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Fired up for Trump

Casting call for second-season apprentices brings out corporate climbers.

March 15, 2004|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Designer sunglasses gleamed in the morning sun. Cellphones and overpriced lattes abounded. Briefcases, laptops and lawn chairs littered the sidewalks outside the KNBC studios in Burbank on Saturday. They might've been the carnage from an investment banker riot.

But the line of about 1,000 meticulously groomed young professionals snaking around almost an entire city block was there for only one thing: the Donald. The first open casting call for the second season of "The Apprentice" drew a throng of type- A personalities primed to battle for boardroom supremacy on national TV.

NBC's blockbuster reality show features real estate magnate Donald Trump as host. Trump leads a gaggle of mostly telegenic professionals through business tasks, such as renovating and renting an apartment or organizing a charity auction, as contestants attempt to scheme and brown-nose their way to the grand prize: heading one of Trump's companies for a year.

Saturday's event was the first of at least a dozen such open calls in cities nationwide. Trump will be at the official New York kickoff Thursday, sitting in on some auditions himself. "The Apprentice" is a runaway hit, pulling in about 20 million viewers a week. It's No. 4 among 18- to 49-year-old viewers, garnering a 9.5 rating and a 23 share, or 12.2 million viewers.

"It's relatable," an NBC spokesperson said, describing the key to the show's success. "It's really the first reality show in which people have to use their brains -- not like paddling canoes or giving out red roses."

"I'm addicted to the show," said Holly Cleeland, a "30-ish" entrepreneur from Burbank who had one of her custom-made painted wooden lawn decorations, a cheery Easter bunny, with her as she camped overnight to save her fourth-place spot in line. "I just want to play."

Kenneth Shelton knows the feeling. The Dallas real estate manager flew in from Texas for the chance to audition. After he snagged the first spot in line about 1:30 p.m. Friday, he immediately got creative. Exercising some dubious ingenuity, he took two beds from Burbank's Graciela Hotel to make his overnight stay comfier.

"I can and will win 'The Apprentice,' " said Shelton, 29. If not, it won't be for lack of trying -- he said he was headed to tryouts in Atlanta; Austin, Texas; and Little Rock, Ark., too. And he had mailed producers a video. "Exposure, exposure, exposure," he explained.

Not everyone was as willing as 10 or so die-hards to shiver through the night for the sake of corporate celebrity. Tammy Nguyen, 27, paused in an Alameda Street bus shelter to touch up her makeup before joining the already daunting line at 8 a.m. Nguyen and a friend showed up "knowing we're not really going to make it," she said.

The early morning crowd -- some hopefuls arrived at 4 a.m. -- was generally perky. A few industrious schmoozers took the opportunity to wheel and deal up and down the line, some selling Krispy Kreme doughnuts for a quarter, other passing out fliers for plastic surgery (tummy tuck only $2,800) as the handshakes and business cards flew.

It was Piya Tolani who closed what was arguably the best deal of the morning. When Christina Colletta, 21, who works for a Phoenix nonprofit, decided to skip out and let her boyfriend go it alone, Tolani, 30, knew Colletta's No. 9 spot would be a hot commodity. So the Beverly Hills radio account executive worked the queue, at first offering the place in line for $1,000. She eventually settled on $600 from a desperate Irvine man who had to make it back to Orange County by Saturday afternoon; the two women split the money.

The capitalism gone wild wasn't for everybody. "It's a little intimidating," said LeeAnn Webster, 35, a speed-dating expert from Brentwood. At 8:30 a.m., Webster was last in line, but within 10 minutes at least 30 blazer-clad corporate types had filed in behind her. Julio Morales, 35, a financial advisor from Irvine, was unimpressed by the competition. "It's like a massive Starbucks," he said.

NBC staffers distributed wristbands to the applicants at 9 a.m., with a cutoff of 2,000. The studio doors opened at 10 a.m., and the procession of nervous suits filed through a metal detector into two dingy rooms backstage. There, six groups of a dozen would-be contestants chattered away in simultaneous and occasionally raucous group interviews. They argued about wealth, greed and business ethics as casting directors and associates evaluated their performances and personalities.

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