For 41-year-old actress and activist Gabrielle Union, life appears to be imitating art. In Think Like a Man Too, this summer’s sequel to the blockbuster 2012 film, she reprises her role as Kristen in a story of dueling bachelor and bachelorette parties—not to mention a “What happens here, stays here” kind of Vegas wedding. Cut to real life, where Union is planning her own nuptials, to Miami Heat all-star Dwyane Wade—or D, as she affectionately calls him. The striking beauty, still pumped after a day-long photo shoot, says she hasn’t had her own bachelorette party yet. “I feel like mine is going to be more top-secret,” she adds with a laugh. “And there won’t be as many police officers involved, either.”
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And how about the wedding? “Well, it will be smaller than the one in the movie, but it’s definitely not toned down, per the wishes of my groomzilla. D’s very involved in every detail. My dude is having a princess moment. Me? I did the wine tasting, and I’ve said yes to the dress. In fact, I’ve said yes to a few of them. That’s the joy of getting married to a man who loves clothes and wardrobe changes: You can have more than one dress.”
Apparently you can have more than one home, too. Union’s bi-coastal life involves nonstop travel back and forth between Los Angeles and Miami, where she lives with her fiancé, then on to Atlanta, where she films the popular BET series Becoming Mary Jane, which has been renewed for a second season. Her character is a successful newscaster who, like the actress, is coping with the impossibility of having it all.
“She is a complicated character,” Union says, “and I think what makes her so relatable is that women—at least the ones I meet—never feel they can get it right. We’re so freaking hard on ourselves, setting this impossible bar.” Is it even possible to have it all? “No! No! No!” she says, opening those topaz-colored eyes wide and waving her manicured finger at me. “You can’t have everything.”
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By her own admission, from a very young age Union was determined to have everything she could, at any cost: “My dad told me, ‘You gotta be bigger and badder and better than the next woman, just to be considered even.’” As one of just a handful of African American girls at her high school in Pleasanton, California, she grew up feeling isolated. “I felt like I had to become a chameleon,” she says, acting one way with her white friends and another for people in her community. “Even as a popular girl, I was always looking through the window and very afraid of being exposed. I just wanted to assimilate and fit in.”
But as Union was making her way in Hollywood, winning parts in movies such as Bring It On and Ten Things I Hate About You, her self-described “slick mouth” and penchant for “bagging on others” were earning her few friends in the business. Her outspokenness damaged her reputation, which was further compromised by a perfect Tinseltown storm. In 2005, her first marriage, to NFL star Chris Howard, began its descent into divorce; her network series Night Stalker was canceled; her agent’s phone was no longer ringing off the hook; and she felt she had hit rock bottom. “I felt destroyed,” she says. “I literally went under the bed with my dog and just stayed there.
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But slowly—after a painful spell of working on what she calls her “authentic self” with her life coach, A.J. Johnson—Union re-emerged, ready to heal, ready to talk about her transformation, and wanting to speak her truth. In 2013, in a courageous speech before a crowd of prominent African American women—including her hero, Oprah Winfrey—at the Essence Black Women in Hollywood pre-Oscars luncheon (where Union received the Fierce and Fearless Award), she talked honestly about her mean-girl treatment of other women.
“We live in a town that rewards pretending,” Union said. “I used to revel in gossip and rumors. I lived for the negativity inflicted upon my sister actresses, or anyone whose shine I felt diminished my own. I took joy in people’s pain, and I tap-danced on their misery.”
After decrying Hollywood’s lack of roles for African American women and stressing the need to strengthen, not weaken, each other, Union left the stage to a thunderous standing ovation. Her public commitment to support other women and to become a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves relaunched her career and revitalized her life. She began speaking about the women who had influenced her—women who had provided a positive role model when she was struggling.
Crediting Winfrey with saving her life, Union talks openly about having been raped at age 19, when she was closing up the shoe store where she was working. She had seen a show that Winfrey had moderated on what to do if you’re the victim of a violent crime. Channeling the talk-show host’s voice, Union verbally engaged her attacker and was able to grab his gun. He ran and was later arrested and incarcerated. To this day she continues to lobby for victims of sexual violence, to advocate for rape crisis centers across the country, and to publicly give thanks to Winfrey.
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Union also has high praise for Viola Davis, an actress who mentored her, teaching her that she had a voice—and how to steal a scene: “We were on this medical series together, City of Angels. She played a nurse, and I would watch her file papers. And she was mesmerizing. Her filing papers was pulling focus from Blair Underwood doing surgery. She is incredible.”
Union’s transition to activism was fully realized when her best friend from high school, Kristin Martinez (aka Sookie), died at 32 from metastatic breast cancer. “At the end, Sook turned to me and whispered, ‘Don’t let my death be in vain. I’m passing the baton. Don’t drop it, bish.’” Union promised her BFF that she wouldn’t and, true to her word, she became a Circle of Promise national ambassador for Susan G. Komen for the Cure, speaking up all over the world for women living with breast cancer.
Mention her mother, Theresa, and Union’s voice gets soft, her eyes teary. “For years I didn’t get her,” she says. “But it was my mom who got up the courage to walk away after 30 years of an unhappy marriage. She handled her divorce with dignity, and she never asked my father for a dime. As her daughter, I asked, ‘Why? You’re gonna start over?’ And she said, ‘I went from my father’s house to your father’s house. I want to get my own house.’ I learned a valuable lesson: Take the high road and move on.”
And that is exactly what Union has done.
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Not only has Dwyane Wade put a ring on it, but he took months to design the 8.5 carat diamond that dominates his fiancée’s dainty hand. After a series of ups and downs in their relationship, Wade and his two sons, along with the nephew he’s raising, surprised Union with a proposal—from the four of them.
“We were at the construction site in Miami where we’re building our dream home—aka the money pit,” she says. “I was wearing my Prada combat boots, no makeup, and D had a videographer recording the whole thing. I went from no kids to D getting full custody, and the next day we had a full house. So it was instant. Our lives never skipped a beat. When you’re someone who goes from never having thought about birthing her own babies to a ready-made family that has immediate needs and wants and desires, your life takes a back burner. If I were lucky enough to have one come out of my body, then great, I’d be totally open to that. But D’s kids are more than just part of the wedding. They are part of my life. They’re a package deal.”
Although you can’t tell by looking at Union’s toned body and lineless face, she is nine years older than her betrothed. What’s the biggest challenge in marrying a younger man? Without hesitation, she answers, “Music. It’s tragic. I was in my Jersey Boys fixation, listening to Frankie Valli. And he says, ‘Who’s this?’ I love Shania Twain. ‘Who’s that?’ We’re planning the music for the wedding and who we want to perform. I’m like, ‘Patti LaBelle.’ He’s like, ‘Ariana Grande.’ Our compromise is Beyoncé. Just a lot of Beyoncé and Jay Z. They’re the middle ground in our household,” she says with a sigh.
How She’s Writing Her Own Happily Ever After
With her sure-to-be top-grossing movie coming out, a popular series on TV, and a wedding on the horizon, life seems nearly perfect for the very direct, very poised Ms. Union. “Still, I make mistakes,” she admits. “And my life is in process. But I know certain things. I feel a responsibility to the people I work with. So I don’t do late. I don’t do bad attitude. I don’t do ‘Those eggs aren’t right.’ You don’t fall out. Come prepared. You be a decent human being. And it’s like Will Smith told me: ‘Family first.’ Nothing comes before family.”
After everything Union has been through, does she believe in “happily ever after”? “When I first came out from under the bed, my coach had me write down 10 things that made me happy. All I came up with was ground meat, imitation crab, and a cold beer. And A.J. said to me, ‘Gabby, if you don’t know what makes you happy, how can someone else know?’ So now I finally know: a warm environment with my dude. Our family. Our friends. Our dogs. I still like a cold beer. I love my girlfriends. They all came to Vegas last year for Memorial Day weekend. I think we got through one day being reasonably respectful. It was like The Hangover, Part 6. We had a ball. ‘Is that a chicken? Who brought the chicken?’ We’ve all lived so much, you get to a place where you can let someone else be the appropriate one. I want to drink Champagne out of the bottle. Everybody should dance on the table once in a while. Life is too short.”
Union flashes that million-dollar smile, even more sparkly than her megawatt ring, and slaps both hands on the table. “I’m finally good,” she says, practically levitating from her chair. “Regardless of whatever happens, whatever comes and goes. I’m good.”