As the winner of the second "Apprentice," Kelly Perdew should be in line for a top job in the Trump organization. But you'd never know that from his office. His desk is in a small, windowless space next to the assistant to Donald Trump's wife, Melania (Perdew has no assistant). The walls are bare, except for a dry-erase board and a U.S. map, stuck with pins marking the distributors he's signed to buy his boss's new line of bottled water, Trump Ice. "This is going to be big," he vows.
That, of course, is the same promise Trump made about the job waiting for the lucky contestant who survives long enough to hear him say, "You're hired." (He'll be picking this season's winner on Thursday.) In the series premiere, Trump promised the top prize of a job as president of one of his companies. But spend some time with winners of the first two seasons, and the reality of this reality show becomes clear: the apprentices' $250,000-a-year gigs are less about climbing the corporate ladder, and more about using their "Apprentice" celebrity to promote Trump. Then again, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Trump may have engaged in a bit of overselling (or "truthful hyperbole" as he's called it). "It's a little bit too much to ask someone to be the president of a $800 million building when they haven't had that kind of experience," he says.
Perdew and Bill Rancic, the first season's winner, were given the title of "owner's representative," and recently were also named executive vice presidents. On Perdew's first day, his boss introduced him to Florida developers working on a Trump-branded condo in Tampa. "Mr. Trump said, 'OK, Kelly, you're going to go help promote sales of the building'," Perdew recalls. He then spent about 20 days in the area, chatting on the radio, attending parties and talking to the press. These days, he's supposed to split his time between launching the bottled-water brand and sitting in on discussions about a new condo in Florida and a commercial building in Manhattan. But his calendar is filled with many distractions--speeches to entrepreneurs about Trump and "The Apprentice," deadlines for writing a book about how the military teaches business skills, and acting in an ad for the Department of Defense (voice-over by you-know-who).
Rancic, ostensibly put in charge of the $800 million "Chicago: Trump Tower" project, seems to spend as much of his time reliving his TV star turn, too. He'll warm up a crowd of real-estate brokers or potential buyers by talking about "The Apprentice," then the marketing team takes over to talk specifics. "His celebrity is a draw," says Tere Proctor, the building's director of sales. The rest of the time, he shadows another Trump exec in White Plains, N.Y., to learn about construction. "I'm getting a full-time education here," he says, on his way to inspect a new clubhouse on the same golf course his final task was staged. "I'm not going to be a 20-year employee," he adds. "I'm an entrepreneur--my goal is to go on and do a deal of my own."
The jobs may be less than advertised, but they're still enough of a draw to attract some 1 million people who auditioned for season four. For the first time, Trump himself helped choose the finalists who would make it onto his show. Sure, ratings are way down since the first season, but Trump says he's getting more involved because he does, after all, hire the winner, and wants an early look at the prospects. He also still holds out the possibility that Perdew and Rancic could have a shot at a CEO spot in his organization. "In a period of not too many years," he says. "They're learning rapidly." For his part, Rancic certainly has learned an important lesson about building your profile. "Today's CEOs are celebrities," he says. The question now is whether today's celebrities can become CEOs.