Disturbing things everyone ignored about The Apprentice

Sex in exchange for winning, fake boardroom scenes, and advertisements disguised as prime-time TV episodes are just a few of the disturbing things fans may not realize about The Apprentice. Created by reality television guru Mark Burnett — the same producer behind Survivor and The Voice – The Apprentice was supposed to be a reality show competition based on merit and business smarts, but an underbelly of other factors may have been at work as contestants vied for a job within Donald Trump's supposed empire. 

Past competitors include Season 1 winner Bill Rancic, husband of E News host Giuliana Rancic, and the infamous Omarosa Manigault Newman, who became a political aide to President Donald Trump. Celebrities such as broadcaster Piers Morgan, rock star Bret Michaels, and former basketball pro Dennis Rodman duked it out on the show's spin-off, The Celebrity Apprentice. The franchise was initially hosted by Donald Trump with his kids: Don Jr., Eric, and Ivanka Trump serving as advisers. Action star-turned politician Arnold Schwarzenegger later took the reigns of the reality show, although Donald stayed on as an executive producer, despite a firestorm of controversy surrounding his contentious relationship with NBC. 

Let's use our own business acumen to take a closer look some disturbing things everyone ignores about The Apprentice.

Trump wasn't calling the shots

All those dramatic arguments in the show's infamous boardroom climaxes were basically for nothing, at least according to Clay Aiken, a former contestant on The Apprentice (You may also remember him as the runner-up in Season 2 of American Idol.) "Trump didn't decide who got fired on The Apprentice. NBC made those decisions," Aiken claimed in an Under the Dome podcast. Wait, what? Is he suggesting that Donald Trump's iconic "You're fired!" catchphrase was all a farce?

According to Aiken, "There used to be a little thing right on [Trump's] desk that looked like a phone and he pretended it was a phone, but it was actually a teleprompter where the producers were sending him notes." Aiken claims NBC determined which contestant were generating the lowest ratings and told Trump who to fire. "It was very much a 'I'm not a doctor but I play one on TV'" scenario, Aiken alleged. "Donald Trump isn't the businessman that people believe he is, because we saw him on TV playing The Apprentice and he did look like he was leading. But on The Apprentice, he doesn't lead." Oof.

The setting was a 'scam'

According to The New Yorker, Donald Trump "attempted to maximize his profits from the start. When producers were searching for office space in which to stage the show, he vetoed every suggestion, then mentioned that he had an empty floor available in Trump Tower, which he could lease at a reasonable price … When the production staff tried to furnish the space, they found that local venders, stiffed by Trump in the past, refused to do business with them."

"What we did, that was a scam," says former producer Bill Pruitt (via People) in "The Confidence Man," a Trump-focused episode of the Netflix docuseries Dirty Money. Pruitt describes Trump's office in the famed Trump Tower as dated and smelly. "It wasn't the empire we were going to have to sell to people. We needed to gussy it up a bit. And we did." Another secret you may find surprising: There was no penthouse for winners like the show implied. Different sets existed all on one floor in Trump Tower — a move that likely made filming more convenient but was yet another fake representation of reality. 

Nice voice, but who's your dermatologist?

What do you look for in a good employee? Big brains? Integrity? A strong work ethic? How about nice skin? The latter was apparently a priority for The Apprentice mouthpiece Donald Trump. According to The Huffington Post, Trump regularly commented on contestants' appearances, although those comments didn't always make the air. 

HuffPost did get its hands on a transcript from a Season 9 episode titled "Beauty and Brains" that included some, um, interesting commentary. In the episode, the teams prepare country music hopefuls Emily West and Luke Bryan (this was before he became a household name) for meetings with music industry insiders. The contestants were supposed to work on interviewing skills and create promotional packets, but in the boardroom, Trump uncomfortably turned the conversation to Emily's physical appearance. "I assume you're gonna leave this off, don't put this s**t on the show, you know. But her skin, her skin sucks, okay?" he reportedly ranted. "I mean her skin, she needs some serious f***in' dermatology." 

According to the transcript, Trump noted that Bryan was "better looking" and asked country music star and guest judge Trace Adkins for his opinion. When Adkins said he thought Emily's brochure was "more polished looking," Trump reportedly replied: "You're obviously not a skin man."

Allegations abound about Trump's off-air comments

After The Huffington Post released the transcript of the aforementioned "Beauty and Brains" episode, former The Apprentice producer Bill Pruitt suggested on Twitter that there is "far worse" footage that never made the air. However, some of it has leaked out over time. 

According to the Daily Beast, Donald Trump reportedly told Season 13 contestant, Playboy Playmate Brande Roderick, that it "must be a pretty picture, you dropping to your knees." That comment actually made it on the air, but sources say "what didn't [air] was two seasons worth of Trump telling Roderick he wanted to 'marry' her" and do other things to her that we're not going to repeat here. Season 5 contestant Summer Zervos claimed Trump sexually harassed her, claiming he "thrusted" his "genitals" at her. Show insiders told the Associated Press that "Trump repeatedly demeaned women with sexist language," rated female contestants by breast size, and talked about wanting to sleep with contestants. Former producer Katherine Walker told the AP that Trump even speculated about which female contestants would be a "tiger in bed," and The Apprentice winner Randal Pinkett told the AP that he also witnessed Trump talking about wanting to sleep with competitors. 

And that's just the dirt that's been dug up and published. HuffPost reported that folks who worked on the show may be remaining tight-lipped due to nondisclosure agreements that include a $5 million penalty for spilling the tea. 

Making the 'court jester a king'

In the pilot episode of The Apprentice, Donald Trump introduces himself as "the largest real estate developer in New York." Images of Trump's private jet, hotels and host of products put his apparent success and wealth front and center. In the words of The New Yorker, the series portrayed Trump not as a "skeezy hustler who huddles with local mobsters," but as a "plutocrat with impeccable business instincts and unparalleled wealth." However, "most of us knew he was a fake," show editor Jonathon Braun told the magazine. "He had just gone through I don't know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world," he said. "It was like making the court jester the king."

Former producer Bill Pruitt, in en email published by Vanity Fair, described The Apprentice as a "a manufactured story about a billionaire whose empire was, in actuality, crumbling…" In an interview with Frontline, former NBC Public Relations Director Jim Dowd said The Apprentice was a "resurrection" for Trump's public image. "Oddly enough, firing people on television each week made him likable," Dowd said, and it may have laid the groundwork for Trump's successful presidential campaign. Dowd believes that without The Apprentice, "I couldn't see him running for president."

Contending with a ratings 'monster'

Despite a successful Season 1, ratings for The Apprentice began to drop as time marched on, and that allegedly didn't sit well with Donald Trump. Former NBC Public Relations Director Jim Dowd told Frontline the show's host "quickly became obsessed" with ratings. After a drop in Season 5, Dowd claimed Trump asked him to call the ten major executives who cover television ratings and tell them The Apprentice was the No. 1 show in its time slot, even though it was actually ranked No. 72. Calling Trump a ratings "monster," Dowd told Frontline he looked forward to the weeks when ratings were up so he didn't have to deliver bad news to The Donald.

To combat falling ratings, producers reportedly tried to mix up the show by having men compete against women and by introducing other unorthodox competitions such as "street smarts" versus "book smarts." In 2007, executives rebooted the series with The Celebrity Apprentice spin-off featuring famous names such as KISS rocker Gene Simmons, pop star Cyndi Lauper, and former baseball pro Darryl Strawberry. The show also shook up the format by having contestants raise money for charities, which often meant asking famous friends for money — anything for ratings gold.    

You were basically watching one long advertisement

Calling it a "brand integration victory to brag about," Ad Age reported that The Apprentice was among the top ten shows in product placement on network prime time television. To give you an idea: the publication reported "127 brand occurrences" in March 2011 alone. You may have missed this war on your dollars while watching the show because the advertising wasn't always obvious.

Donald Trump would often introduce featured brands by referring to his "friends" at said enterprises, but what you were actually experiencing was arguably a giant commercial in disguise. Season 1, for example, was all about Trump and his brand. The contestants stayed at Trump Tower, drank Trump-branded water, attended events at Trump's golf club, and were sent to Atlantic City to draw attention to his casino (which eventually went bankrupt.) By Season 2, other companies were opening their checkbooks to be featured on the show. According to Ad Age, brands paid anywhere from $5 million to $9 million to appear in the series. "There's never been another show where you've had a product sold for two hours," Trump reportedly claimed. 

"It's been very, very profitable for [Producer Mark Burnett], and for me, and for everyone associated with it," Trump told Forbes in 2014. He wasn't lying. Forbes reported that the duo averaged about $1.5 million in product placement fees per episode.

Rumor has it that sex was part of the business plan

Broadcaster Piers Morgan competed against returning Apprentice reality star Omarosa Manigault Newman in the debut season of The Celebrity Apprentice, and he claimed she was a dirty dealer through and through. "Omarosa offered me sex to win 'Celebrity Apprentice, then called me a 'f***ing f*gg*t, invented gay smears & threatened to punch me," Morgan tweeted in February 2018. "Why the hell was this vile creature ever employed at the White House?" According to The Washington Post, Newman was employed as one of Trump's top White House aides, before switching gears and slamming the administration instead. She even wrote a book titled Unhinged: An Insider's Account of the White House.

Morgan claims Newman is rather unhinged herself. In a 2018 interview with the Daily Mail, he alleges that Newman propositioned him like this: "Piers, do you want a showmance? … You know, a romance on the show. We get it on together. Happens all the time on Apprentice. Everyone has sex together. Then we can make lots of money out of it." Morgan says he turned her down and called her "deluded," and then she allegedly began singing a different tune. "Because I'd rejected her revolting sex plot, she decided the best line of attack was to repeatedly question my sexuality in the most crude and offensive manner imaginable," he said. 

Regardless of what really went down between these two, it's certainly not a good look. 

The show may have enabled a cheating scandal

Donald Trump Jr. allegedly cheated on his wife, Vanessa, with Danity Kane singer and Apprentice contestant Aubrey O'Day, according to a bombshell 2018 report in Us Weekly. The relationship allegedly began in 2011 while filming Season 5 of The Celebrity Apprentice and lasted until March 2012, when Vanessa reportedly uncovered emails between her husband and his mistress. 

"When it started, they were very serious all of a sudden," a source close to O'Day told Us Weekly. "Aubrey fell for him hard. She thought they were going to be together for real." The pair supposedly met up in various cities across the country and exchanged love notes, reported Page Six. The alleged affair reportedly went on around the time that Vanessa was pregnant with her and Don Jr.'s third child. The Trumps stayed together and had two more kids prior to Vanessa filing for divorce in March 2018.

Though O'Day has kept quiet about the romantic rumblings, she did post a cryptic tweet the night Donald Trump was elected president in 2016: "my story I didn't tell is worth millions now."