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October 23, 2014

The Fall of 'The Apprentice'

by Stephanie Earp, posted Mar 16th 2010 5:58PM


While watching the two-hour (read: interminable) debut of 'The Celebrity Apprentice' on Sunday night, I was trying to figure out if Cyndi Lauper is out of this show's league, or vice versa. Maybe I'm thinking about leagues because of all the previews for the new Jay Baruchel movie, but for some reason that's how the question phrased itself in my head. Has Cyndi Lauper really sunk this low?

'The Apprentice' used to be an A-list show when it debuted in 2004. Remember? It was a serious competitive reality show that was nominated for Emmys against shows like 'Survivor' and 'The Amazing Race', and for cinematography -- in other words, the gorgeous New York skyline shots that peppered the episodes. Back then, people watched the show and compared the tasks and the competitors to their own workplace.

While watching the two-hour (read: interminable) debut of 'The Celebrity Apprentice' on Sunday night, I was trying to figure out if Cyndi Lauper is out of this show's league, or vice versa. Maybe I'm thinking about leagues because of all the previews for the new Jay Baruchel movie, but for some reason that's how the question phrased itself in my head. Has Cyndi Lauper really sunk this low?

'The Apprentice' used to be an A-list show when it debuted in 2004. Remember? It was a serious competitive reality show that was nominated for Emmys against shows like 'Survivor' and 'The Amazing Race', and for cinematography - in other words, the gorgeous New York skyline shots that peppered the episodes. Back then, people watched the show and compared the tasks and the competitors to their own workplace.

The challenges appeared to be based on basic principles of business, and viewers could fool themselves into thinking that watching 'The Apprentice' was like getting a free sample of an MBA. Back then, Donald Trump's ego was a charming anachronism in an otherwise modern and stylish show from one of reality's best, Mark Burnett.

In six short years, it has transformed itself into the kind of show that would give quarter to Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor who tried to sell Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat. I understand that having been barred from ever holding public office again, he needs a new career, but I fail to see how NBC or Trump should be the one to give it to him. It's a mark of how little integrity this show has left that Blagojevich's inclusion wasn't a bigger news story, at least in the entertainment world.

So what happened to 'The Apprentice'? How did it fall so far from its original A-list perch?

I think it started with Trump's real-life firing of Carolyn Kepcher, the no-nonsense manager who terrified early contestants with her blunt appraisals of their work. Kepcher reminded me of some of the women I've worked with over the years in publishing. Tough, a bit cold, incredibly hard-working. Kepcher, with her stiff mannerisms and thin TV voice, was an unlikely celebrity, but her low tolerance for bulls--t made her a star in her own right. According to the gossip at the time of her dismissal from both 'The Apprentice' and Trump's employ, it was her celebrity that irked him. He replaced her with his daughter, Ivanka. At least viewers got a real-life lesson in how nepotism works -- a genuine problem in modern business.

With Trump's ego left unchecked by non-family members, and NBC's deep love of product placement in full swing, both the tasks and the boardroom became farces. On the ground, contestants were reduced to spokespeople for companies like Domino's Pizza, Visa and Burger King -- and, of course, for the Trump organization. In the boardroom, contestants were encouraged to point fingers and throw teammates under the bus to stay alive. I'm sure some viewers still recognized their work lives in the show, but not in a happy way.

In season six, the final true season of 'The Apprentice,' the show moved to L.A. That's never a good sign. It's not to say that business isn't humming along on the West Coast just as constantly as it is in Manhattan, but it's a sign that the show's priorities have changed. There's really only one reason to film a show in L.A. -- it's easier. Celebrities live there, and there are studios galore. No one walks anywhere, so the sidewalks (such as they are) are free for film crews.

'America's Next Top Model' moved to L.A. a few seasons back, and it was a tacit acknowledgement that Tyra's girls won't be part of the modeling scene in New York -- they'll go to dubious premieres and parties in L.A. 'The Apprentice' isn't looking for a potential tycoon -- it's looking for a hot piece to promote Trump and NBC. L.A. is a better fit for that, and having the losing team sleeping in tents is probably as good preparation as anything for seeking stardom.

And then 'The Apprentice' was basically cancelled. In early May 2007, Trump said he was leaving the show, but by the end of the month the show had been renewed for two more seasons, but it came back changed. It was 'The Celebrity Apprentice.'



This is the mistake A-list reality never makes. A-list reality makes its own celebrities, from hosts like Jeff Probst and Tim Gunn to contestants like 'Boston' Rob Mariano and Kelly Clarkson. When 'Survivor' has an all-star season, it's with stars they've created, not people who've been chewed up and spit out by other parts of the entertainment industry.

Which brings me back to Cyndi Lauper. She's the reason I watched the debut episode, and she's the reason I devoted this much time and thought to a show that's basically dead and doesn't know it yet. How did Cyndi Lauper, a Grammy- and Emmy-winning performer of some of the most iconic songs of the last two decades, end up competing against a disgraced former governor, a disgraced former MLB player, various models and Sharon Osbourne for the approval of Donald Trump? It's too weird.

What did Cyndi ever do to deserve this? She never traded on her looks, she isn't a recovering drug addict, she has no sex tape (please, tell me she has no sex tape) and she didn't embezzle money from the people she was elected to represent. This month, I think we're all aware of how cruel our culture is to former stars, and some fates are harsher than others.

Winding up on 'The Celebrity Apprentice' isn't the worst thing that could happen to you, but it's on the list.

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