The Art of the Real

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    NETWORKING: Both master and minions

    You don't touch the hand. That is one of the first things you learn if you endeavor to learn anything about Donald Trump. Despite his reputation as America's most public — and publicized — billionaire, the germ-phobic Trump hates to shake hands. So I am taken aback when, in the reception room of his Trump Tower office, he proffers his mitt. "You look like a clean guy," he says. (Little does he know I have a 2-year-old at home sneezing up a day-care center's worth of cold viruses. Sorry, Donald!)

    This seems like a different man from the real estate and casino tycoon who tried to avoid the "barbaric" flesh-on-flesh greeting even when in 2000 he considered a Reform Party run for President. But that was just politics. Today he has a reality-TV show to promote, a show that — like his luxury high-rises encrusted in marble and gilt and christened with big gold Ts — he promises will be bigger and badder, brassier yet classier, altogether Donald Trumpier, than anything else out there. In The Apprentice (NBC, Wednesdays, 8 p.m. E.T.; premieres Thursday, Jan. 8, 8:30 p.m. E.T.), 16 aspiring businesspeople arrive in Manhattan to compete in teams (men vs. women) for the chance to become Trump's protege at a salary of $250,000. Each week, the teams complete a challenge (from selling lemonade on the street to designing an ad campaign). Trump "fires" one member of the losing team.

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    Sixteen contestants? Two teams? Cut-throat competition? On an island? Any resemblance to Survivor is intentional. The Apprentice is produced by Survivor's Mark Burnett, who met Trump in 2002 when he leased Central Park's skating rink from Trump for the show's live finale. "He told me all the right things," says Trump — among them, that the tycoon had been Burnett's idol ever since Burnett read Trump's The Art of the Deal when the then aspiring producer was selling T shirts in Venice Beach, Calif.

    Burnett's fandom is apt. As much salesman as entertainer, he turned reality-TV product placements into an art form (there are, he says, some 40 in The Apprentice ). At heart, The Apprentice is a love letter from Burnett — a naturalized American from Britain — to Yankee capitalism. "The whole world takes America's charity," he says, "and that money is created through entrepreneurs." Survivor , with its tension between group effort and look-out-for-number-onemanship, has always been a metaphor for the corporate jungle. The Apprentice uses the business world as a metaphor for that metaphor. (Lest anyone miss the comparison, Trump says ad nauseam on the show and in our interview that New York City is "the real jungle.")

    What's in it for Trump? We're in a bull market for reality TV about rich people ( Rich Girls , The Simple Life ), but most of the silver-spooners on those shows have not come off well. (An exception was Trump's daughter Ivanka in HBO's documentary Born Rich . Amid a cast of upper-class twits worthy of Monty Python, she seemed refreshingly level-headed. "I was very proud," her dad says. "She came off like a member of society, as opposed to somebody from Mars.") And he's a busy enough man as it is, which he happily underscores by handing me a copy of a Crain's New York Business article listing the Trump Organization as by far the largest privately held company in the metro area. He keeps a stack of the articles on his desk as you might a dish of mints. Long before Paris Hilton was a gleam in an infrared camera's eye, Trump lived by the dictum that you can never be too rich or too exposed to the media. And, he says, he was attracted by the "educational" aspects of The Apprentice .

    Educational? Trump and his colleagues do offer the candidates such eye-opening nuggets as "Swing for the fences" and "Location, location, location." But the primary educational element is how fan-damn-tastic it is to be Donald Trump. And really, this is all most of us have ever wanted to learn from him. We first see him soaring over Manhattan in his private helicopter; the team that wins one challenge gets a tour of his Versailles-like penthouse (guided by his girlfriend Melania Knauss). Trump is the rich guy so many nonwealthy Americans love because he lives like a lottery winner. Enviable yet accessible, neither shy nor subtle, he was reality TV before reality TV was. In Trump's world, as on Survivor , success is its own justification. His detractors can say that he's a better self-promoter than businessman, but all those chandeliers and sheets of brass are real and inarguable. Likewise, when a conniver like Richard Hatch reaches the finals of Survivor , the fact that he has made it proves — to the audience and his opponents — that he deserved to, whether or not they like the way he did it.

    As entertainment, The Apprentice is not quite Survivor — hype aside, Manhattan can't out-jungle the jungle — but it's much more exciting than Burnett's take on the dining business in The Restaurant . The challenges, which make up the bulk of the episodes, are cleverly designed and guarantee dramatic sparks. Above all, it was smart to borrow the provocative battle-of-the-sexes motif from Survivor: Amazon , even if the casting questions Burnett and Trump's claim that the contestants were chosen (from 215,000 applicants) mainly for brains. The women range from hottest-woman-in-your-office hot to supermodel hot (and flash more leg and navel than in most staff meetings not held at Hooters), whereas most of the men would only be among the better-looking guys on Average Joe .

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