Monday 19 November 2018

Why we all need our Sugar fix

Kim Bielenberg looks forward to a new series of 'The Apprentice', which begins tonight -- and catches up with last year's Irish contestant

On top of his game: Boss Alan Sugar with the female contestants of this year's The Apprentice
On top of his game: Boss Alan Sugar with the female contestants of this year's The Apprentice

Just a year ago Dubliner Jennifer Maguire went through the ordeal of hearing Alan Sugar growl "you're fired!'' in the hit BBC reality show, The Apprentice.

Jennifer was bitterly disappointed to be given the boot at the time.

But after being portrayed as an ice maiden, and described unflatteringly in one newspaper as looking like "someone frozen alive while chewing a wasp'', she has few regrets about appearing on the programme.

"You have to take the bad with the good,'' says Jennifer. "I could have done without one of my old boyfriends coming out of the woodwork [to talk to a tabloid newspaper], but overall the experience was good.''

Jennifer has not looked back since, in fact. She may have failed to be hired as Sugar's apprentice, but she now runs her own makeover business in Dublin, and is looking forward to seeing the new series of The Apprentice show, which starts tonight.

Described by its host as the "job interview from hell'', the show involves 15 contestants competing over a number of weeks to become Alan Sugar's employee by performing a number of business tasks in a team. At least one is fired each week.

Since last year's BBC Apprentice series went on air, an Irish version, with Bill Cullen in the starring role, has appeared.

"I really enjoyed The Irish Apprentice,'' says Jennifer Maguire. "Bill Cullen was fantastic, and they really stuck to the formula.''

Jennifer started her new business, Bella Makeover, in June of last year, just as the Irish recession was getting into full swing.

Was it the worst time ever to be starting a new business?

"Actually the timing was good as far as I was concerned. I received enormous publicity as a result of The Apprentice, and I decided to use that to promote my business.''

Jennifer's makeover business enables women to live out their supermodel fantasies. After receiving a full makeover from a team of stylists, they have a fashion photoshoot: the idea is that you don't have to look like Kate Moss to look glamourous.

Before she appeared on The Apprentice, the former showjumper worked as a marketing consultant in the fashion industry.

Some business leaders have questioned the value of The Apprentice, believing that it presents an outdated, brash, and overly aggressive view of business. But Jennifer believes she learnt a lot from the experience.

"It was extremely useful for me. The tasks that we were given were difficult. So you were put under an awful lot of pressure.

"You are working from seven in the morning until 12 at night, and you only have a very short time to get something off the ground. That is very good experience for what I am doing now.''

In person Jennifer is a lot warmer than the boastful ice queen from last year's show.

The female candidates in The Apprentice tend to be portrayed as bitchy, grasping, arrogant and treacherous. The men, on the other hand, tend to be either lovable rogues or inept toffs.

Jennifer certainly fitted in with the female stereotype. In last year's show, she described herself as an "iron fist in a velvet glove" and she boasted: "I can sell pieces of paper for £50. I rate myself as the best salesperson in Europe.''

And in one she episode she told a rival, "We won't just kick your arses, we'll make history.''

Although she is a lot more friendly than this brash exterior suggests, Jennifer is philosophical about her image on the programme.

"The TV companies like to create a certain storyline and certain characters, and that is how you come across. I am fine with that.''

The fifth series of Alan Sugar's show will feature an African beauty queen and a former professional footballer among the would-be apprentices. As with the majority of contestants, the current crop does not hide its light under a bushel.

Kate Walsh, a licensing development manager, says she models her approach to business on Samantha from Sex and the City. Estate agent Phillip Taylor suggests he will pull no punches: "You don't need to make friends on the way up when you are not going back down.''

Alan says the job of The Apprentice will be harder now that Britain is experiencing its toughest economic conditions in decades.

This year's line-up has a more exotic flavour, with two foreign contestants hoping to eclipse their British counterparts.

They are a New Yorker who has performed Mozart in Carnegie Hall and a Tanzanian beauty queen. In the first five minutes of the new series the eight women and seven men are stunned to discover that a male candidate has already fired himself -- or "bottled it" in the words of Alan.

The unnamed candidate gave up on the eve of filming, because he could not bear to be away from his family.

Asked if it was harder to be the apprentice in a recession, Sir Alan said: "Yes, in this day and age people are not being recruited. Companies are not taking on people who can get lost in the background and be part of some unknown part of the management. It's much, much tougher out there."

Episode one of the new series follows the candidates as they set about operating a cleaning business.

In previous series of The Apprentice, details of Sir Alan's fortune of some £800m (€854m) were given at the start of episodes but these figures are now omitted. However, in press material accompanying the new series, Sir Alan's worth is estimated at £830m (€886m).

Alan says the programme's makers are conscious of the difficult economic times and some of the shows recognise this. In one episode contestants have to try to reinvent the old seaside town of Margate.

So whatever happened to previous winners? Last year's champion Lee McQueen is nine months into working at Alan's digital ad sales firm Amshold. And series three winner Simon Ambrose is still with Sugar's property firm Amsprop.

But two of the earlier winners have already quit. Series two victor Michelle Dewberry left after just a year to work as an outsourcing consultant.

And the first winner, Tim Campbell, stayed two years before setting up the Bright Ideas Trust, which helps budding entrepreneurs.

Tens of thousands of people apply every year to be Sir Alan's apprentice, but not everybody wants to stay in the job. For some the true prize may be television fame.

The Apprentice is broadcast tonight on BBC1 at 9pm

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