Country star John Rich, rapper Lil Jon and actor Gary Busey gather outside a Manhattan pizza joint with a giant inflatable guitar and a handful of fliers. Dressed as a cross between a deranged carnival worker and late-night televangelist, Busey — the natural barker of the bunch — assumes the identity of the "Pepperoni Profit" [sic], screaming at unsuspecting tourists to "stop the bus, turn off the key and get your butts in here!" The ones who oblige him score a slice — and a front-row seat to the spectacle of this season's first Celebrity Apprentice challenge, debuting tonight with a two-hour premiere.
For Season 11 of NBC's reality competition, ringmaster Donald Trump has assembled another motley crew of boldface names to face off against one another in a battle of the sexes...and egos. During the inaugural task, the men's team, Backbone, is helmed by Survivor champ Richard Hatch, who delegates kitchen duties to baseball legend Jose Canseco, rocker Meat Loaf, former Partridge Family member David Cassidy and Don't Forget the Lyrics! host Mark McGrath. Their mission: to raise more money for charity than the crafty women's team, dubbed ASAP — it stands for Actors, Singers, Authors, Professionals — led by Star Jones, former cohost of The View.
Joining Jones are Playboy Playmate Hope Dworaczyk, reality personality Lisa Rinna, supermodel Niki Taylor, songstress Dionne Warwick, The Real Housewives of Atlanta diva NeNe Leakes, actress Marlee Matlin and La Toya Jackson. "It's just about as good of a cast as you can see," gloats Trump. "Gary is brilliant and definitely different; La Toya does amazingly well — she's cunning and smart. Honestly, almost all of them were fantastic."
While in temporary control of two Famous Famiglia pizzerias, the teams spend Day 1 strategizing behind closed doors. The men focus on marketing, using Lil Jon's and Rich's music-industry contacts to land radio interviews. The women suffer an early setback when Warwick excuses herself to perform a concert on the first night, leaving the ladies to play catch-up. Jones is glued to her phone, telling media outlets, "NeNe and I will have a catfight, but we ain't fighting for just $100!" (And no one's above calling in favors: Wendy Williams pays a visit to the gals' restaurant, while former Survivor contestants — including Ethan Zohn — swing by to support Hatch.)
"We wanted to go back to the basics of the show," explains Trump of kicking off the season with the deceptively simple pie-slinging assignment. "Lemonade, pizza, hot dogs...these are things people can relate to." Of course, relationships — or the lack of functional ones — have always been the core of this addictive ride, and right out of the gate the project managers are showing signs of paranoia at being thrown under the proverbial bus by their minions. "It's difficult when you don't know their personalities," says Hatch. "You have to push probably a little beyond how they're comfortable being pushed. It was frustrating to figure out whether or not people thought they were above doing something."
Naturally, the PMs' conspiracy theories prove true in the boardroom. Team Backbone singles out Hatch for allegedly shoving Cassidy during the task — Cassidy was taking numerous breaks during his shift — with Canseco accusing the reality-TV baddie of lying when he denies it. "There was never anything physical," Hatch insists to TV Guide Magazine. "I probably touched him; if that's what he's referring to as pushing, he never once made an issue of that until it seemed to suit him."
As the minutes tick by, the women, too, begin showing signs of dissension as Jones and Rinna squabble about strategy. Expect more on that front from ASAP. In an upcoming episode, "Star gets into a fight with NeNe that makes [former villain] Omarosa look like the sweetest darling," says Trump, joined behind the table once again by son Donald Jr. and daughter Ivanka. "I have never seen conflict like that on television!" What went wrong? "I don't like to deal with women who are catty," says Jones. "Celebrity Apprentice requires a certain level of education and experience to come into the corporate mind-set, and some people simply don't have it."
As the personalities butt heads with made-for-TV goodness, Trump says — not surprisingly — that the show will likely stick with the stars-behaving-badly format for the foreseeable future. (NBC aired a non-celeb installment to low ratings last fall.) "I find it's more interesting to work with them than people I've never heard of," he says of his latest batch. Besides, "the level of fighting was amazing." Pass the popcorn.