| TrumpNation |
By Timothy L. O'Brien
Genre: Business & Money
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The original idea of The Apprentice came to me while I was in the Amazon jungle making Survivor: Amazon, watching a bunch of ants devour a carcass.
IN 1948 ALLEN FUNT, A GOOD-HUMORED BALD GUY WITH A VOYEUR’S love of the absurd, produced a new TV program for American airwaves. It was called Candid Microphone, and every Sunday night at eight o’clock on ABC it dished up foibles, embarrassments, unlikely scenarios, and gaffes that featured real people responding to unreal setups. A year later the program was renamed Candid Camera. It was America’s first reality TV show.
Funt’s crew secretly filmed unwitting people walking into the middle of bizarre, often hilarious, and relatively harmless situations—a visitor to an old-fashioned Automat would try to buy a sandwich from a hostile vending machine that talked back; a compact car would suck down oceans of fuel in front of a puzzled gas station attendant; a bowling ball would return to a confused bowler with its finger holes missing; dogs tried to pee on moving fire hydrants.
Candid Camera was unscripted, unrehearsed television, and the only actors were those helping to orchestrate the gags. The show bounced around various networks until finally hitting it big during a seven-year run on CBS in the 1960s. After unknowing participants had been duped, Funt clued in the human guinea pigs with a catchphrase that landed in the popular lexicon: “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!” Funt never pushed his stunts to the point of outright humiliation; Candid Camera’s premise, and its relatively kitschy innocence, hinged on people laughing at themselves. The show’s high jinks made it a prime-time hit, and it thrived for decades after its debut in syndication, specials, and remakes.
However popular Candid Camera may have been, though, it represented a genre—with the exception of a few popular shows like COPS, Real World, and America’s Funniest Home Videos—that lay dormant on American prime-time television until the late 1990s. Then, stung by a loss of viewers and watercooler buzz to more innovative, more targeted, and more creatively unshackled cable operators, network television programmers revisited reality. The show that ushered in the new era in network programming debuted in the summer of 2000 on CBS, and it became a ratings powerhouse known as Survivor. By stranding contestants in punishing locales and pitting them against one another, Survivor attracted about fifty-one million viewers to its first-season finale and spawned a host of sequels and knockoffs including The Bachelor, American Idol, Fear Factor, and The Osbournes. Although as voyeuristic as any of its predecessors, Survivor’s emotional traction was a far cry from the mild sandbox play of Candid Camera. It was meant to be provocative, Darwinian, and as riveting as a catty soap opera or a gripping serial novel; The Most Dangerous Game on steroids, unfolding weekly in your den, bedroom, and dorm. And Survivor was the brainchild of a former British paratrooper, skydiver, scuba diver, Beverly Hills nanny, and used-clothing salesman named Mark Burnett.
Burnett’s unusual pedigree included dangerous firefights he was involved in during the British invasion of the Falkland Islands when he was only eighteen years old. “Real stuff,” Burnett told The New York Times’s television reporter, Bill Carter. “Horrific. But on the other hand, in a sick way, exciting.”
After knocking about through a series of jobs in Los Angeles, Burnett’s enthusiasm for the hair-raising and the physically challenging coalesced into his first successful TV pitch, Eco-Challenge, an outdoor competition show first broadcast in 1995—a show Burnett, who had no television experience, landed on the tube through sheer persistence and that became famous for the episode in which a leech squirmed into one contestant’s urethra.
About four years of relentless door knocking, and ample inspiration from British reality shows that were already hits, also preceded Survivor’s sale to CBS in 2000. But after Burnett launched Survivor into the ratings stratosphere, he had his pick of prime time openings waiting to be filled. His slate would come to include Combat Missions, a show featuring former army and navy commandos rescuing hostages; Destination Space, an astronaut bake-off in which the winner gets catapulted, like a commando, aboard a rocket to a space station; The Restaurant, a behind-the-scenes look at the kitchen and business of a Manhattan bistro, where the chef-owner was a culinary commando; The Contender, a reality boxing show co-produced by movie commando and pugilist Sylvester Stallone; and a scripted comedy called, inevitably, Commando Nanny.
But the most popular show Burnett produced other than Survivor was The Apprentice, and the cult status it immediately achieved when it first aired in early 2004 illustrated Burnett’s ability to stir up viewers’ anxieties—whether about being torn up in the jungle or torn up in the workplace. The Apprentice also showed that Burnett, a British immigrant who was the son of factory workers, had a grasp of the personalities that held sway in the American imagination, a sensibility that came straight out of his own experience.
“I came here with nothing, with maybe a hundred bucks in my pocket and had to get a job,” Burnett recalled. “And these wealthy people who had made their money themselves, I worked for. It did show me what could be achieved in America, what’s possible if you have some vision to take big risks. And I always wanted to do a show that was about entrepreneurialism. It led on, quite frankly, to The Apprentice, where a bunch of people, I wasn’t sure how many at the time, would vie to be the apprentice of a master of industry. I knew clearly there was only one master who was colorful enough, charismatic enough, who is really a billionaire, was Trump.
“But also, what an intimidating guy to interview with and I thought: ‘How about a 13-week televised job interview to be Trump’s apprentice, six-figure salary, and be president of one of his companies.’ It just clicked.”
Burnett, a showman who donned a brown felt Akubra, à la Indiana Jones, reveled in the Trumpster zeitgeist. During his long-gone days of scrambling for a buck selling T-shirts on Venice Beach, Burnett devoured a little tome called The Art of the Deal, and he credited its author, Donald, with inspiring his own business ventures.
“He’s a regular guy who speaks his mind, who goes against the establishment all the time,” Burnett said of Donald. “He’s sued New York how many times, and won? This is a brilliant businessman that stands for what is great about our country, what makes America the best country in the world.
“He loves business and loves to orate about business. He always tells me: ‘You know where the real jungle is? Manhattan, New York City. That’s my jungle and that’s the real jungle, Burnett. There’s more snakes here and more things that can kill ya here than any jungle in the world.’”
Burnett and Donald met face-to-face for the first time in early 2002, after Burnett asked Donald if he could use the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park to stage a Survivor episode. A year later, with visions of the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” episode from the Disney film Fantasia in his head, Burnett decided to pitch Donald on the idea of doing a reality television show together. In early 2003, after preparing spreadsheets and schedules outlining what would become The Apprentice, Burnett phoned Donald from his car on his way into Manhattan from the airport. He asked Donald if he had time for a meeting the following week. Donald suggested he come over right away. About forty-five minutes after Burnett arrived at Trump Tower, the two men agreed to try to sell a reality show together to the networks.
Burnett pitched The Apprentice to the four major networks and wound up with CBS and NBC as final bidders. Jeff Zucker, a thirty-eight-year-old programming whiz who began his career overseeing a revival of the Today show before being given responsibility for all of NBC’s television holdings, led the negotiations for the network. Desperate to find a replacement show for Friends to anchor the lucrative Thursday-night lineup he and NBC had built around the sitcom, Zucker reeled in The Apprentice.
Donald said that ABC missed out on The Apprentice because the network tried to get the show cheaply. “What happened is, instead of saying, Yes, we want to do it, they started to chisel. Instead of offering the $2 million a show that was necessary to do because of production value—that Mark really wanted and I knew nothing about because I am not in that world, he said you need like $2 million a show—they said, ‘We’ll give you $1.7 million.’ Mark then went to the other networks; they all wanted it. He went to NBC and Jeff Zucker actually locked the group in the room until they signed it.
“They locked the door. They took out a pencil or a pen, made the changes in pencil and a pen. I don’t even think there were even lawyers. Like the old days when I used to do real estate deals in Brooklyn. You would be afraid you would lose the deal so you would sit a guy in a room and say, ‘Cross off that word.’”
Burnett said that he and his partner had to do a little bit of convincing to get the broadcasting executives to play ball.
“All of the networks wondered if anyone outside New York really cared about Trump and would it work, but I had a track record and I stuck by my guns,” Burnett told me. “I believed in the format and I don’t think they understood how well Trump would telegraph across the screen—and how his take-no-prisoners approach appealed to people all over the world. So they bought it.”
For his part, Zucker said he was determined to snare The Apprentice from the get-go, and, like Donald, said that he locked Burnett in a room at NBC and wouldn’t let him leave the negotiating table until they had a deal. Zucker also had no doubts about Donald’s broader appeal beyond New York.
“I’m a New Yorker, I come from New York, I was aware of Donald and all of the publicity he attracts, and that he was a character, and I knew immediately that I wanted to do the show,” Zucker told me. “I was not worried about how well it would play outside of New York. I knew that Donald was universal. He’s the quintessential made-in-America story: He’s been up, he’s been down, he’s been back up again.”
Although Donald was the inspiration for The Apprentice, Burnett was its architect. He brought Donald aboard as executive producer and split international licensing rights and ownership of The Apprentice brand with him. Donald made $50,000 an episode to showcase his one-of-a-kind, carnivalesque traits: the High Plains Drifter glower, the eyebrows that wandered around his forehead like fuzzy Slinkies, the bicycle-helmet hairdo, the toughest-guy-in-the-bar swagger, the Day-Glo silk ties, and, above all, his unfailing, spot-on assessments of contestants’ strengths and weaknesses—and an unflinching willingness to say exactly what every viewer was already thinking about the ambitious, conniving, befuddled, and aspiring apprentices. Donald, as ringmaster and court jester, was channeling America.
Around all of this, Burnett had a very specific, opéra bouffe narrative in mind. “The philosophy of Survivor is to build a world and destroy exactly what you’ve built for personal gain, and The Apprentice is a kingdom: I’ve taken a castle and a throne, and the king (Trump) is saying, ‘Off with your head,’” Burnett noted. Contestants, he added, are “so drawn to the horror of being excluded, of being killed, it’s magnetic. What’s really interesting about these types of shows is they’re unpredictable, but in a very familiar setting.”
At the time that Burnett hoisted Donald into The Apprentice’s firmament, Donald was, more or less, a down-on-his-luck real estate promoter with a failing casino company whose mantra and appetites appeared to be stuck in a Reagan-era time warp. The Cheshire Cat of the business world, Donald had watched many of the assets he assembled a decade earlier evaporate around him until all that was left was a mesmeric, well-known name. He had morphed into “Trump,” the human marquee. But The Apprentice rescued him from all of that.
Season One of The Apprentice kicked off in bravura, tele-novella fashion with Donald—in his limo! in his chopper!—reintroducing himself to America.
“New York, my city, where the wheels of the global economy never stop turning, a concrete metropolis of unparalleled strength and purpose that drives the business world,” he said in the show’s introduction as the camera raced across the Hudson River and then swooped and nose-dived around Manhattan’s granite-and-glass canyons. “If you’re not careful, it can chew you up and spit you out. But if you work hard you can really hit it big. And I mean really big.
“My name is Donald Trump and I’m the largest real estate developer in New York. I own buildings all over the place, model agencies, the Miss Universe Pageant, jetliners, golf courses, casinos, and private resorts like Mar-a-Lago, one of the most spectacular estates anywhere in the world,” he added. “But it wasn’t always so easy. About thirteen years ago I was in serious trouble. I was billions of dollars in debt. But I fought back and won—big league. I used my brain. I used my negotiating skills. And I worked it all out. Now my company is bigger than it ever was and stronger than it ever was and I’m having more fun than I ever had.
“I’ve mastered the art of the deal and I’ve turned the name Trump into the highest-quality brand. And as the master I want to pass my knowledge along to somebody else. I’m looking for [pregnant pause] . . . The Apprentice.” Cue Olympian music as Donald’s helicopter banked steeply, tipping its rotors in a salute to the Big Apple.
Donald’s Apprentice intro was laced with a number of howlers. By most reasonable measures, for example, Donald was not remotely close to being the largest real estate developer in New York, and his loose collection of cash-poor assets did not approximate the value of what he was juggling at the top of his game in the late 1980s. But The Apprentice presented our hero at full, rat-a-tat tilt, and he exploited the opportunity with singular gusto. The show also managed to lend Donald a patina of corporate grandiosity. The Apprentice’s woody, dark Fortune 500 boardroom, for example, bore little resemblance to the Trump Organization’s actual office space on the twenty-sixth floor of Trump Tower. The real thing was a tad run-down and worn, surprisingly vacant, ornamented with Lucite chandeliers, maroon-velvet chairs, cushy pod furniture, and other decor that smacked of a JFK Airport lounge, circa 1970. The Trump Organization’s boardroom on The Apprentice, on the other hand, was all shadow, anxiety, and financial power, an inner sanctum where final reckonings occurred.
As The Apprentice rolled out its contestants, instantly handicapping them proved irresistible. Troy seemed to be a rube, an unwary lamb quick to the slaughter. Bill had the look and voice of a Chicago Bears fan. How could he win? Kristi was statuesque, well spoken, and aggressive. Maybe. Omarosa was statuesque, well spoken, and aggressive. Maybe. Kwame was smooth, smart, handsome. A shoe-in. And Sam. Gee, Sam looked very wired and springy. Interesting. Amy was polished and confident and blond. Possibly. Nick had a husky voice matched with a Baby Huey face. No way. There was a Rainbow Coalition on the show that included two African Americans, an Asian American woman, college grads, someone who had been in a soft-core porn film, somebody who never made it past high school, women, men, lots of Type A’s, and lots of possibilities for conflict and very non-PC infighting. And almost all the instant handicapping (at least mine) proved to be shallow, superficial, and wrong.
Even Donald admitted to having unfounded doubts about the star power of some of his contestants, especially Omarosa Manigault Stallworth, an African American woman who bared her self-absorption, claws, and accusations of racism to great effect.
“I didn’t think she had it. But she was great casting,” Donald said of Stallworth. “We didn’t know she was the Wicked Witch until the audience found she was the Wicked Witch. We had an idea but you never know how it is going to be picked up.”
For some of the contestants, getting on the show was an epiphany. Troy McClain, a thirty-four-year-old with a nascent real estate lending business who emerged as one of the savviest contestants in Season One, grew up in Idaho being encouraged to think small. “I was told if I was anything above a gas station attendant that was doing good,” he told me. “But I wanted to get out of that.”
After reading The Art of the Deal in high school, McClain wrote in his yearbook that he planned to make it his mission to meet Donald one day. When his wife later encouraged him to respond to the first casting call for The Apprentice in early 2003, he heeded her advice. He was hardly alone. There were about 215,000 others who wanted a shot with Donald and all of them sent ten-minute audition tapes, along with fairly elaborate personal and job histories, to Burnett’s team. McClain made a subsequent cut to a group of eleven thousand who went through face-to-face interviews. In July 2003 he survived another cut to a smaller group of fifty contestants who were flown to Santa Monica and sequestered in a hotel for another ten days’ worth of interviews. At the end of that session, McClain was told he was in the final group of sixteen contestants who would get to be on the show; the producers gave him two weeks to tie up loose ends at home before shooting began in New York in September.
Shooting lasted seven weeks, from September to November, and during that time the contestants shared an eight-bedroom, one-bathroom abode and were kept away from outside media. When The Apprentice aired the following January it became so popular (the first-season finale would draw twenty-eight million viewers) that NBC executives would later introduce Donald to advertisers as the man who saved their network.
“I just wanted to meet Trump,” said Nick Warnock, a twenty-eight-year-old copier salesman who made the Season One cut. “I had read about him all the time and heard about him all the time growing up in Bayonne, New Jersey. He was the people’s millionaire to us and he seemed to be somebody who just enjoyed life.
“I was in it for a few laughs and an experience with the Trumpster. I never knew the show was going to be the big monster that it became. None of us knew that.”
The first task Donald assigned the apprentices, from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, was to sell lemonade. It seemed an overly mundane task for the cast of mini moguls. But as an insightful student of the American business scene—my nine-year-old son, Jeffrey—pointed out about that task, lemonade stands are great businesses because “kids will beg their moms to get lemonade.” (The core principle behind successful marketing to kiddies.) The guys couldn’t sell lemonade, Jeffrey also observed, “because they’re men.” (The core principle behind many problems.) And the women were able to sell glassfuls of lemonade because, Jeffrey said, “they’re using sex-o-wality, like giving their phone numbers and kisses on the cheek.” (The core principle behind many other problems.)
Donald wound up agreeing with Jeffrey. Taking stock of the men’s Episode One demise, Donald pointed out that “the women proved that sex sells.” Hardly the stuff of Harvard Business School case studies, but certainly part of The Apprentice’s real-world curriculum. To reward the women who won the lemonade duel, Donald gave the group a tour of his fab Trump Tower triplex, a residence that looked as if the high roller’s suite at Caesars Palace had been airlifted intact to a perch high above Fifth Avenue. Donald’s home was outfitted in sheets of beige-pink marble, mirrored walls, massive chandeliers, an electronically controlled romanesque fountain, and ceiling murals aswarm with Renaissance cherubs. Donald, as good mentor to his thirsty contestants, made it very clear what they could learn from the tour.
“If you’re really successful, you’ll all live just like this,” he promised them.
Jeffrey, watching a DVD of the show at home with me, wasn’t sure he wanted to live that way. “It’s all richy and everything, but tacky,” he said. “It’s all gold-ish.” But two of the Apprentice contestants thought otherwise about Donald’s marble nest. Kristi Frank (later fired) described it as “breathtaking,” while Tammy Lee (later fired) was beside herself: “Oh my gosh, this is, like, really rich.”
For viewers, The Apprentice’s payoff, however, was not in seeing the rewards bestowed on winning teams but in witnessing the fate Donald meted out to losers in the boardroom. This was when Donald became unavoidably compelling, as he roasted and toasted the little squibs daring to compete for his favor. And it was from the boardroom that Donald launched his banishment—“You’re fired!”—into the larger American vernacular. It was also the venue in which viewers got to see just what a young job hunter might do for a really, really, very, very big job with Donald.
Donald made it clear in that very first boardroom confrontation that hard work alone could never assure anyone of business success. Talent, genetically determined talent, was a prerequisite, and it fell to spring-loaded Sam Solovey to serve as Donald’s yes-man on this point.
“You don’t believe in the genetic pool?” Donald quizzed Solovey.
“I’ve got genetic pool big time, Mr. Trump,” Solovey responded, his panic rising. “Just like you got from your father, Fred Trump, and your mother, Mary Trump.”
Solovey—spooked that the lemonade debacle might end his dream of becoming Donald’s apprentice—dropped to the floor outside the boardroom and began crawling around on all fours to relieve his stress. (At this point Jeffrey shouted at the TV: “He’s a zombie!”) Solovey was spared in Episode One, allowing him to survive into Episode Three and to savor the moment when Donald, once again discarding his fear of germs, deigned to shake his hand.
“That was one of the biggest moments of my life, shaking that man’s hand,” Solovey panted.
Alas, Donald gave Sam the Man the heave-ho at the end of that very same episode, prompting Solovey to zap Donald with an eerie, Tony Perkins-style staredown that crossed over from thwarted ambition into a whole new realm of restraining straps, ice packs, and long needles—anything at all that might have kept the fired tyro safely at bay. “A lot of people think I’m certifiably insane,” Solovey later offered.
Donald—a veteran of military school, Manhattan real estate battles, New York City politics, New Jersey casino shenanigans, proctological media scrutiny, and marriage—had, of course, seen far worse than Solovey.
“I think The Apprentice is very, very true to high stakes business,” Donald intoned. “I believe that the pressure that you see, that the anxiety, the pain, the joy, the victory, I think it’s all true to very high stakes business. And I mean business at the highest level.”
Other castoffs were far less postal than Solovey, but equally rattled when the time came for Donald to get rid of them. In Episode Six, Jessie Conners, her eyes as wide as Bambi’s, unsuccessfully begged for a reprieve: “Please don’t fire me, Mr. Trump.” In Episode Eight, Ereka Vetrini, teetering on the brink, also tried to forestall the inevitable: “Don’t say it, Mr. Trump.”
Jennifer Crisafulli, fired in Episode Four, Season Two, after labeling two griping customers “old Jewish fat ladies,” offered the most telling recollection about the sting of Donald’s ax: “You don’t understand. Your—your—your senses are so heightened, and the moment is so surreal. Let’s face it, it’s Donald Trump in front of you. You know, live in person, larger than life, saying, ‘You’re fired,’” Crisafulli said on the Today show. “What you don’t see is there are little itty-bitty bullets that come flying, invisible bullets, out of his fingers into your chest, and you’re like pu-pu-pu-pu-pu. And you just, ‘Oh.’ It was awful. I mean, I got canned last night in front of forty million—twenty—I don’t know how many people.”
And on The Apprentice went, slipping the bonds of predictable business discourse and entering tele-arenas where no-nonsense tycoons like Donald played hardball and a larger corporate fantasyland where every New York minute ticked toward a possible beheading. It was grueling stuff, all those lemonade sales, art openings, casino promotions, flea markets, ad campaigns, charity events, bottled-water sales, and auctions. Court intrigue that snagged a high-spending demographic of college-educated TV viewers and modern Madame Lafarges adored by advertisers, The Apprentice sprinted toward its various climaxes. Season One’s contestants all became mini celebrities and Oprah Winfrey later presided over a post-season retrospective with Donald and his minions on her TV show, a lovefest briefly disrupted by charges of racism bandied about among the ex-contestants. The Apprentice’s plotlines also echoed well beyond the confines of the tube: When Season One contestants had to spend a day wringing money from a competition involving pedicabs, it gave Manhattan pedicabbies a big bounce in their real-world business. A Season Two competition involving Ciao Bella ice cream caused the tiny company’s Web site traffic to jump from twelve thousand to one million visitors in one day. Ciao Bella had never advertised on TV before and the day after the show, the thirteen locations selling ice cream featured on The Apprentice sold out their entire stock before noon.
Donald sat in judgment during most boardroom showdowns with two other Grand Inquisitors: George Ross, a seventy-six-year-old investor and Brooklyn Law School grad who helped Donald assemble the original Trump Tower and Grand Hyatt sites; and Carolyn Kepcher, thirty-five, who managed two of Donald’s golf courses. Ross, a wizened gnome, and Ms. Kepcher, steely and observant, sat at the boardroom table like bookends, calmly offsetting Donald’s kinetic, magnetic, drill-sergeant routine as the trio put their stable of contestants through their paces.
“Those [boardroom] sessions were brutal. They went on for two hours and they were just brutal,” said Warnock, who was one of the last four aspiring apprentices still in contention by the end of Season One. “I think the appeal of the show is that everyone has struggled in the workplace and everybody can relate to that. It’s the ultimate reality show because it’s not some thing where people are eating worms. I’d never do that. But everybody’s had a job and dealt with a boss.”
Only a few weeks into the show, Vegas oddsmakers began taking bets on who would win—as good a measure as any that The Apprentice had arrived. Through it all, McClain recalled how surprised he was by some of his competitors’ shortcomings as entrepreneurs. “I couldn’t believe how much street smarts some of these people lacked,” McClain said. “They all talked about their education and their jobs, but they couldn’t deliver.”
Donald’s popularity won him a spot as Saturday Night Live’s host and some advice from the comedy show’s producer, Lorne Michaels, when Donald quizzed him during rehearsals about the nature of stardom.
“Which is bigger, a television star or a movie star?” Donald asked.
“A television star,” Donald recalled Michaels replying. “Because you are on in front of thirty million people, every week, virtually every week. Whereas a movie star, if you do a big movie, a $100 million movie, which is a big movie at $10 a head, that is ten million people once a year or maybe twice a year.”
“I never thought of it that way,” Donald said.
“But every movie star wants to be a television star and every television star wants to be a movie star,” Michaels added.
“You know, Lorne, it won’t always be this way,” Donald mused. “Someday NBC will call me and say, ‘Donald, the ratings are no good and we are going to have to cancel.’”
“No, Donald, there is only one difference,” Michaels replied. “They won’t even call.”
Donald later recounted the conversation with a broad smile, relishing how Michaels ended it: “He looked at me with a face that has seen the world before, and knows television better than anybody. He looks at me, and says: ‘No, Donald, there is only one difference. They won’t even call.’ Which I love. They’ll say: ‘Fuck him, it’s over.’”
And Donald continued to be surprised by the mercurial, flash-in-the-pan nature of tele-stardom.
“I would have never thought that Omarosa was a star,” he said to me. “I didn’t think she was that attractive. I didn’t think she was anything. And she became a star. And Sam—who would have thought a guy who is five foot four with a fresh mouth—and he’s crazy—would be a star?”
In the end Bill Rancic (architect of the victorious strategy on The Apprentice’s legendary pedicab episode) triumphed in Season One by eclipsing Kwame Jackson, who had been undermined by his rubbery inability to rein in the scheming, self-absorbed, and deceitful Omarosa Manigault Stallworth. Oh, the humanity.
Jeffrey thought Jackson should have been the victor, but Jeffrey, a sentimentalist, is no Donald. And Donald, quite correctly, fired Jackson and anointed Rancic—who was much more decisive and on top of things than Jackson—as Apprentice Numero Uno.
The Apprentice hauled in advertising rates of about $287,000 for each thirty-second commercial spot, helping to pay Rancic’s $250,000 salary at the Trump Organization, which NBC, not Donald, footed. (Boosted by Season One’s popularity, NBC charged an average of about $431,000 for a thirty-second ad during Season Two, allowing the network to pull in about $106 million in advertising revenue between September and November alone.)
As victor, Rancic chose to go to Chicago to help Donald complete a new skyscraper he was building there. At the time, financing for the project was up in the air because Donald’s partner, Hollinger International, was swamped in a corporate scandal and withdrew. Donald, whose own cash position was squeezed by ongoing casino woes at his Atlantic City properties, said he was prepared to make up Hollinger’s share himself.
Although Rancic wound up glad-handing and speechifying on Donald’s behalf and had no substantive management duties in Chicago, he said he reveled in his new job and was unconcerned about the solidity of Donald’s finances. “I’m sure it will work out. It always does with Mr. Trump,” he told me. “Sometimes I’ll spend half a day in Mr. Trump’s office and just watch. It’s an incredible business experience.”
The Apprentice also benefited from the dexterity with which Burnett and his team whittled down hours upon hours of tape to the starkest emotional quotient and then layered bits of artifice on top of the “reality.” When Donald punted losers from the boardroom, for example, all offered up their own eulogies as they were shooed away from Trump Tower in a taxi, their final interview filmed in the cab’s backseat. Once taping stopped, however, the cabs simply turned right around and took the losers back to a hideout, where they were muffled and muzzled until the show had completed production.
The Apprentice’s success helped NBC temporarily bandage some of the wounds Friends’ departure had inflicted, though post-Friends airings of The Apprentice during its second season saw viewership slump by millions—suggesting that NBC’s tele-yuppies had given Donald more than just a leg up in America’s affections. Still, The Apprentice was a phenomenon, attracting more than sixteen million viewers to its second-season finale. It also gave Donald renewed luster and the cultural clout of a business guru. And in the galactic sprawl of American tele-culture, this meant that The Apprentice quickly became part of oddly earnest dialogues at the country’s business schools.
David Urban, a marketing professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, maintained an online commentary called “Deconstructing the Trump-ster” that analyzed each episode of Season Two. His penetrating analyses came with “lessons learned” that offered such bromides as: “Don’t dump on the consumer,” and “When in doubt, don’t stick out.”
Ivana Ma, an Apprentice wannabe, ignored Professor Urban’s last dictum in Season Two, Episode Thirteen. Finding herself in doubt about the best way to sell candy bars, Ms. Ma decided to drop her skirt and stick her bottom out. This strategy spurred Professor Urban to uncork some constructive criticism on his Web site: “It was a cheap trick that made Ivana look like a dancer in a strip club,” he scolded. “Even worse, she only sold one candy bar with this lame scheme.”
Other business school professors decided to directly adopt The Apprentice into their students’ course work.
“I really started getting into it because students were bringing it up in class,” said Matthew Will, a finance professor at the University of Indianapolis who used The Apprentice as a teaching tool. “When you talk about business in the classroom [Donald’s] name is the one that comes up at the beginning and the end, with some Bill Gates thrown in. He knows how to hit our hot buttons.”
Aware that frequent appearances in The Apprentice’s boardroom were unhealthy for the unwary or the incompetent, and that you could work with other participants to maneuver unwitting contestants into that space, Season Two combatants turned their bake-off into a catty, clawing Lord of the Flies rerun.
Pamela Day—with Wharton, Harvard Business School, investment banking, and a software start-up stamped on her résumé—roared into the second season as an obvious Donald favorite, sprinkling the F-word throughout her on-camera sentences almost as frequently as he did off camera. Day was a tough competitor, and everyone playing against her knew it; they all looked for opportunities to get rid of her, and she spent little time trying to ingratiate herself with any of them. Bam. By Episode Five, Day was toast, set up by her own teammates to take the boardroom hit for the mispriced sponges—yes, sponges—that their team was forced to peddle on a home shopping channel. (Day’s pre-season entreaty to the show’s producers to make the tasks more complicated than Season One—“I hope we’re going to do something a little bit more strategic. I hope we’re going to use our brains a little bit”—apparently fell on deaf ears.)
Day’s compadres took their sponge trafficking seriously, however. In a nasty boardroom confrontation, Stacy Rotner (thankfully punted from the show two episodes later) took a moment to warn Donald about the dire perils of ill-considered sponge-ing: “If you want another Enron on your hands, Mr. Trump, here’s Pamela.” Oh no! Another Enron! The tragic, messy sponge affair led Donald and Kepcher to convey a crucial business lesson to Episode Five participants: You really have to think hard about how much you charge for something.
Of course, any workplace actually run like the operation Donald presided over in Season Two would have devolved into a dysfunctional compost pile. “You don’t solve problems by simply firing people,” said David Cadden, a management professor at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. “I think the notion that somebody’s got to get it from an all-knowing CEO emanates from this glorification of the CEO that we’ve all embraced over the last decade.”
But The Apprentice’s incessant shark baiting was exactly what made the show captivating, loopy, outré television. It was deliciously voyeuristic and utterly schizophrenic because it placed aspirants in bush-league, seat-of-your-pants entrepreneurial situations and then rewarded them for maintaining the emotional and psychological facades of good corporate soldiers.
Donald’s candor and appeal were integral to The Apprentice’s popularity, regardless of the harebrained corners into which the show’s plotlines sometimes wandered. Smack dab toward the end of Season One, for instance, Donald had his trainees competing to lure gamblers into Trump Taj Mahal, one of his eponymous Atlantic City haunts, at the very moment that his entire casino operation was lurching toward bankruptcy. No matter. In the end, it always came back to Donald. To be sure, his trainees, all jockeying for the master’s attention and a shot at a job with his company, were indispensable parts of the mix—as evidenced when Season Two’s cast proved far less appealing than Season One’s and the second season became larded with too many shots of Donald in his limo! in his chopper! closing deals on the phone!
Even so, Donald was the glue binding The Apprentice’s bloodthirsty, dollar-hungry, nitroglycerin-fueled little world together, and he was well aware of what that meant. When two other high-profile entrepreneurs tried to ape The Apprentice’s success by uncorking their own knockoffs on television in the fall of 2004, Donald had little use for them.
“There is something crazy, hot, a phenomenon out there about me but I’m not sure I can define it and I’m not sure I want to,” he told me in an interview for The New York Times on the eve of Season Two’s premiere. “How do you think The Apprentice would have done if I wasn’t a part of it? There are a lot of imitators now and we’ll see how they’ll do, but I think they’ll crash and burn.”
And Donald was right.
Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and owner of recording, airline, and other companies that earned quite a bit more money than the kitten’s skein of holdings Donald had woven together, seemed to be a businessman with telegenic brio. A handsome entrepreneur who made a fortune bucking the British establishment, Sir Richard unleashed his show, The Rebel Billionaire, on Fox, a TV network owned by Rupert Murdoch, a dour-looking Australian entrepreneur who made his fortune bucking the global establishment.
The Rebel Billionaire (subtitled Branson’s Quest for the Best) showcased Sir Richard leaping from an airplane, traversing a balance beam connecting two hot-air balloons, and standing on the wings of a soaring biplane as he led a group of entrepreneurs-in-waiting through business school boot camp. Lest the idea be missed, the show was all about risk taking. The Rebel Billionaire bombed, failing to draw even a tiny slice of The Apprentice’s audience.
After Donald dismissed The Rebel Billionaire by saying Sir Richard had “zero personality,” Sir Richard snapped back: “I disagree completely with what Trump stands for and his 10 rules of success. I met him for dinner once, just the two of us, and he spent the whole evening telling me how when he was down and out a few years ago and nearly went bankrupt, people he knew and bankers he dealt with whom he had thought were friends wouldn’t return his calls. He said he had drawn up a list of 10 of these people and decided to spend his life trying to destroy them. I told him it was a waste of energy.”
But Sir Richard, fifty-four, also confessed to being something Donald was most decidedly not: a wallflower. “I used to be relatively shy and I have had to train myself out of it,” he admitted. “I am much more comfortable now in public than I used to be.” All well and good, but wallflowers do not make for compelling hosts in a medium that rewards the frenetic and dismisses the shy.
Mark Cuban, who purchased the Dallas Mavericks basketball team for $280 million after parlaying a software start-up and a perfectly timed dot-com score into what Forbes magazine described in 2004 as a $1.3 billion fortune, was not freighted with Sir Richard’s residual shyness. At age forty-five, Cuban was, most likely, the world’s first billionaire to engage in verbose, vast, and constant blogging. He also had paid his way through college by teaching disco dancing lessons, relished ripping into NBA officials and basketball referees from his courtside seat, and bought a $40 million Gulfstream V in an online auction on eBay. Beetle-browed and as fidgety as a teenager, Cuban preferred communicating with the media through rapid-fire e-mails and lavished millions of dollars reinvigorating the Mavericks—including recruiting basketball badboy Dennis Rodman by putting him up in the guest house adjacent to his twenty-four-thousand-square-foot Dallas mansion. A man the media dubbed “the Cuban Missile Crisis,” he also set his sights on TrumpNation.
In early 2004 Cuban announced that he would star, Donald-like, in an ABC reality show called The Benefactor. Like the hit 1950s TV show The Millionaire, Cuban’s program was built around the fantasy of a wealthy patron sprinkling riches on a chosen few. The updated version had contestants performing creative and entrepreneurial tasks that Cuban devised, with the Mavericks owner deciding who made it across the finish line. Cuban planned to fish $1 million out of his own wallet to pay the winner. In the summer of 2004, ABC showed to media critics a promotional clip in which Cuban said it was easier for him to pony up the $1 million than Donald, since Donald’s casinos had fallen on hard times. One of Donald’s lawyers e-mailed Cuban, threatening to sue him for the remark.
Shortly before Cuban’s show debuted, Donald told Jay Leno on The Tonight Show that he thought The Benefactor would fail. The remarks sent Cuban into a tizzy and he shot back from the electronic ramparts of his “blog maverick” Web site, posting a punctuationally challenged note to Donald about how poorly The Apprentice would stack up against The Benefactor: “The Apprentice’s success depended far more on Sam being a goof and Omarosa being a drama queen than anything you did. That’s why you kept on bringing them back. The Benefactor’s success will depend on how the audience responds to a 2nd grade teacher with satanic like tatoos, a black gay bartender who carries around a picture of Oprah and asks it what Oprah would do, a womens professional football player who wants to kick everyone’s ass, a super hot beauty queen, who is far from as innocent as she tries to come across, and 12 others, who are incredibly competitive and realize that for a million dollars, the game is always on.”
ABC, aware that viewers were less enamored with these characters than Cuban, pulled the plug on The Benefactor shortly into its fall run.
Even after his show was canceled, Cuban kept after Donald. When Donald’s casinos nose-dived into bankruptcy in late 2004, Cuban provided hyperlinks to the filings on blog maverick. An entrepreneur scorned, Cuban fired away. “Donald, leave it to you to file bankruptcy and rather than apologizing to shareholders that were wiped out, brag about it being a positive step forward for the company,” Cuban wrote in one blog. “Not only are you out of control, you are now out of excuses. You actually have to make this work. You have working capital. You have your self-proclaimed business ability. You have your name on the buildings. Now let’s see what you can do Donald. Can you actually make this work?”
Donald was unfazed.
“I don’t think either one of them have a television persona. The difference, though, is that Branson thinks he does but he doesn’t. And in the Cuban case, it just didn’t work. He just doesn’t have it for television,” Donald said. “If I did Cuban’s show, I would have made it successful; if I did Branson’s show, it would have been a success. It would have been a success. I say they have no television persona.”
The real difference between Donald and Cuban, just like the difference between Donald and Sir Richard, was that Donald was primarily an entertainer who dabbled in business. The other two were primarily businessmen who dabbled, unsuccessfully, in television. On TV, at age fifty-eight, Donald had finally found his métier.
Being in the spotlight was what Donald enjoyed most, what he did best, and, unlike the average businessman, he was willing to do cartwheels to stay there.
“There’s something very seductive about being a television star,” he said.
Moreover, Donald’s Apprentice shtick as America’s arbiter of business acumen was a singular riff not easily mimicked. Appearing to swim in marble and to live as large as Goldfinger, Donald got suburbanites and city dwellers nationwide to try out for his show, to try to wriggle up next to all of his incandescent star power. Well before this, Donald had even inspired hip-hop artists to memorialize him. One rapper, Raekwon, asked fans to “Guess who’s the Black Trump?” Another, Jay-Z, proclaimed himself “the ghetto’s answer to Trump.”
Donald reveled in his new star status, asserting to me in early 2004 in an interview for The New York Times that, “in prime-time television, I’m the highest-paid person.”
“You get more than Oprah?” I asked.
“Oprah’s not prime time,” he retorted.
“You get more than Larry King?”
“Yeah, and Larry King is cable.”
More than even the cast of Friends? Well, collectively, no, he acknowledged. But individually, yes.
In fact, Donald’s $50,000-per-show fee for The Apprentice’s debut season did not make him the highest-paid person in prime time. Nor was he anywhere near to clearing the kind of lucre that each Friends star took home. But Donald knew what they were making, and he shook the money tree. Before the second season of The Apprentice got under way, he told NBC that he wanted $18 million an episode for his future participation. Donald’s logic was simple. He was filling very big shoes on Thursday nights: the slot vacated by the six members of the Friends cast. The Friends stars each made $1.5 million per episode, for a total haul of $9 million per thirty-minute show. As the solo attraction of The Apprentice, Donald said, he should be paid $9 million every thirty minutes. Since his show was an hour long, he deserved $18 million a pop.
“That seemed fair,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “I’m not being totally facetious.”
Donald knew he was sitting atop a potential gold mine with The Apprentice. The show only cost about $2 million per episode to make, far below the cost of other prime-time fare, and its grosses soared into the multimillions as ad revenue poured in. Donald, never one to patiently develop a business idea or wait around to see what he could rake in, pressed his case. The network ended up paying him “substantially more” than $1.25 million per episode under his new contract, he told me, but he couldn’t be specific because the deal was confidential.
This little coin toss with NBC was vintage Donald. Zoom in for the jackpot. Be outrageous in your demands. Keep a straight face. See what happens. Make a buck as fast as possible. Keep a straight face. Pretend you knew exactly what would happen all along. Keep a straight face.
Yes, it was greedy. Yes, it was tacky. Yes, it was outlandish. It was also funny. It was very funny. Who wouldn’t want to be paid $18 million an hour? The least you can do is ask if the opportunity presented itself. So Donald asked.
And every time Donald turned the corporate negotiating process into a theater of the absurd, he rooted himself ever more deeply into the hearts of throngs of Americans—throngs of people everywhere—who dreamed of that moment when they, too, might look across the negotiating table and say, “Hey, give me my $18 million and give it to me now. I just worked a whole hour.”
In fact, it was about more than greed. It was love. Those moments when Donald leaped around the corporate merry-go-round like a rabid little kid jacked up on sugar, determined to snatch the brass ring before anybody else got it, were moments when he was authentically passionate. He never really was as passionate about women, hamburgers, Oreos, golf, or the spotlight—all things he relished and adored zeroing in on. But stick a stack of dollars in front of Donald and he sweated.
So if the chance to pounce on a quick deal surfaced, Donald was there. When it became apparent that some business schools had latched on to The Apprentice’s verities, Donald decided to open a college of his very own. He applied to the federal government to secure trademark protection for Trump University, the name of an institution of higher learning that would offer, according to the application, “on-line courses in the fields of business and real estate.”
Although Donald had many vocations throughout his life, teaching was a new calling. His Web site, www.trump.com, promised that Trump University would offer tutelage from Donald and other well-known businesspeople. “In a highly competitive world, the one sure way of being successful is to know everything you can about what you do. . . . And of course you will have the opportunity to learn directly from Donald J. Trump himself. At Trump University you will gain the insight and knowledge you need to get ahead in your career or business,” the Web site advised.
Despite the obvious draw of learning from The Apprentice’s sorcerer, some folks wondered about Donald’s academic credentials.
“It is unclear what position Trump, a graduate of the Wharton School of Finance, will hold at Trump U,” wondered editors at The Smoking Gun, who posted Donald’s trademark application on their Web site. “Perhaps he can lecture on the importance of having a rich father. Or maybe he could offer a somber Founder’s Day reflection on how he actually managed to lose money operating a casino.”
The online education industry itself was still working through some kinks. In late 2004 Pennsylvania law enforcement officials sued one online “university” for doling out fake degrees, including a diploma the authorities purchased for a cat named Colby Nolan. After asserting in an application that Colby had experience in babysitting and retail management and paying a $299 fee, the authorities secured an MBA for the cat as well as a bogus transcript with grades and course work.
Despite the fact that some online educators were pumping out cats as graduates, Donald was undeterred and said he intended to be an education pioneer. “Trump University is going to be very big,” he told me in early 2005. “It’s investment banking and education.”
Donald’s experimental disposition made him a swashbuckler whom most corporations might not want walking the corridors, and he was perfectly happy not to be a corporate drone. The Trump Organization was a reflection of himself—nimble, engaging, and prone to hype. Although the Trump Organization told Crain’s New York Business in 2004 that it was the largest privately held company in New York with $10.4 billion in revenue and twenty-two thousand employees—and Crain’s actually printed those figures51—some of The Apprentice’s participants wondered, perhaps, if fewer hands were on deck way up there above Fifth Avenue.
Pamela Day, the business maven who met an untimely fate in Season Two, recalled an odd encounter she had with Matt Calamari, the Trump Organization’s chief operating officer. Calamari, a hulking, loyal company man with a brush mustache, had worked his way up from being Donald’s personal bodyguard into the executive suite—and had earned Donald’s undying trust by remaining by the boss’s side during the dog days of the early 1990s when Donald’s marriage to his first wife, Ivana, was falling apart.
Day said that when The Apprentice’s producers told her and other cast members during Season Two that they would get to meet one of Donald’s senior executives, she was excited. Up they went to the twenty-sixth floor of Trump Tower, Manhattan at their feet far below. In walked Calamari.
“He said: ‘I used to be a security guard and now I’m the COO,’” recalled Day, who underwrote Manhattan real estate deals as an investment banker after graduating from Harvard Business School. “I thought, What does a real estate company do with a COO?
“So I said, ‘Matt, what do you do here? Is there an org chart?’
“‘What’s an org chart?’” Day said Calamari responded.
“‘Who works here?’” she asked.
Calamari returned with a phone list. Day added that the roster didn’t list anyone who was a director of acquisitions, anyone who was a CPA, anyone who was an economist.
“How can a successful company that’s this old not have anyone serious doing those jobs?” she asked herself. Deep down inside, she knew the answer to this question. It was because it was Donald’s company.
“He’s that guy that believes in his own press and drinks his own Kool-Aid and doubles down and then goes bankrupt,” she said of Donald. “I didn’t associate Trump with financial prudence, though I did associate him with success.”
So did most of America. When the final curtain fell on Season Two of The Apprentice, the last episode ran for three hours, live, at Lincoln Center—Lincoln Center!—with Donald’s face magnified to Chairman Mao-size proportions on a video screen in Alice Tully Hall. Regis Philbin showed up to help his pal appear presentable in front of 16.9 million people.
Meanwhile Apprentice castoffs looked on in dismay, pondering the cruel fates that left them out of the winner’s circle.
“I think where the disconnect is, is if you were someone who had really been an entrepreneur you wouldn’t be a timid corporate type,” said Season One’s Solovey, who said he bribed people to let him cut ahead in line during casting calls for The Apprentice. “And it’s the corporate types who succeed on the show. So you have to ask if the show is about succeeding in corporate America or succeeding as an entrepreneur. I think the show actually rewards corporate behavior, not entrepreneurial behavior.”
Solovey also had concern for the great man who shook his hand.
“Donald is going to have trouble going back to his normal life when the show is over because starring in The Apprentice is like being on cocaine constantly,” said Solovey. “He’s going to have a hard time leaving that behind. You can just see it in him. He’s got a big ego.”
Yes, said Donald, yes I do have an ego. But Donald also had a sense of transition, a sense of the good things that could come with mammoth, ubiquitous celebrity, a sense that maybe he had turned a corner.
“I think that people learned that I’m a nicer person when I did The Apprentice. I came across as a nicer person. All I do is fire people all the time and people think I’m a really nice guy,” Donald said of his TV exposure. “So it tells you how bad my image must have been prior to making The Apprentice.”
SEE HOW YOU measure up in a new TrumpQuiz. Remember, send your answers to the Trump Organization’s Fifth Avenue headquarters. Billions of dollars are at stake. Good luck.
To emerge victorious on The Apprentice, you should:
1) Let a leech slither up your urethra.
2) Find out before the end of the season whether Donald actually owns any of the projects to which he’ll assign you if you win.
4) Be extremely innovative and industrious.
6) When in doubt, don’t stick out.
7) Call Donald “Mr. Trump,” and mean it.
8) Be smart and be on time.
9) Handle your boardroom grillings like Donald Rumsfeld handles press conferences.
10) Crawl around on all fours whenever necessary.
11) Have a big-time genetic pool.
Excerpted from TrumpNation , by Timothy L. O'Brien . Copyright (c) 2005 by Timothy L. O'Brien . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top