Let’s fire the lot of them!
Reality show The Apprentice and it's presenter Alan Sugar are back and worse than ever. Wherever do they find these people?
Published: 10 October 2010
BBC undated handout photo of (from left) Laura Moore, Melissa Cohen, Paloma Vivanco, Liz Locke, Stella English, Joy Stefanicki, Sandeesh Samra, Joanna Riley, the female contestants for this year's The Apprentice programme.Mean business: the female contestants for this year's The Apprentice (BBC/PA)
When The Apprentice returned to BBC1 last week, it seemed to promise typical fare. The usual assortment of relentlessly pushy wannabes with gobfuls of business jargon, tightly wound personalities and their eye on the main chance — rarely the first prize of a job with Lord Sugar, more usually a brief but glittering media career. Seven million viewers settled down to watch 16 hopefuls compete to turn a profit and avoid the chop. Then Dan Harris got the sack.
It was an unpromising task he chose to lead — making and selling sausages pretty much by hand, screaming his orders at a mince-covered and disgruntled male team — and yet he managed to make it worse. His team-mates called him thuggish, awful and bullying. He raised £305 compared with the women’s £320 and tried to get both his team-mates fired in his place. Nice work.
However, the day after Alan Sugar gave him the boot, Harris said: “I should have been fired. The way I went about it, bullying people, I think was the wrong approach ... it’s not reflective of the way I do business.” The 34-year-old sales director and father of two from Oxfordshire seemed bemused by his on-screen behaviour, confessing he watched it “from behind a pillow”. And yet in his audition tape he revelled in the boast that he could “manipulate people to get what I want”.
His fellow contestants sound just as bad. Christopher Farrell, a former Royal Marine, “takes his killer instinct into business”; Stuart Baggs, a telecoms entrepreneur, calls himself “Stuart Baggs — the brand”; Melissa Cohen insists: “I could sell ice to the Eskimos all day.”
Though keen Apprentice watchers believe this is the most irritating group yet assembled, the former contestant Kimberly Davis, an American from the Bronx, says all contestants are “one half business brains, one half train wreck”. Recalling her audition for series five, she says: “There were some really delusional people.”
Ifti Chaudhri, a tae kwon do black belt who was fired from series three and now owns Eclipse Tiles in west London, thinks things are getting worse. “When I was on the show there was a lot of bullying,” he says. “But they’re getting tougher and nastier and the people are ... well, I’m glad I’m not on this series.”
The sense that the series may be about to plumb new depths is confirmed in the many online chatrooms that bounce off the show, and surely underlines the fact that it is time to ask some fairly fundamental questions about it. Why do people so want to be on it? Why do they behave so badly? Are they being exploited? And, in Davis’s words, “that sort of delusional person is a rare breed. So where do they find them?”
The answer, for a show that promises to teach important business tactics, is simple. “The show is cast just like Big Brother,” says one senior reality television producer. “I’d be surprised if some of the candidates didn’t have profiles on sites such as StarNow and Beonscreen — they’re quite likely to have tried to get on telly already.” Indeed, Harris, it turns out, has experience as an extra in Saving Private Ryan, and a surviving contestant, Alex Epstein, once sang the national anthem to George Bush Sr.
“Your average show-off will see The Apprentice as a vehicle for greater things,” the producer adds. “And of course the way it’s edited, the contestants look so very rubbish. I find myself wanting to apply just to show that it is not that hard to make sausages. The show does project this idea that anyone with half a brain could do better than this lot of chancers.”
Michele Kurland, the show’s executive producer since series three and a former member of the BBC’s business documentary team, insists the recruitment is business based and well structured. “Yes, we have been on air for a while so there are people who behave in a certain way — they turn up having read books of business speak — but we think we weed out the fakers,” she says.
There is only one sort of person that applies, however, according to Alan Redman, a chartered business psychologist. “They have a need for approval,” he says. “A lot of the stuff you see as bullying is because they’re so ego sensitive they can’t accept other opinions. In the women’s team, Melissa is one to watch — the friction she creates is explosive.”
Does any of this make sense in a show ostensibly about business? Well, yes, because it is not about business at all, really. The Apprentice was created by Mark Burnett, a British TV producer working in Los Angeles who was also the mastermind behind another reality show, Survivor. He based both on the books of mythology scholar and Nietzsche fan Joseph Campbell. The Apprentice deals with “the emotional pull that all humans feel from being excluded”, Burnett explains, and “takes that feeling of exclusion to a level of death”.
In the US, where they are on series nine, the show is hosted by Donald Trump. The UK version began in 2005 and, by series two, had become the acceptable version of Big Brother for middle-class viewers. In his book The Apprentice: How to Get Hired Not Fired, Sugar says he had to defend its success to business friends and rivals such as Sir Philip Green, the owner of Arcadia and Topshop.
“The number of applicants for the third series was around the 20,000 mark,” he writes. “There was a real danger of the wrong type of candidates getting in — people who had no real business acumen, just big mouths, like some of those in the second series.
“I insisted there had to be a genuine reason for their appointment to the show. People like Sir Philip were commenting that all the candidates seemed to be braindeads and they would never employ any of them.
I remember telling Philip that he had no idea of the pressure these people were under and, with respect, if I had him, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and Stelios [Haji-Ioannou] on the programme, woke them up at six in the morning and told them they had to prepare some chickens to sell at a festival on the South Bank — buying the stuff, preparing it, cooking it, selling it and coming out with a profit, all in a few days — they would also panic.”
It is this stress and panic that differentiates the British show from the US version, the reality producer says. “In the US, the contestants plan the project they’re working on each week and hire in professionals to do the work. In the UK they’re forced to make sausages themselves. It’s quite clear that the UK version is skewed more towards entertainment as the comedy arises from watching the mouthy show-offs.”
Kurland defends her show. “We needed to have tasks that 12-year-olds watching at home with granddad could understand,” she says.
“Sometimes the challenge proves too much for candidates you think are well placed — like Dan, for instance — but it’s not exploitation.
When we speak to the contestants afterwards they all say they have learnt a lot and are happy with their experience.”
Former contestants do not quite agree. “They showed a side of me that doesn’t exist,” Kimberly Davis says. “The Apprentice opened doors but it also closed them,” says Saira Khan, from series one, who now runs Miamoo, a moisturiser business. “I had to spend a lot of time showing people I wasn’t the gobby, aggressive Saira they saw on TV.”
This week the satirical website Daily Mash summed up the mood of the viewers with a spoof story headlined “Apprentice inspires new generation to become vile.” “I think it’s a hateful show,” says the site’s editor, Neil Rafferty. “The people who go on think that by using business jargon they become successful, as if jargon is half the battle, but they aren’t actually doing anything useful. It’s pitiful.”
Does the show work in delivering what it promises contestants: a head start as an entrepreneur? “I find them all overbearing, arrogant and obnoxious,” says Simon Wilson, a partner at the commercial property firm McMullen Wilson. “I wouldn’t want them in my life, let alone my company.”
If you don’t believe us, see for yourself on BBC1 at 9pm on Wednesday
Learning to speak like an Apprentice
Contestants on The Apprentice have a well-earned reputation for mangling the language as they use marketingspeak to talk themselves up. It is a trend this year's crio seem destined to continue
Alex Epsteain: When everyone is zigging, you should zag
Melissa Cohen: If you get in my way, I'll mow you down
Paloma Vivanco: I've got a real fire in my belly — I feel that every time I wake up
Shiibby Robati: My first word wan't mummy. It was money
Jamie Lester: You've gotta break eggs to make an omelette
Laura Moore: A lots of people can talk the talk — it's very easy to fluff up what you've done but my results are hard proven
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