The World According to Trump

Like the gold-encrusted doors to his Fifth Avenue apartment, everything Donald Trump says is over the top, outrageous and in desperate need of being toned down by 20 percent. Like when he claims that "The Apprentice," the reality-TV show that features him as the oracle of business wisdom, is "the No. 1 show on television," when it's really No. 8. Or when he brags that the show is "the biggest hit for NBC since 'Friends'," despite a little program called "ER." That's Trump--always the salesman, the master of what he's called "truthful hyperbole." The funny thing is, people are buying every morsel he has to sell. "The Apprentice" is the most addictive new show on television, with more than 18 million viewers tuning in every week to watch Trump conduct his own master class in megasuccess. And he's hooked some big fish. "I knew it was going to be a good show when Suzy and I were watching it in bed with her two kids and they started shouting, 'You're fired! You're fired!' " says one retired CEO. "I was stunned. It's a home run." This "Apprentice" admirer is named Jack Welch.

What a difference a decade makes. Not long ago, Trump, 57, was a bloviating real- estate developer with a taste for young women and the spotlight. Today he's--exactly the same. Not even his hairdo has changed. So how has Trump gone from something of a joke--a "short-fingered vulgarian" in one infamous epithet--to a man so cool, even "The Donald" doesn't sound mocking anymore? Certainly Trump's comeback from near bankruptcy helped. He's got his name on more New York City buildings than Rockefeller. But more importantly, he arrives at a moment custom-tailored for him and his show. On the one hand, the economy and stock market are heating up to the point where we're getting nostalgic for the Trump era of excess. At the same time, we're all feeling anxious about our jobs and the future. What better way to take the edge off than with a bit of gallows humor--"You're fired!" delivered by The Boss with a cobralike flick of his wrist at whichever contestant he decides doesn't make the grade?

It's also a sign that "The Apprentice" is perhaps the first reality program that's close to real. The show is patterned on "Survivor"--they're both created by Mark Burnett--with two teams conducting tasks every week and the losers suffering the indignity of having one member booted by Trump. But unlike programs where people starve themselves on a tropical island or date 25 potential wives simultaneously, "The Apprentice" takes us to territory we all know--the office. Everyone can relate to co-workers who are lousy team players, assignments with unrealistic deadlines and, most of all, those terrifying moments when the boss calls you on the carpet. This is still television, so "The Apprentice" isn't always as real as it seems. The boardroom on the show is actually a set built in the basement of Trump Tower. In fact, he almost never sacks anyone himself, and when he does, says George Ross, one of Trump's real-life lieutenants who also advises him on the show, "I doubt he'd say the words 'You're fired.' He's much more tactful than that." But if the business of America is business, "The Apprentice" is its first video diary. Even the grand prize seems like an attainable plum: a one-year apprenticeship as head of one of the companies in the Trump empire with a $250,000 salary. No wonder more than 200,000 applied for the show's 16 slots. "The promise of what's being won here is not just some one-time reward of $1 million," says Robert Thompson, a professor of television and pop culture at Syracuse University. "The promise is that you can skip 50 rungs on the corporate ladder. It's the brass ring that so temptingly hangs in front of everyone who dreams the American Dream."

Which explains why people are taking the show so seriously. "I can tell you that at various business schools, like Harvard and Wharton, it's mandatory watching," says Trump. Wait--that's more Trump hyperbole. But the truth is, not since Regis started asking "Is that your final answer?" has a catchphrase caught on like Trump's. He claims "You're fired!" just occurred to him during the first show. "The first boardroom was supposed to be about a minute. I was supposed to just say, 'David, it doesn't look like you have it. I really don't want you.' It was supposed to be much softer. And then I just said, hey, f--- it. And you know, the words came out," Trump says. "There is something very succinct and very beautiful about the words 'You're fired.' It's so definite and final." Fans yell "You're fired" at Trump about 100 times a day--and that's no exaggeration--including when he and his girlfriend, Melania Knauss, 33, are having lunch at the tony Le Cirque restaurant.

Trump's tough talk doesn't thrill everyone. Cathy Gurny of Scarsdale, N.Y., watches the show with her 9-year-old son, Harris, but she's worried Trump is corrupting him. For one thing, Harris now wants to be a real-estate mogul just like Trump. "I tell him you don't have to be tough and aggressive like that," says Gurny. She's also had to stop Harris from shouting "You're fired!" at the nanny. "He was scaring her," she says. Others say the problem is more serious, that CEOs have had enough trouble with their reputations, and "The Apprentice" isn't helping the rehab. "It's pretty vulgar," says Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale School of Management. "It's deception, trickery and sex peddling. The lesson is that leadership selection is developed in a process akin to musical chairs at a Hooter's restaurant."

Vulgar? What did people expect? This is a man whose mistress, Marla Maples, once bragged to a New York tabloid: THE BEST SEX I'VE EVER HAD. But people who make those kinds of complaints aren't watching carefully enough. One of the most stunning moments of "The Apprentice" came when the women's team had won several competitions largely by hiking up their skirts and shaking their booties. Trump did the unthinkable. He chewed them out. "You're almost over the line," he said, which, coming from the man who owns the "Miss Universe Pageant," is practically a papal edict. The fact is, the Trump on "The Apprentice" isn't the same nasty, petty guy who picked fights with New York Mayor Ed Koch back in the '80s. There's something almost nurturing about him on the show. He listens during the boardroom meetings where the contestants plead their cases. He gives constructive advice and support. Last week, after Heidi found out that her mother has colon cancer, Trump pulled her aside and asked if she was OK. "Until this show, I was known as a flamethrower, a wild man who was ruthless. And I'm not," he says.

The fact that Trump has become the most sympathetic person on "The Apprentice" is no small part of its charm. In a world where CEOs seem about as honest as politicians, Trump is at least reliably boastful. You know where he's coming from--play hard, make as much as you can and work all the angles--without any of the typical corporate double-speak. He may say pompous things like "I thought I was the biggest star before 'The Apprentice,' but now I'm bigger," but in a strange way, he's down to earth, the kind of guy who buys a $350,000 Maybach by Mercedes but insists on driving it himself. On a tour of the Trump International Golf Club in Palm Beach, Fla., he happily boasts about the 1,000 royal palm trees that rim the property, then tells you how he got $3 million worth of trees for only $300,000 by agreeing to appear on the cover of the tree farmer's brochure. "There's only one crooked tree in the whole f---ing bunch, and you're looking at it right there," he roars. "That drives me crazy. I'm going to straighten that out." You half expect him to jump out of the car and dig it up himself.

For a guy who was once the bread and butter of New York's gossip columnists, Trump would actually prefer to spend his days like this: on a golf course or in some other quiet setting. He's pretty antisocial. "My life is much less glamorous than people think," he says. Part of that comes from being a germophobe who doesn't even like to shake hands. "It's barbaric. Studies have shown that if you shake hands, you catch colds." He clearly prefers smaller forums to crowds. When he was asked to buy a $50,000 table for a big charity gala recently, he made a Trumpian counteroffer. "I said, 'Look. I'll give you $100,000 if I don't have to go'," he says. Maybe that's because he can dominate the room better that way. Or maybe he's just a homey person by nature. One of the most pleasant surprises of Trump's renaissance is that we've been introduced to his three grown children--Donald Jr., 26, Ivanka, 22, and Eric, 20--and they all seem remarkably grounded. Perhaps that explains why, on the show, Trump often comes across as paternal as he is stern. "I was pleasantly surprised by how humorous and charming and creative he is," says Kristi Franks, the first woman fired. "He goes out of his way to make people around him comfortable. He's a very, very charming man. I didn't expect that."

And with his reality-TV success, he's willing to share a bit more of himself with his public. Last week Trump watched the show from the wood-paneled bar at his extravagant Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago. While the two teams were working through the week's challenge of renovating an apartment--in other words, the part of the show that does not feature him--Trump chatted with the crowd and provided running commentary. But when the climactic boardroom scene came on, he grabbed the remote control and cranked the volume up so loud that no one else could talk. "Who do you think gets fired?" he barked along with his televised self. "It's Tammy!" "It's Katrina!" people shouted back. Trump smiled and leaned over to kiss Melania's hand. Finally, Trump (on screen) delivered his verdict: "You're so obnoxious in this case, Tammy, you're fired." Trump (in person): "That was a tough firing." The room applauded as if he'd just returned home from a war.

In a way, he has. After narrowly avoiding personal bankruptcy in the early '90s (he says he was $900 million in the hole at one point), Trump's Midas touch returned when Manhattan real estate boomed. New York property pros speak in awe of the "Trump Factor"--a 15 percent to 50 percent rent premium that any building gets if Trump slaps his name on it. Consider the Trump Building on Wall Street, which he bought for $1 million during the New York real-estate doldrums in the '90s. Today that building is worth a half billion. Even when he was unloading his toys to get out of debt, he sold at a premium. His yacht, the Trump Princess, went for 40 percent above the going rate of $20 million, boat dealers say. His Achilles' heel, though, is his casinos, which are drowning in $1.8 billion of debt and barely breaking even. Stock in his casino company goes for about $2.50, down from a peak of $34 in 1996. He just refinanced, giving up half his ownership stake in return for a $400 million cash infusion from the bank. Still, Trump says he's never been richer, pegging his net worth at more than $5 billion. That's twice what Forbes figures he's worth, but, not surprisingly, Trump hints that the magazine might be reworking its math. Even his old nemesis Koch now pays him grudging respect. "He's a braggart," says Koch, "but he is a very good developer."

And what's wrong with a little bragging? It's hardly a secret that, in addition to being a reality-TV show, "The Apprentice" is also a 15-episode infomercial for Trump himself. What's the reward for winning each week? A visit to Trump's golf course ("The finest course in New York state!"), his country home ("The most beautiful house in New York state!") and, the piece de resistance, his Trump Tower apartment, complete with a marble fountain the size of a minivan in the living room. Is it cheesy? Of course, but that's part of the fun. A few years ago we would have loathed the self-promotion. But, once again, Trump's timing is perfect. Product placement is practically mandatory on television now, and when it's done as artfully (and shamelessly) as on "The Apprentice," you can't help admiring the deft salesmanship. " 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous' worked for a reason," says Burnett. "It's the idea that, if you hang around him, amazing things will come your way."

Besides, Trump was made for TV. Beneath all that unsmiling, unhandshaking posturing, you can see he's playing a role, having a little laugh at his own expense. He recently visited the ladies of "The View" to discuss the whole hair thing. (Since we know you're wondering, let the record show that every weirdly combed follicle you see is his. Trump swoops up his bangs to prove it. "I don't say my hair is my greatest strength in the world, but it's not terrible," he says, though perhaps it would look better if someone other than his girlfriend cut it.) He loves that David Letterman mocks him constantly and is dying to go on his show. "NBC doesn't want me to do it because they don't want him to get ratings," says Trump. Ask him if he's ever had any plastic surgery, and the hair--who knew it could actually move this much?--gets swooped up again. "I've never had a face-lift," he says. "You can see. Check. There's no scars." Even more amazing is that, while he's still close to his '80s fighting weight, Trump limits his exercise to tennis and golf, which he plays with a 2 or 3 handicap. He never works out, he says, because that might "wear out my bones." Once "The Apprentice" runs its course, wouldn't you just love to see Trump in his own version of "The Simple Life"?

Trump may be the show, but he's not the only star to emerge from "The Apprentice." The 16 contestants have all become mini-celebrities: Kwame, Omarosa, Troy--in certain circles, you don't even need to give their last names. Even the losers are winners. Sam Solovey lasted three episodes, but he became one of the show's stars, thanks to his bizarre business decisions (he tried to sell a guy a cup of lemonade for $1,000) and his almost unnatural adoration of Trump. "I would sell widgets on the side of the road with that guy," Solovey says. "Donald Trump is the king of them all." And Sam is already riding his coattails. Thanks to the show, Solovey has been featured in newspapers across the country, proposed to his girlfriend on "Today" and fielded all sorts of job offers. "A tech company out in San Francisco said they were looking for a new CEO and wanted to bring me in for an interview," says Solovey, who publishes a technology newsletter. "A comedian wants me to go on the road with him to radio stations. It's kind of funny."

The fact that wacky Sam lasted on the show as long as he did has made people wonder whether Trump, who is an executive producer of the show, keeps the most entertaining people even if they're the least competent. He has also spared the show's reigning villain, Omarosa, even though his own lieutenants have recommended she go. "It has nothing to do with the fact that we have great ratings and I want to keep them that way. It's just pure instinct as to who's going to do the best job," he says. "Wait until you see me go after Omarosa." Not everyone is convinced that Trump is playing fair. "It's a TV show. You gotta remember that," says fired contestant Bowie Hogg. "Trump knows how to get good ratings. He's a smart, smart man."

And now's he's a very busy one. Trump has always been as much of a promoter as a developer, so he's wasting no time cashing in on his TV fame. He's marketing his own bottled water, Trump Ice--featured, naturally, on "The Apprentice" this week. He's writing another book, "How to Get Rich," which will include a section on "The Art of the Hair." And he's signed on for a second run of "The Apprentice," though he's quick to point out that he'll get paid "a lot more" than the $100,000 per episode fee he got the first time round. There's only one thing worrying him. He doesn't want people to think he's just another TV fad, a real-life Joe Billionaire who's a hit today and reality roadkill tomorrow. "This isn't my so-called 15 minutes," he says. "I'll be around." As if anyone could ever fire Donald Trump.