By Marissa Newhall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007
It's hard to tell how well Bolaji Ajimotokan's audition for "The Apprentice Africa" is going.
The judges have already made fun of his golf swing, which they asked him to pantomime, and he's been grilled on whether he could really handle four months away from his wife and two kids in Houston during the show's taping in his homeland of Nigeria. It's time to go for broke, so the financial services manager reaches into his briefcase and starts pulling out his sales trophies, arranging them right under the nose of judge Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth (known best, of course, as the contestant everyone loves to hate from Season 1 of the U.S. "Apprentice").
"You're creeping me out," Omarosa says. Waiting for their turn, the other applicants snicker. But inside, they might be panicking . Note to self: Do not remove trophies from bag.
Twenty-four business-savvy overachievers, culled from hundreds of other applicants, traveled to Washington from all over the country to take part in auditions Thursday and yesterday for "The Apprentice Africa," the latest incarnation of producer Mark Burnett's corporate reality show. Filing into a K Street office building on Thursday, the first 10 hopefuls are young, good-looking, achingly accomplished. Some of them have more than one version of their business cards.
The original "Apprentice," with the brash corporate theater of star Donald Trump, was a hit in Africa. Since it debuted in 2004, dozens of countries have aired the American version, and at least 12 -- including South Africa -- have licensed their own versions.
"The Apprentice Africa" begins taping in February and will air throughout that continent. It takes many cues from its forebears: Contestants will live in a mansion in Lagos, Nigeria; take orders from "The CEO," Biodun Shobanjo (who co-founded Nigeria's largest ad agency and is "just as crazy, as wild, as animated as Donald is," Executive Producer Chantel Bunmi Abdul says); and vie for a top prize: a luxury car and as-yet-undisclosed corporate job, salaried at a cool $200,000 U.S.
The twist is intercontinental. Ajimotokan, 37, is from Nigeria but self-employed in Texas, having carved out a lucrative niche selling insurance and preparing people's taxes. He qualifies for "Apprentice Africa" because he's part of the African diaspora. (Second-generation African Americans, not eligible this season, may be eligible if the show is renewed, although producers did allow U.S.-born children of Africans to apply this time.)
Abdul says the project is a way to display Africa's corporate muscle and to combat the common misconception of Africa as backward and technologically lacking. It is also a social experiment to see if wannabe entrepreneurs on the continent have a competitive edge over their emigre counterparts, or vice versa.
The expats auditioning are certainly competitive. Omar Bah, 35, has parents from Guinea. He is jovial and toting a portfolio stuffed with head shots. He's a professional actor -- and a consultant at the World Bank.
Then there's Eunice Omole, a first-generation American born to Nigerian parents, who grew up in Woodbridge, Va., and used to compete in beauty pageants. She's 28, working on her second master's degree from Cornell and moonlighting as managing partner of a private equity firm that develops real estate in China.
But merit alone a reality TV star doth not make. To add some levity, there's Omarosa, whose help with judging and interviews was not previously announced. As always, she's got a lot to say.
"Are you a good lover?" she asks one contestant.
"Are you a bore?" she asks another.
"Have you ever gotten drunk?"
Omarosa tells the candidates that they shouldn't take her invasive questioning personally, and she's right. The show's judges will be just as harsh. Yet the applicants, who can fire off their quarterly earnings and the particulars of their multiple higher degrees, aren't sure how to handle inquiries about their favorite cocktails and sexual orientation.
As one contestant describes her proudest business accomplishment -- starting a nonprofit that donates books to African kids -- Omarosa looks somewhat pained.
"I'm a big advocate for charity," Omarosa says, "but I'm also an advocate for making a whole lot of money."
Another accomplished female applicant is thrown off guard by this question: "If something on the show required you to do something in the nude, would you?" When she answers no, that she doesn't need to use her body to succeed in business, Omarosa reminds her that if she won't, "someone else will."
"For a quarter of a million dollars," Omarosa says, "I'd get buck naked with some black socks on."
During their lunch break, the applicants chat and mentally prepare for individual interviews. They don't know how many of them, if any, will be chosen, and they don't know when they'll hear back, but they're enjoying their shot at reality-TV fame.
After all, this is a competitive bunch. When entering the interview room earlier, Omarosa asked, "Who's going to win?" All 10 raised their hands.