Strutting down a runway, a blond beauty queen on his arm, Donald Trump climbed into a ring at the center of a throbbing mass of 80,000 wrestling fans in Detroit. Pumping his fist, Trump raised his chin and pursed his lips, a pseudo-gladiator in a black topcoat, white shirt, and pinkish tie.
His helmet of glazed hair, swept into its familiar swirl, glistened beneath the arena’s bright lights. His soundtrack was a vocalist’s mesmerizing rendition of “Money, Money, Money.”
The year was 2007, nearly a decade before he would formally enter politics, but Donald Trump was long past limiting himself to hawking condos and casinos. His chief commodity was himself, the populist plutocrat with the global brand, only now his stage was one provided by WrestleMania.
Choreographed by a team of scriptwriters, Trump and Vince McMahon, Wrestlemania’s chief impresario, were to duel on that April Fool’s night for a prize that defined the outer reaches of the aburd: the right to shave each other’s studiously sculpted coiffure.
This story is based on reporting for “Trump Revealed,” a broad, comprehensive examination of the life of the presumptive Republican nominee for president. The biography, written by Post reporters Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher in a collaboration with more than two dozen Post reporters, researchers and editors, is scheduled to be published by Scribner on Aug. 23.
Neither man would actually fight in what was billed as the “Battle of the Billionaires.” They would leave that, for the most part, to two proxies. But just as he would embrace the role of presidential candidate, Trump turned himself into a Wrestlemania poster boy, albeit one without outsize muscles, requisite tattoos, and buttocks-hugging spandex.
Oh, but he could talk the talk.
“I’m taller than you, I’m better looking than you, I’m stronger than you,” Trump promised McMahon. “I will kick your ass.”
Now, as the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee, Trump this week has arrived at the summit of political showmanship, commanding a venerable American stage before a worldwide audience. Yet the Republican convention in Cleveland is only the latest theater for a man who for 40 years has proved himself an unceasing showman of boundless bravado.
No matter the script, no matter the arena, he is always Donald Trump.
In the 1980s and ’90s, long before he hosted “The Apprentice” for 11 years, his performances were limited to cameos in movies and on television shows such as “Home Alone 2,” “Zoolander,” and “Sex and the City.” For a time, he traveled on the lecture circuit, earning $100,000 a pop at Tony Robbins’s motivational seminars, during one of which he advised that paranoia was crucial to success.
“Now that sounds terrible,” Trump told an audience in St. Louis. “But you have to realize that people — sadly, sadly — are very vicious. You think we’re different than lions in the jungle?”
To another group, he said, “When a person screws you, screw them back 15 times harder.”
To reach the millions of Americans hooked on the comic-book fantasy world of professional wrestling, Trump and McMahon rekindled an alliance that began in the 1980s when Atlantic City’s Trump Plaza hosted WrestleMania IV and V. Trump loved the big crowds and overwrought pageantry. He glowed as he stood between Hulk Hogan and André the Giant, photographers clicking away.
“Battle of the Billionaires” was an opportunity to merge huge audiences from “The Apprentice” and Wrestlemania, and McMahon and Trump delighted in promoting what would be a pay-per-view showdown between their two reps. Bobby Lashley, an African American with mountainous shoulders and a head as smooth as a cue ball, was Trump’s fighter. A tattooed muscle mass known as Umaga stood in for McMahon.
In the weeks before their duel, the two businessmen staged several appetite-whetting encounters, the first of which occurred as McMahon honored himself at an outlandish “Fan Appreciation Night” in Dallas.
High above the arena, Trump’s face suddenly appeared on an oversize screen.
“You claim that you tell your audience what they want,” Trump bellowed in a nasal, Oz-like voice. “They want value. Who knows more about value than me, Vince?”
In the next moment, money fell from the ceiling—a shower of thousands of bills—fluttering into spectators’ outstretched hands. “Look up at the sky, Vince, look at that!” Trump shouted as the crowd squealed. “Now that’s the way you show appreciation!”
McMahon, his face twisted in feigned rage, growled, “Donald, you embarrassed me!”
In Portland, Ore., on another night, before another rabid crowd, two curvaceous brunettes accompanied Trump into the arena, where he and McMahon signed a “contract” to duel.
“You want some, Vince?” Trump snarled.
He pushed McMahon over a conference table, catapulting him into a backward somersault as the announcer shouted, “Donald Trump just shoved Mr. McMahon on his billionaire butt!”
Court Bauer was a writer and producer for WWE during “Battle of the Billionaires.” In retrospect, Bauer said in an interview, Trump’s role in the show seems to have been a dress rehearsal for presidential politics.
“Working the crowds who aren’t going to take kindly to an outsider — he had to win them over, very effectively and very quickly,” he said. “To me, when you look back, that was the embryonic stage of what was to come.”
In wrestling, he said, “you’re trying to convert them from viewers to customers, to get them to buy a ticket. That’s the quality that has made him a fascinating study in politics. He’s capturing you as a viewer. But can he convert you to a voter?”
Trump relished his role, Bauer said, and was propelled by his ability to speak the language of an average American: “What Donald stands for is aspirational, and that’s what it is for wrestling fans—‘I can’t do it at work, but I can do it vicariously through the wrestlers.’ Donald talks blue collar, but he has the world. He’s been selling people on that dream for a long time.”
Trump captured the audience with his willingness to play his role to the max. In Detroit, he jumped on McMahon and punched him in the face. Trump also allowed “Stone Cold” Steve Austin to deck him with his signature move, the Stone Cold Stunner.
Trump “was game to do it all,” Bauer said. “He exceeded all expectations. We never thought he’d do any of that stuff.”
The “Battle of the Billionaires” culminated with Lashley mauling Umaga, giving Trump the right to strap McMahon into a barber’s chair in the ring. His lips twisted into a fiendish grin, Trump slathered McMahon’s head in shaving cream, then went to work with a razor and an electric shaver.
The next day, McMahon appeared on the “Today” show, bald and with a black eye. Feigning humiliation, the promoter articulated what was perhaps the showdown’s single undeniable truth: “Donald Trump is a great entertainer.”
The doorbell rings and a butler announces the famous couple’s arrival: “Sir, it is my esteemed pleasure to introduce Mr. and Mrs. Donald Trump!” Donald and Marla Maples step through the doorway, surprising the studio audience and millions of viewers watching the television sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
“It’s the Donald! Oh, my God!” Alfonso Riberio’s character, Carlton, exclaims before fainting. Another grabs Donald’s hand and gushes, “You look much richer in person!”
By 1994, when he appeared on “Fresh Prince,” the comedy that launched Will Smith’s acting career, Trump’s fame as a developer and best-selling author had made him a coveted novelty in Hollywood.
Producers clamored for Trump to lend their shows a moment of authenticity by performing as himself, the world’s most famous tycoon.
His earliest appearances included a role in “Ghosts Can’t Do It,” a 1990 film starring Bo Derek.
The dialogue includes Trump telling Derek: “In this room, there are knives sharp enough to cut you to the bone, and hearts cold enough to eat yours as hors d’oeuvres.”
Derek removes her glasses.
“You’re too pretty to be bad,” she purrs.
“You noticed,” Trump replies, his lips forming his famous pout (his effort won him a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor).
As a builder, Trump reveled in his image as a hard-nosed wheeler-dealer. But Hollywood experienced Trump as an eager, cooperative performer who learned his lines, did not require much direction, and was “particular about his hair,” said Shelley Jensen, who directed him in “Fresh Prince.”
The cameos allowed Trump to poke fun at his reputation for cartoonish vanity while advertising his brand, at no cost, to millions of Americans. “If you were going to pick a real estate mogul for a show,” Jensen said, “he was one of those guys you’d go after because he was one of the few who’d actually do it.”
He also appeared as himself in another sitcom, “Spin City,” which starred Michael J. Fox as an adviser to a fictional New York City mayor. In one episode, the mayor experiences writer’s block as he tries to craft his memoir, which leads Fox’s character to invite Trump to City Hall.
When Trump arrived on the set, Andy Cadiff, the episode’s director, braced for a “nightmare” because “you had an image of him that he could be difficult and demanding. Frankly, I remember him being delightful.”
On a 1999 episode of “Sex and the City,” Trump played himself at the Plaza Hotel, which he owned at the time.
“A cosmopolitan and Donald Trump — you just don’t get more New York than that,” Carrie Bradshaw, as played by Sarah Jessica Parker, tells viewers who can see Trump finishing a business meeting at a table inside the hotel’s Oak Room.
“Look, Ed, I’ve got to go — think about it. I will be in my office at Trump Tower,” he says, no doubt pleased by the opportunity to promote his famous real estate. When Victoria Hochberg, the show’s director, handed Trump a sheet with his lines, he looked them over and promptly handed back the script.
“Donald, don’t you want to study them?” Hochberg asked.
“Nope, I’ve got it,” he replied.
“He got it on the first try,” Hochberg recalled. “One-take Donald.”
In 2000, Trump played a more risque role, opposite Rudy Giuliani, who was dressed in drag in New York’s Inner Circle show, an annual production featuring satirical sketches by the mayor and City Hall reporters.
“You know, you’re really beautiful,” Trump told Giuliani, who wore a dress and blond wig. When the mayor sprayed perfume on herself, Trump buried his face in Giuliani’s neck and chest.
“Oh, you dirty boy — Donald, I thought you were a gentleman!” Giuliani shrieked.
Elliot Cuker, the show’s director, knew Trump from New York’s social circuit, where their conversations often involved female beauty.
“We would always talk about women,” Cuker said. “What do you think about this one or that one; it was like he was a traveling judge.”
Asking Trump to “come on to Rudy” did not seem like a stretch: “I gave him the idea of what was going to happen — Rudy is an attractive woman, you’re going to have a love scene. You want to kiss her. Go with it. I did not tell him to kiss his breast. He did that himself.”
When he hosted “Saturday Night Live” in 2004, the show’s creators found that he was “willing to make fun of himself,” said writer T. Sean Shannon.
“He was prepared every day,” Shannon said. “He wasn’t nervous. He was very charming and straightforward. He was always that persona. He was Donald Trump at all times.”
No more so than in his opening monologue.
“It’s really great to be here at ‘Saturday Night Live,’ but I’ll be completely honest — it’s even better for ‘Saturday Night Live’ that I’m here,” he boasted.“Nobody’s bigger than me. Nobody’s better than me. I’m a ratings machine.”
He then informed the audience that “The Apprentice” was the country’s most-watched show and that he was the “highest-paid television personality in America. And, as everyone in this room knows, highest-paid means ‘best,’ right?”
At the Emmy Awards the following year, Trump ventured into a new realm as a performer. Before a live television audience, Trump, in straw hat and overalls and carrying a pitchfork, teamed with “Will & Grace” star Megan Mullally to sing a satirical rendition of “Green Acres” that included, yes, a plug for Trump Tower.
The song was part of “Emmy-Idol,” a send-up of “American Idol.” Trump and Mullally won, and the following day, her cellphone rang. It was Trump calling, she later told Conan O’Brien.
“Listen,” he said, “we really needed to win that and we did, and you were a big part of that, so I just wanted to say thank you.”
In 2011, Trump’s stature as a showman was confirmed anew when Comedy Central made him the target of a star-studded roast, a distinction previously conferred upon the likes of Hugh Hefner, Chevy Chase and William Shatner.
Trump grinned and grimaced while “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, rapper Snoop Dogg, and others made fun of his hair, his multiple marriages and his vanity.
“You’ve ruined more models’ lives than bulimia,” said comedian Lisa Lampanelli.
MacFarlane described Trump as “the second-worst tragedy to hit New York.”
When it was his turn to speak, Trump played to his caricature, telling the audience, “What a great honor it must be to honor me tonight.”
At a moment when he was contemplating entering politics, the show helped Trump with his populist bona fides.
Trump “proved to every American voter that you have thick skin,” comedian Jeff Ross told the audience, “that you can take a joke, that you are a man of the people.”
Despite the veneer of good fun, at least one performer said that Trump had asked his roasters to steer clear of one subject: the true extent of his wealth.
“Trump’s rule was, ‘Don’t say I have less money than I say I do,’ ” comedian Anthony Jeselnik later told Joan Rivers on her talk show. “ ‘Make fun of my kids, do whatever you want. Just don’t say that I don’t have that much money.’ ”
Two years later, McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment inducted Trump into its hall of fame during a raucous ceremony at Madison Square Garden. As he strolled onstage in a black tux, Trump was greeted by a roiling mix of cheers, boos and chants of “You suck! You suck!”
Trump called his induction his “greatest honor of all.” He promised a rematch with McMahon, in which he would “kick his ass!”
The booing and catcalls persisted.
“I really do love you people,” Trump said as he concluded his speech. “Even the ones who don’t love me so much.”