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Bill - why Jackie might finally get that ring after 31 years

BILL Cullen can touch his toes. He's a passive driver. He's going to live to be 100. And he believes that The Apprentice "can run forever".

If nothing else, the self-made millionaire has confidence to sell.

Sitting in his office at the Liffey Valley Renault store feels a little bit like being in The Apprentice boardroom.

At regular intervals during our hour-long chat he turns the questions back on me, telling me, among other things, that my four years in university were wasted.

At one point I have to stop the interview to ask: "You do realise that you're not normal?"

He doesn't even flinch. Instead, he chuckles and his voice becomes slightly squeaky: "I'm as normal as anybody on the planet," he says, before conceding: "Okay, I've had a different opinion to most people."

With series three of his hit show The Apprentice kicking off on Monday, Cullen is preparing for 12 weeks of national fame.

He's promising a more vindictive group of wannabes and confirms rumours that some of the young contestants took part in some 'extra curricular' activities. But the one question that does make him shy away is whether he'll ever make "an honest woman" out of Jackie Lavin.

Asked whether romances in the new series will influence his hiring and firing, Cullen replies: "I'm not an Alan Sugar. The last one Alan Sugar did was where he hired a guy even though the girl that was up against him was streets ahead.

"It was very clear to me that Alan discarded her because she was publicly showing that she was having a relationship with one of the lads. It wouldn't bother me at all."

He explains: "Listen, I'm from the '50s and '60s, I can't understand you guys today, the way you have all that you have. In our day, you didn't get sex until you married.

"That's the way it was so what you guys get up to these days is outside my thing."

Asked whether he worries that the show will lose some appeal now it's in year three, the Renault boss is surprised.

"This is addictive television. This thing can run forever because it grabs you. Now it's totally different. You now have the situation where they are in control of certain things. They try to give me answers that they think I want.

"As you go along into the third series it's easy to see that they have learned. They probably got the series on the Sky box," he laughs, adding that the show will have "the good, the bad and the ugly".

"There is a bit of conniving in that some of them are saying 'me and you are going to make sure that she gets it, not us'. There is manoeuvring going on in the boardroom this year that we didn't see before. So that's interesting."

The Apprentice has given a whole new dimension to 'Brand Bill' to the point where all his Renault dealerships now have cardboard cutouts saying "Wow! You're hired."

The average person might blush but Bill declares: "I don't care." He's a bit unsteady though when it's put to him that his biggest rival as Ireland 'celebrity businessman' might be Ben Dunne.

"Ben is Ben. But I'm a self-made man. I came from nowhere. Ben has come up a totally different way to me."

Both of them take to the airwaves in a way that other businessmen such as JP McManus and Michael Smurfit don't -- but the Penny Apples author says that his style is uniquely different to Dunne's.

"It's his own style. I'm not 'dis-impressed' with it. If it works for him, that's what you do. I have my own way of advertising and marketing, meeting people, selling cars ...

"It's like having those cutouts in the window. They work for us. People come in. If people think, 'look it's your bleedin' man in the window', well tough."

Halfway through the interview, Bill's long-term partner Jackie Lavin pops in to say hello.

When she disappears to do some work, he candidly reveals: "I'll be the one that's probably a bit soft in the relationship. Now that doesn't mean by much.

"Sometimes I'm soft because what's the point in arguing, so I go along with things. Between the two of us, we are a great combination."

So will Bill Cullen ever make an honest woman out of her? It's a question he's often been asked before, but still there is a momentary pause.

"I suppose the phrase 'the honest woman' has connotations with it. The fact is that we're 31 years together and I don't think that we could have a stronger relationship.

"As someone said, 'don't let a marriage ruin a good relationship'. I'd have to leave it like that, time will tell."

He had earlier told me he has Dromoland Castle booked for his 100th birthday party, adding in his true Dub accent: "So stick around mister."

I suggest that he could combine the birthday with a wedding, but he laughs: "If I leave it that late then she'll definitely have traded me in for a younger model."

So maybe Jackie will get that ring after all, but when it does happen it's likely to be a sober affair.

As we discuss Brian Cowen's session of "drinking and singing with the lads", Cullen -- who had his first drink at 35 -- is clearly outraged.

"Find me somebody who has ever saw me drunk. It might have happened once in my life.

"It probably happened way back in the first year when I went to a party and they are just filling your glass as you stand there. I couldn't walk out of the place because I probably had two or three glasses of wine, but not being a drinker until that time, I couldn't walk. But that was it."

He says that Cowen should never have "exposed" himself to what happened and should instead have bought the first round and gone to bed.

Then again, this is coming from somebody who has never taken a sick day since starting work on October 14, 1956.

Asked if he gets ill, he replies: "I don't know. I hear people going on about flus and colds and all that crap. I don't know where it comes from. I take responsibility for my own health.

"I exercise every day without fail, no matter where I am in the world."

He also has a gripe with young people who put too much emphasis on college.

"Why should it take three or four years to get a B Com. When I was your age (24) I used to work from six in the morning until 10 at night," he says, getting animated.

"You can't keep people in school until they are 23 and 24 and 25 because they've missed out on what it is about business. What's more, they miss out on what real life is about."

Despite having been expelled from school at 15, he confirms the worst fear of the country's parents: "It's a doss. What's the life experience in college? It's fun. That's all you get in college, fun."

One well-known graduate to have appeared on the show is ex-Harvard man Breffney Morgan. Bill says the 'Breffmeister' might not be the "sharpest knife in the drawer" but the experience he gained on The Apprentice has turned him into a model, a radio presenter and a businessman.

"You always have to have a Breffney in there," he laughs.