If you spot Donald Trump in the flesh and cannot resist the urge to walk up and introduce yourself, he will smile and shake your hand. But he won't be happy about it. He'll be disgusted, if you want to know the truth, and there is a good chance he'll head straight to the men's room and scrub both palms with soap and hot water. Nothing personal. He feels the same way about everybody's hands.

"People tell me, 'Oh, Donald, Donald, you're so elitist, you don't want to shake people's hands.' But it's not elitist," Trump says, sitting in his Fifth Avenue office, a photo-stuffed shrine to all things Donald with a verdant treetop view of Central Park.

"I wouldn't mind a little bow. In Japan, they bow. I love it. Only thing I love about Japan. But read books! Read statistics! Shaking hands causes viruses and flus. Tremendous germs are on the hands. It's not elitist. It's just common sense."

A flamboyant dealmaker, tireless self-aggrandizer and longtime connoisseur of arm-candy babes, Trump has been wincing his way through unbidden handshakes for much of his adult life. But now, at the age of 58, it's getting ridiculous. His starring role in last year's reality TV hit "The Apprentice" -- which begins its second season tonight on NBC -- sent his Q-rating to a stratum where there is very little oxygen and even less privacy.

So Trump shakes dozens of hands these days, outwardly smiling, inwardly repulsed. Even at restaurants like Le Cirque and "21," where he's stopped constantly on the way to what he calls "my table." Handshakes all around, even for the maitre d', which he considers a whole other level of gross, because the maitre d' glad-hands all day. A shake even for a guy, recently, who'd just walked out of the men's room and strode by to say hello.

" 'Mr. Trump, Mr. Trump, I'm such a big fan,' " Trump recalls, sourly reliving the moment. "Now his hands are wet, and he's drying them off, shaking them in the air. Disgusting. But if I don't shake his hand, he'll be devastated. If I do, it won't be so bad. I just won't eat." He says this with a Jewish mother's resignation. "So, I shake his hand and I don't eat."

And it's not just adults anymore, not just the grown-ups who've followed his riches-to-rags-to-riches career as a real estate mogul, or bought his best-selling books, or applauded when he gave rambling speeches while testing out a run for the presidency in 2000. Ten-year-olds spot him in public and spontaneously shout, "You're fired!" the show's catch-phrase closer. During an interview last week, Trump complained, halfheartedly and with characteristic exaggeration, about this new level of acclaim. ("If I walked on the streets with you right now we'd have a crowd of a thousand within seconds.") But he won't try to hide his euphoria about all the attention.

"After I agreed to do the show a friend said, 'Why would you do this? Ninety-five percent of shows fail and they're off the air.' And it's funny because I was with Whoopi Goldberg at the 'upfronts' -- that's where the networks announce the new programs every year -- Rob Lowe, all these guys, and they're all gone. All these people. They're all gone, and they were cut viciously and quickly. And here I sit, talking to you about the number one show."

Trump's desk is covered, like every other surface in this room, with Trump-related publicity. Framed on the wall are dozens of magazine covers bearing Trump's face, and over on a table by the door is a stack of recent publications waiting for frames. "This is just a small number of them," he says, on his feet and browsing through the pile.

Trump's craving for fame and his need to be the object of mass envy are so all-consuming that they seem both pathological and charming. He never hides his parade float of an ego. Instead he introduces you to it and urges you to marvel at its size. He works on the top floor of a building named for him (Trump Tower), in a company named for him (the Trump Organization) where he oversees the merchandising of products bearing his name. His latest bestseller is called "Trump: How to Get Rich," and he's readying the Trump Signature Collection, a line of business suits and golf wear.

Moments after you meet, he's spilling leaflets and press clippings, crowing over the fabulosity of his career. Everything in Trumpworld is fabulous, or in first place, or better looking, or richer or taller or it has bigger breasts.

"Right now I'm the biggest developer in the New York City, by far," Trump says. He also waves a copy of the DVD of the first season of "The Apprentice." "Can you believe this? Huge bestseller."

A Business Gamble

As it happens, this is a supremely awkward moment for Trump to reassume the role of corporate maestro on a reality TV show. In August, Trump's perpetually stricken, publicly traded hotel and casino company -- just one of his many businesses -- announced plans to enter Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Staggering under nearly $2 billion in debt, Trump's Atlantic City properties have been hurt by competitors with newer and flashier facilities, and anyone who owned a piece of DJTC -- a ticker symbol that includes Trump's initials -- has lost money. Shares that traded at $35.50 eight years ago now trade for less than 40 cents on a good day. The company's bonds are at the junkier end of the junk bond spectrum.

"They're rated a triple-C-plus and on review for a downgrade to D," says Andrew Susser, an analyst with Bank of America. "In general, a lot of people want to be part of the Trump mystique. But in the bond world you don't buy something based on a brand name. You buy based on credit quality combined with a judgment about where the credit momentum is going."

To rescue Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, as the company is formally known, an arm of Credit Suisse First Boston recently announced it would pump in $400 million, reducing Trump's own stake to about 25 percent and stripping him of majority control over operations. He also had to give up the rights to his likeness in the operation of the casinos. It's strong medicine, but as painful as that must be, Trump isn't flinching, at least in public.

"Let me explain," he says. "The business has been great. One aspect of the business is the casino business, and that's a very small percent of my net worth, like much less than 2 percent and maybe less than 1 percent. But I want to fix it and the way to fix it is to reduce the debt, the way to reduce the debt is to do what I'm doing. Which is what I've been doing."

Actually, it's hard to know exactly what percent of Trump's net worth is tied to the casino business, because most of Trump's portfolio is in privately held companies that don't report earnings. He's described himself as "a billionaire many times over," but who knows? There are skeptics out there who believe Trump has $300 million, tops. And the guy has a reputation for, let's say, shading the news in a light that reflects his enthusiasms.

Even his claim that "The Apprentice" is the No. 1 show is only sort of true. It finished seventh in the ratings overall, behind "Survivor" and "American Idol," among others. It finished third with 18-to-49-year-olds, the demographic that NBC says it uses for advertising sales. It was, however, the top new show among viewers 18 to 49. In other words, it's "No. 1" only with the right caveats.

The larger point is the way Trump is viewed as a businessman. As a private developer, he's gifted and relentless at crafting deals, winning allies, fighting enemies, exploiting legal loopholes, charming, bullying and making sure the cement is delivered on time. He also knows his market, the upscale buyer willing to pay extra for a style of conspicuous luxury that is heavy on pink marble and gilt. His properties have always commanded a premium because of the marquee value of his brand.

"You can't take away his talent," says onetime Trump critic and former mayor Ed Koch. "Not just the ability to make himself the center of attention in any room, but in designing buildings that people want to live in."

But stock and bond markets view Trump as a bit of a joke, which is what happens when shares in a company you run plunge by 99 percent. So Trump is saddled with the paradox of life as highly public but erratically successful executive: The people who know the least about business admire him the most. and those who know the most about business admire him the least. Which irks the man who is forever complaining that his achievements as corporate rainmaker are overshadowed by his latest brand-name spinoff and his soap-opera love life.

"Irks" might understate it, actually. Stock analyst Marvin Roffman criticized Trump Hotel/Resorts in the press years ago, prompting Trump to call the man's employer, the major Wall Street firm Janney Montgomery Scott, and demand the analyst either apologize or be fired. Roffman wouldn't apologize.

"I was the first apprentice!" quips Roffman, who now runs a money management firm, Roffman Miller Associates, and still keeps his eye on gaming stocks. He doesn't sound particularly surprised that his dire predictions about Trump's venture came true. "Stocks make money based on earnings and dividends, and this company never had either."

It doesn't seem to matter, at least not to those more interested in Trump as a symbol than as a CEO. This is a guy who nearly went bankrupt in the early '90s, when his real estate holdings were so over-leveraged that he needed a bank bailout to stay afloat and was forced to sell some of his most treasured assets. Anyone else might have retreated. Trump buffaloed his way back into the game and turned the fiasco into a best-selling book, "The Art of the Comeback."

There are plenty of developers in his league and beyond in New York and nobody knows their names. (Jerry Speyer ring a bell?) Trump alone is selling something bigger than any skyscraper, something you don't need a decent income and good references to buy into -- the fantasy of life as a very rich man, with the dames and the cars and planes and gold-plated everything. He's what Americans think they could be if only they had the gumption to finagle their way into a fortune.

"He's a caricature and that works for him," says Eric Dezenhall, who runs a media crisis management firm in Washington. "If your goal is to get people in the American heartland to watch your TV show, having outrageous hair and pink ties and using superlatives is a legitimate pathway to that goal. If your object is to earn the respect of other moguls, that's not the route."

The beautiful part is that Trump the caricature and Trump the man are essentially the same person. This isn't an act. He brings a genuinely unembarrassed joy to the role of high-rolling, model-squiring aristocrat and he doesn't know the meaning of "overexposed." He can't imagine, for instance, why anyone would turn down the opportunity to shill on TV for fast food.

"Somebody asked me a question recently," Trump says. " 'Why do you do commercials, for Verizon or McDonald's, or any of the big commercials you've done?' Visa, recently, I don't know if you saw that one. 'No other billionaire would do that.' I said, 'No, they would do it but they're not asked to do it because nobody cares about them.' "

Call Norma

Trump's compulsion to build, earn and see his name in print seems a matter of both nurture and nature. Fred Trump, his father, was a renowned developer, too, though his forte was apartments for low-income residents in Brooklyn and Queens. From the father, the son learned a penny pincher's attention to detail and a foundational belief in the value of publicity.

Fred floated Trump ads on a barge near a beach, according to Gwenda Blair's biography "The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire," and attached discount coupons to balloons that he let loose on Coney Island, worth $50 off the purchase of a Trump house. He also swamped local newspapers with news releases containing everything from the results of company-sponsored surveys to his personal opinion on national defense.

So young Donald learned about the care and feeding of the press the way other kids learn about fishing. Amazingly for a such a high-profile guy, he doesn't have a public-relations rep. To get in touch, you call his secretary -- not the buttoned-up vixen on "The Apprentice" but a woman named Norma -- and leave a message. If Trump is interested, you'll know soon.

"What can I do for you?" he asks, calling a half-hour after receiving a message from The Washington Post. "It's a great honor, great paper," Trump says when invited to sit for a profile. "How does 9 a.m. on Monday work?"

Up close Trump has the sort of unwrinkled smoothness that looks expensive. He's tall and broad, and his lips are pursed when he isn't speaking. His hair, a wonder on TV, is a riddle in person. None of his elaborately swirled locks appears to actually touch his head. The whole thing somehow hovers, like one of those high-end turntables that float on magnets and aren't attached to anything.

It's apparently a look with appeal. Trump is getting ready for his third marriage, this time to a busty Slovenian model named Melania Knauss. A natural optimist, Trump likes his odds this time around, in part because Knauss sounds ready to be a homemaker and doesn't issue the sort of demands made by his previous wives, Ivana Trump and Marla Maples.

"They were both good women but they had a hard time competing with my business," he says. "Melania is very easy for me to be with. And I believe in marriage. It's the best way to go, when you get it right."

The Minion Minder

Trump's office is more than a dozen stories above the fake boardroom seen on the television show. On this particular morning, the "boardroom" is a mess. All of the filming for the second season of "The Apprentice" was finished a few weeks ago, with the exception of the final episode, which is broadcast live. A couple of construction men are cleaning up debris, readying the hammers for Season 3, which starts production next month.

"It's under renovation," explains George Ross, a Trump lawyer and one of two judge-mentors who flank and advise Trump during the round robin of backstabbing that ends each show. Ross, who is 76, works just a few yards down the hall from Trump. He didn't think much of it when his boss first asked him to help out with a new reality TV show.

"He said, 'George, I'm planning on doing this show, I'd like you to be a judge. Maybe it'd take two, three hours a week,' " he recalls. "I thought, what does it matter if I'm getting paid to do legal work or paid to be on a show? Either way, he's paying me."

That time estimate turned out to be dramatically off, particularly on the second season. Some of those boardroom scenes took around five hours, Ross says -- five hours of pleading and counterpleading and not a single retake. Ross also had to travel. After the success of the first season, companies lined up to hand over upward of $3 million each, he says, to serve as settings for the weekly tasks devised by the show, and some of those companies are based out of town.

Not the one in tonight's episode, which takes place at Manhattan offices of Mattel and finds the contestants scrambling to design and build a toy for 7-year-old boys. But often Ross was shepherding his minions in some faraway corporate office at an hour when he's usually getting ready for bed.

"Nine weeks of hell," Ross says, smiling. You'd never know it from his stoical on-air persona, but he's kind of jovial, a side that he works hard to conceal when the cameras are on. "At one point I had to say, 'I can do the show, but Donald, we've got a contract hanging that's worth millions.' "

Perhaps it didn't help that Ross has never been paid for his "Apprentice" work, while Trump reportedly earned around $180,000 per episode this year. But there have been side benefits. Ross turned up on "The Tonight Show," where he joshed with David Arquette ("I said whoever designed his suit should be fired") and recently he was flown to Seattle and handed a large check for speaking at a motivational seminar along with Rudy Giuliani and Goldie Hawn, in an arena with 15,000 attendees.

At the moment, the boardroom table looks like a slab of stripped-down particle board. The makeshift dorm where the contestants live, eat and connive is actually right next door, not an elevator ride away, as the show regularly implies.

"It's not a bad place to live," says Ross, walking through the brightly painted rooms, now vacant. "Except for the cameras."

They're black and hung from the ceiling, planted everywhere but over the bathroom. On the plus side, there's a balcony overlooking Fifth Avenue and a kitchen with stainless steel appliances. (It was stocked with Trump Ice, the Donald's own bottled water.) A few feet away there's a basketball hoop and space for dribbling.

It looks calm considering that it was recently the scene of a highly ritualized melee -- 18 contestants, whose names will soon become fleetingly famous, winnowed down, one "You're fired" at a time.

Fired Up

Trump says he came up with that devastatingly concise send-off during the first week of shooting last year. He said it, spontaneously, then heard crew members in the background screaming. He knew he'd hit on something.

"It's both a horrible and beautiful phrase," Trump says. It's not a phrase he's used very often. "In real life if I were firing you, I'd tell you what a great job you did, how fantastic you are, and how you can do better someplace else. If somebody steals, that's different, but generally speaking you want to let them down as lightly as possible. It's not a very pleasant thing. I don't like firing people."

This has come as a surprise to some viewers. All his alpha-male preening aside, Trump doesn't seem like a jerk. He finds the surprise over his inner core of decency as amusing as anything else about his latest, greatest and most personal sales pitch yet to the American public.

"It's a sad commentary, but most people think I'm a much nicer person after watching the show," Trump says, "and all I do is fire people."

"In real life if I were firing you," Trump says, "I'd tell you what a great job you did, how fantastic you are, and how you can do better someplace else."There's Trump the Game, Trump the brand and Trump the man, shown at left with fiancee Melania Knauss and below with his "Apprentice" minions George Ross and Carolyn Kepcher.