and by 2000, just a few years after her first television appearances, Union had won a major role in the popular movie Bring It On, starring Kirsten Dunst (1982–). Since then she has been offered significant parts in a steady stream of films, including Two Can Play That Game (2001), Deliver Us from Eva (2003), and Breakin'All the Rules (2004). She costarred alongside Martin Lawrence (1965–) and Will Smith (1968–) in the 2003 blockbuster Bad Boys II. Not a bad resume for someone who had never studied acting and who once told Jeffrey Epstein of E! Online that she used to think acting was a "cheesy profession." Her list of accomplishments is even more impressive considering the general lack of decent roles for African American actors. In spite of poor odds, Union has forged a successful career, scoring one good role after another while at the same time maintaining a level head and a sharp sense of humor.
"Hey, I'm just riding this train as long as I can. As long as I'm having fun, I'll do it. When it stops being fun, I'll try something else. Maybe I'll open up a chain of Popeye's Chicken."
Gabrielle Monique Union was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1973, the middle child in a family of three daughters. Her parents, Sylvester and Teresa, both worked as managers for the telecommunications company AT&T; her father also served in the military, reaching the rank of sergeant. Union's early childhood years were spent as part of a rich black community and as part of a large family that had been in the Omaha area for many generations. Her sense of belonging and connection to the community changed when Union was about eight years old. In 1981 her father was transferred, and the family moved to Pleasanton, a predominantly white suburban neighborhood in northern California. Union's mother made sure her daughters received an education in black culture and history, but Union still longed to have the companionship of other black girls. She told Savoy magazine, in an article that appeared on the Gabrielle Union Fan Club Web site, "I wanted the camaraderie. I can tell you anything you want to know about any [black] writer or about any event, but I didn't have the friendships." Her parents felt strongly that their daughters should hold onto family ties, and they often returned to Nebraska during her childhood summers. In spite of the fact that she has spent most of her life in California, Union still considers herself a Midwesterner.
During her high school years Union was a talented, hard-working athlete, excelling at soccer, track, and basketball. She also performed well in the classroom, making the dean's list at Foothill High in Pleasanton. Much of her motivation for success came from her father, who continually pushed her to improve. She recalled to Clarissa Cruz of Entertainment Weekly the type of lecture she often heard from her father: "You are the only black person in your 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." This placed twice the pressure on Union to succeed, as she told Entertainment Weekly , "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, Union returned to her childhood hometown, attending the University of Nebraska in Lincoln (UNL). She went back to California after one semester, however, finding it hard to fit in socially at UNL. She attended one semester at Cuesta College in Southern California, but then dropped out, unsure what direction her life would take. In 1992, while trying to figure out what to do next, she took a summer job at a Payless shoe store, which would become the site of a horrifying incident.
One evening, as Union and another employee were closing the store, an armed man entered the store, emptied the cash register, and sexually assaulted Union at gunpoint. At one point she was able to get the gun, and attempted to shoot her attacker. The gun jammed, however, and the man beat her and then left the store. He later turned himself in, and Union eventually learned that he was an employee of another Payless store who had robbed several stores and previously raped another Payless employee. He was convicted of his crime against Union, and she went on to successfully sue Payless for their negligence and failure to warn employees of the man's prior crimes and his potential danger to other female workers. Traumatized by the attack, Union sought comfort from her oldest friends. She began meeting with a group of other sexual assault survivors, and for many years she gave talks in support of other victims.
Union then moved on to complete her college education, graduating from the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1996. During her senior year at UCLA, Union sought to add additional credits to her regular class schedule by finding an internship. She became a temporary office worker at a modeling agency, where clients repeatedly mistook her for one of the models. After she graduated, the agency invited her to sign on with them as a model and Union agreed, eager to begin paying off her student loans before entering law school. She soon found herself gracing the pages of publications such as Teen magazine. After modeling for a short time, Union decided to try her hand at acting. Her first audition, in 1996, resulted in a guest part on the television show Saved by the Bell: The New Class. Over the next few years, Union won a succession of guest roles on such programs as Moesha, Sister, Sister, and ER. She had a recurring role on Seventh Heaven, and in 2001 made a landmark appearance on the long-running sitcom Friends. Union, playing a woman who dates both Joey and Ross, had the distinction of being the first minority love interest on the show.
In the midst of her steady television appearances, Union also began winning small roles in feature films. She appeared in a string of teen-oriented movies, including She's All That, 10 Things I Hate about You (both released in 1999), and Love and Basketball (2000). With her role as cheerleading captain Isis opposite Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On (2000), Union crossed over into movie-star territory. She trained hard for the role—gaining new respect for cheerleaders—and brought to the character a sense of uncompromising inner strength. The movie was a big hit, and Union found herself with millions of new fans. Around the same time she scored a lead role on the short-lived television series City of Angels. Union enjoyed her character, a surgical resident in a Los Angeles hospital, but when the series was canceled, her schedule could more easily accommodate film roles. And the roles kept coming, with Union appearing in two major films in 2001. Both films, The Brothers and Two Can Play That Game, featured black casts and dealt with issues of romance, commitment, and faithfulness. In the midst of her busy schedule, Union managed to fit in her wedding to Chris Howard, a former running back for the Jacksonville (Florida) Jaguars. Howard had moved to Los Angeles after his football career ended, in order to be closer to Union. He became a sports therapist and worked for the Fox Sports network.
Union encountered another busy year in 2002, appearing in two films. In Welcome to Collinwood, which stars Luis Guzmán, William H. Macy, Isaiah Washington, and Patricia Clarkson, Union portrays a young blind girl named Michelle. To research the role, she spent time with a blind woman at the Braille Institute. In Abandon, a campus thriller starring Katie Holmes and Benjamin Bratt, Union portrays a friend of Holmes's character. While both movies offered Union a chance to explore new types of roles, she longed for a more significant movie part.
The following year she got that role, playing the title character in Deliver Us from Eva. The film, loosely based on the play The Taming of the Shrew by English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616), tells the story of eldest daughter Eva, who takes over as guardian of her three younger sisters after the death of their parents. She continues to exert control over their lives even as they reach adulthood, much to the dismay of their husbands and boyfriends. The men hatch a plot to stop Eva from meddling in their affairs. They pay a local ladies' man, portrayed by rapper/actor LL Cool J, to date Eva, make her fall in love with him, and then take her out of their lives. Naturally the plan is complicated when the playboy falls in love with Eva, and she with him. While reviewers offered only lukewarm praise for the film, it met with success at the box office, earning close to $20 million. The film's director, Gary Hardwick, offered warm praise for Union in an article in Jet: "She's a wonderful actress, very gifted and with marvelous comic timing. She's sexy, and she can make you laugh or she can make you cry. You want to watch her to see just exactly what she's going to do next. She has all the tools of a leading lady."
Also in 2003, Union appeared in Cradle 2 the Grave, an action movie starring martial arts star Jet Li, rapper DMX, and comedian Anthony Anderson. She also scored a significant role in Bad Boys II, one of the biggest hits of the summer of 2003, in which Union played the role of Syd, the half-sister of Martin Lawrence's character and the love interest for Will Smith's character. Union returned to the romantic comedy genre in 2004 with a starring role in Breakin'All the Rules. Also featuring Jamie Foxx and Morris Chestnut, Rules is a mistaken-identity romp that examines the absurd behavior of those desperate to maintain or get out of a relationship. Joe Leydon listed Union's charms in a Daily Variety review of Rules, writing that "Union once again evidences (as in Deliver Us from Eva ) impressive range and star presence as she comes off smart and sexy, feisty and vulnerable."
Despite her increasingly high profile, Union has retained her down-to-earth personality. She appreciates the salaries she earns for her film roles and the recognition given for her work, but has tried to keep things in perspective. She shared advice for other young actors with Lori Talley of Back Stage West: "Don't just concentrate on the business.... Have a life outside of this and have other interests, because those are the things that keep you working."
Cruz praised Union's "Midwestern-girl-next-door sensibility that sets her apart from the fleet of glamourous starlets that regularly dock on Tinseltown shores." Union and her husband share a modest Los Angeles home with a mortgage that will still be manageable if the film roles suddenly dry up. She told Tom Gliatto of People: "If I had to go work as a social worker, I could still afford it. We squirrel away a lot. I don't live for today. I live for twenty years down the road." While Union prepares for plan "B"—saving money for her post-acting days—many fans and industry insiders look ahead with certainty to the day in the near future when Union will rise to the position of an A-list movie star.
Cruz, Clarissa. "And They Call It Buppie Love." Entertainment Weekly (April 25, 2003): p. 70.
Gliatto, Tom. "Union's Dues." People (August 11, 2003): p. 75.
Leydon, Joe. " Breakin'All the Rules. " Daily Variety (May 14, 2004): p. 2.
"LL Cool J & Gabrielle Union Star in Romantic Comedy Deliver Us from Eva. " Jet (February 17, 2003): p. 58.
Talley, Lori. "Proud Model." Back Stage West (March 29, 2001): p. 7.
Epstein, Jeffrey. "Gabrielle Union: Bring It On." E! Online. http://www.eonline.com/Celebs/Who/gu.html (accessed on August 12, 2004).
"Gabrielle Union." Savoy (February 2000). Appears at Gabrielle Union Fan Club. http://www.gabrielleunionfanclub.com/articles/savoy.htm (accessed on August 12, 2004).