In the first season of The Apprentice, the long-running reality-competition series created by Mark Burnett and starring Donald Trump, political consultant Omarosa Manigault (now Manigault Newman) draws real estate agent Katrina Campins into a sudden, strangely thrilling argument. The latter, as likely for the camera as for the benefit of her competitor, is attempting to “befriend” Manigault, the most isolated member of the all-woman “Protégé Corporation” team—though Campins’ tearful protestation that she’d rather be able to sleep at night than be a successful businesswoman has the ring of a nosy neighbor’s scold. As if to test Campins’ motives, in fact, Manigault, omitting certain key details (she’d been relieved of four jobs in two years during the Clinton Administration, according to People), describes her rise from “the projects to the White House,” then calmly reassures Campins that she is successful, wondering aloud why Campins needs her affirmation. The result is one of the era’s most exquisite self-immolations: Campins shoves her finger in Manigault’s face, screams “shut up!” and, later, grabs her interlocutor’s forearm to hold her attention, all as Manigault—the very definition of bloodless—coolly observes her, almost embarrassed that this woman’s humiliating herself on national television. “If Donald Trump wants someone who will manipulate and backstab those around them to succeed,” Campins says in one of the series’ post hoc interviews, “well, I think Omarosa’s made it pretty clear that she will do anything to win this.”
That the saga of Manigault Newman’s second stint in the White House and its salacious aftermath has followed the format’s distinctive rhythm is no exceptional insight: Though political commentators tend to apply to term as if its implications are self-evident, the dominant hermeneutic for citizen, candidate, and now President Trump has always been “reality TV.” Rather, it’s the particulars of her appearances on The Apprentice, in 2004, and The Celebrity Apprentice, in 2008—namely, her emergence as the quintessential reality TV villain—that illuminates both the possibilities and the limits of reading the current administration as one might a TV program. Playing the “villain,” of course, presumes the existence of a “hero,” which Manigault Newman’s most recent adversary, Donald Trump, most assuredly is not. Which raises one of the fundamental questions facing those of us tasked with separating the significant from the sensational in the latest scandal engulfing the White House: What happens when the tropes of reality TV encounter the real world?
Omarosa didn’t create the archetype of the reality-competition villain—that mantle belongs to Richard Hatch, the arrogant gamesman and ultimate winner of Survivor’s genre-defining first season, in 2000—but she might be said to have perfected it. (To put it another way, the fact that she’s the only reality-competition figure recognizable by a mononym is not simply a function of her memorable name.) Unlike Hatch, or Will Kirby, the conniving victor in Big Brother’s second season, in 2001, she appears to have understood her role not as a path to the top prize, but as a career in its own right: Where her counterparts swiftly formed strategic alliances, Omarosa immediately alienated herself from her fellow contestants, and though her brusqueness had no clear in-game purpose, it helped audiences (and producers) identify her early on as the villain, securing her a lengthy season arc. On The Celebrity Apprentice, in which she’s identified not as a “political consultant” but as a “reality star,” her exaggerated use of the same tactic suggests the self-referential (perhaps self-parodic) aspect of the postmodern: She even pours a flute of champagne on Piers Morgan’s head. In a sense, Omarosa has come to epitomize the reality TV villain because she is the reality TV villain in its purest form: So unabashedly mercenary, so unspeakably craven, that being the villain is more important to her than winning the game.
In her rise to reality TV infamy, though, the role of Omarosa’s race and gender can’t be ignored: It’s impossible not to see her being the only black person in the room as part of her ostracism from her “Protégé” teammates, or indeed from the White House senior staff, and her season-long Celebrity Apprentice feud with Morgan—a greedy, desperate, reptilian shill of even less integrity or charm than Manigault Newman—smacks of both misogyny and racism on his part. On the other hand, Omarosa has been known to turn this to her advantage: When her first target on The Apprentice, marketing manager Ereka Vetrini, responds to Omarosa’s description of her as “emotionally unstable” with the commonplace expression “that’s the pot calling the kettle black,” Omarosa—almost laughably transparent in her attempt to get a rise out of Ereka—counters by saying, “See, there you go with your racist terms.”
It’s this, I suspect, that has made Manigault Newman such a challenging figure for op-ed columnists and cable news analysts to explain, either by traditional political calculus or by traditional reality TV calculus. On the one hand, the former Trump staffer and confidante clearly has an axe to grind: She was reportedly fired by White House chief of staff John Kelly and escorted from the grounds by the Secret Service after becoming the most “despised” person in the West Wing. On the other, the publication of her tell-all, Unhinged, and the accompanying full-court press of TV appearances (replete with surreptitiously recorded audio) has made her into an unlikely heroine among those still clinging to the hope that tape of the president using a racial slur might force his resignation: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But the notion that “Donald Trump getting taken down by Omarosa is the final act we need for this whole thing to be a perfect Greek tragedy,” as Washington Free Beacon executive editor Sonny Bunch wrote on Twitter, because “the hubris of reality [TV] celebrity leads him to hire more reality [TV] celebrities who then betray him in typical reality [TV] celebrity fashion,” misunderstands both Omarosa’s role in the drama and its probable outcome.
As with Trump himself, after all, the ongoing fallout from Omarosa’s Unhinged publicity tour resembles her appearances on The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice with the eerie precision of a premonition, or warning. There’s the intense loathing her co-workers and reality TV competitors alike come to feel for her, the latter celebrating her elimination from The Apprentice as if they’d won a grueling challenge. There’s her persistent, personal (though usually sedate) disparagement of those around her—it’s not a stretch to call it “shade”—from asking Vetrini if she’s intimidated by black women and taunting Morgan about his divorce to describing Trump in Unhinged as a doddering old racist. There’s her glacial demeanor, which—confirming a schoolyard lesson since time immemorial—pushes her hotheaded opponents to embarrassing emotional and rhetorical extremes: Presaging Trump’s ugly attack on her as a “crazy, crying lowlife” and a “dog,” Morgan directs an unending stream of invective at her, including “loser” (a Trump favorite), “wastrel,” “disgusting piece of slime” and, yes, “lowlife trash,” only to end up appearing, well, unhinged.
Perhaps the most telling of the insults Morgan fires at Omarosa, though, are the two that feature in the birth of the reality-competition villain, the moment that crystallizes the character Omarosa’s made a career of playing. In the finale of that first Survivor, the conventions of the genre still rounding into shape, it’s fourth-place finisher Sue Hawk’s famed speech to the jury of eliminated contestants, as much as any of his own actions, that fastens Hatch in the cultural memory as a bona fide villain. Commending the “frankness” of his competitive streak and calling her erstwhile friend, runner-up Kelly Wiglesworth, “two-faced” and “manipulative,” she closes her plea to vote for Hatch with a reference to Borneo’s ecology:
We have Richard the snake, who knowingly went after prey, and Kelly, who turned into the rat that ran around like the rats do on this island, trying to run from the snake. I feel we owe it to the island’s sprits… to let it be the way that Mother Nature intended it to be—for the snake to eat the rat.”
In the final episode of her run on The Celebrity Apprentice—in which Omarosa, in an absurd, scarlet-colored hat, presses Morgan’s buttons until he’s almost frothing at the mouth—the “TV judge / tabloid editor” reverses his earlier description of his nemesis as “venomous” to call her “a little rat.” “It wasn’t a fair fight,” he concludes, in his own post hoc interview. “I doubt we’ll ever hear from Omarosa again. I think her 15 minutes have just ended.”
As Bunch suggests, it might count as 21st century-style poetic justice should the ultimate reality TV villain—the ideal combination of the snake and the rat, the venal D-lister capable of turning her 15 minutes into 15 years—perform the ultimate volte face and bring her former benefactor, her erstwhile friend, and the most foul figure to inhabit the Oval Office since Richard Nixon to his knees, though of course she will not. The role of the reality TV villain, in its Platonic form, is not to win, but to create upset, to generate interest, to pour gasoline on the fire, sacrificing his or her own chances in order to reset the 15-minute timer to zero once more. Because Omarosa didn’t win The Apprentice. Nor did she win The Celebrity Apprentice. (The title that season went to none other than Piers Morgan.) Nor did she manage to hold onto any of her jobs in not one but two presidential administrations for much longer than the average high-schooler spends a summer flipping burgers. And yet, while Omarosa may or may not be, as the writer Jess Dweck (half-) jokingly tweeted the other day, someone to “root for,” this in spite of her almost gleeful absence of identifiable convictions, her almost bottomless stomach for shit-eating, she is a demonstrably more sympathetic figure than either Piers Morgan or Donald Trump. In embracing her role as the “villain” once more, in fact, she’s made herself into an underdog, biting at the heels of the despicable white men who end up rising to the top no matter how badly they act. This, it must be said, is where reality TV does encounter the real world, and tends to magnify its inequities. If UnREAL’s once-lacerating satire of the format taught us anything, it’s that reality TV is a casino even Donald Trump couldn’t run into the ground: The house always wins.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.