We were counting down the days until Celebrity Big Brother premiered before the reality show even announced the cast, but then CBS revealed that the first batch of Hollywood houseguests to enter the CBB house would include Omarosa and suddenly the frenzy around the show took on another level.
No matter what you think of Omarosa or CBS' decision to give her this platform, there's no denying that the first U.S. season of Celebrity Big Brother is poised to captivate everyone from Big Brother superfans to political reporters as long as the Apprentice villain-turned-Trump aide remains in the house. And though it'd be easy to assume Omarosa's reputation would mean the house would send her packing in Week 1, host Julie Chen isn't so sure.
TV Guide spoke to Chen the day after the first night of filming Celebrity Big Brother and the Chenbot shared some interesting insights into what fans can expect — not only of Omarosa, but of other houseguests to keep their eyes on and what the future of the series might hold.
How long have you wanted to do a U.S. Celebrity Big Brother?
Julie Chen: I got really excited back in Season 2 because that was the first time we talked about doing it and I really thought it was happening. I was hearing Paris Hilton said yes and Roseanne Barr said yes. But I was so naïve, like 29, 30 years old, and Big Brother was still so new. I had visions of celebrities really doing the three months and it being amazing... So I've been wanting it since Season 2, but then it seems like every four or five years, six years, it would be revisited in at least a conversation because more reality shows hit the market... And then finally I was shocked this actually came about but it seemed like OK, perfect sense. It's only two-and-a-half weeks. We can get people who have that time to walk away from their real lives and their real responsibilities because there's an upside to this: someone's going to win a lot of money and continue their celebrity lifestyle with that winning money or open up new doors for work for them because suddenly you're making headlines every day based on something you did in the house or you need another chapter in your life in your career and this is going to make you a spokesperson for something. So I've been waiting a long time. It never felt truly right until now.
How do you think the shortened time period will affect the game?
Chen: I think that's the big question and at this early stage it's a huge question mark because I was here until 11 o'clock last night shooting the premiere. My work day yesterday concluded with the first competition of the season which was Head of Household. The entire day, I saw all these people getting along which was a little cause for concern for me, but I chalked it up to they are pros at glad-handing, smiling, pretending you get along. They're all celebrities. No one feels as though they're more special than someone else because everyone is accomplished in their own field. So it was kind of like one big giant clique, so I could see why they all got along because there was nothing at stake yet. But because we crowned our first Head of Household last night, I think now is when the game is going to begin.
I have no idea how this is going to go, how only being two-and-a-half weeks is going to be more of a pressure cooker. I would think it is because celebrities have more delicate egos than the average person because they're so used to being adored. And suddenly you nominate me for eviction, not only is that going to hurt my ego, like, "What? Not everybody loves me?" It's also embarrassing. No one likes to be humiliated and especially not stars. So I think once we get our first nomination ceremony down, then you're going to see the house divided. I don't know how many sections, but that's going to draw a line in the sand. I don't know. I really don't know. It's anyone's guess how ugly it might get in there.
Unlike the flagship series, everyone is entering into the house with the baggage of their reputation. How will that influence the way they play?
Chen: I think that in many ways is an advantage to someone who's coming in as a "villain" like Omarosa. The only way is up for her, in my opinion. Because I watched her totally charm everyone yesterday because they want to hate her and they think they know her because they've seen her on The Apprentice and read the headlines... It's all about expectations, right? If you build someone up too much like they're your hero, the only place to go is down. They're just going to fall from grace. But if you think of someone as the worst person ever on reality TV, the only way is up because nobody can be that bad. Nobody can be as bad as your imagination. Nobody can be as good as your imagination. So I think people coming with a reputation, it's not going to mean anything. It's someone who doesn't have a reputation, like an unknown. Like I could tell some of the older people in the house didn't really know who [Big Time Rush's] James Maslow was. And James Maslow, he's a baby, he's 27, I'm not sure he knows who he is. He's just trying to figure out this celebrity game. He's not like Justin Bieber, who's been a big name for a long time. So I think he's going to have it harder. Or even Miss Colombia [Ariadna Gutierrez]. Nobody really knows what to think of her except that she was humiliated on a world stage when she thought she was Miss Universe and then had to embarrassingly, you know, give back the crown. I don't know. They're going to have to work harder to prove "you should like me, you should trust me."
Casting Omarosa was a very polarizing decision. What do you think of her participation in the series and the reaction to it so far?
Chen: I think the reaction has been amazing because it was jaw-dropping and it made everyone interested [including] a group of people who normally wouldn't be interested in talking about who got cast on Celebrity Big Brother. You've got everyone in news and politics who probably pride themselves on saying reality shows aren't their thing suddenly being like, "Oh my god, I've got to check this out." You can't tell me every news organization isn't going to have to monitor her in the house to see if she says anything about the White House or the president. So it's amazing. Whether you are offended by her or you don't really have a big opinion of her, it's kind of like wow, really?! After knowing Donald Trump for 15 years from her experience on The Apprentice, the original first season of The Apprentice, to the past year in the White House, she had a front row seat to one of the most fascinating names in the news today. That has to make you stand up. I think it was amazing casting her.
You co-hosted the first season of The Talk with Marissa Jaret Winokur. What will it be like hosting Big Brother when your own former colleague is one of the houseguests?
Chen: It's OK because it's not like she was over at my house at dinner every night for the last eight years. That was eight years ago. So yes, there is a soft spot in my heart for her. She's a superfan, she's a great person, she makes me laugh. I was saying to some of my co-workers on The Talk today, I'm like, "Oh my god and Marissa's there!" We all love her and it's hard to watch her and not like her because she's very self-deprecating, she's very funny, she's very upbeat, she's very bubbly. So of course there's a secret part of me that's rooting for her... And it's hard to win Big Brother. I think if she ever won, it'd be really emotional and I'd love to see her do it for her 10-year-old son, who's the biggest Big Brother fan. So mom-to-mom and former co-worker-to-former co-worker, I secretly root for her because she's an underdog.
Who do you think viewers should keep their eyes on this season? Who do you think has what it takes to win?
Chen: Shannon Elizabeth is one to watch. I didn't realize she was such a big fan until we were trying to cast Celebrity Big Brother. But I didn't know that she had become a serious, high stakes poker player and really good. Just watching her last night, she's in shape, she can do endurance challenges, she doesn't let her mouth get in the way of playing the game. I think she's the dark horse to watch in this.
Do you think these stars are really prepared for the live feeds?
Chen: Some of them are and some of them are not. I think Omarosa knows exactly what she's doing. This woman is no fool... She knows how she has been portrayed on reality TV before, so I think she is ready for it. Someone like Metta World Peace, I think he has no idea what is happening right now. I don't think he knows what Big Brother is. I don't think he knows the concept of how to win this game, how to play the game. He's just kind of own his own planet. Obviously he's a fierce competitor on the basketball court. He has a world championship with the Lakers. He's got a ring. But Big Brother is a competition, an experience and a game like no other and I don't think he's aware that everything he says and does is going to get scrutinized, repeated, blown up and is being watched and monitored by the live feeders. So yeah, I think some people are very aware and others are not.
As Big Brother has gone on, I've noticed the cast has gotten younger and younger. What struck me about this group is that most of the people are in their late 30s or 40s. How do you think that will shift the dynamic within the house?
Chen: You would think that if you're older, you're wiser, so you're not going to make a fool of yourself and let your emotions get the best of you, but just because you're older doesn't mean you're more mature. What I do think is that they're more accomplished. Because everyone is a celebrity in there, they have accomplishments under their belt. It's just hard to achieve that if you're under 25 years old. But some people don't handle getting older gracefully so you might see someone make a desperate attempt to try and be so young and be that person, that girl or that guy. So it could end up being a hot mess, like an embarrassing hot mess. I think it breaks down into each individual, if they have come to grips with their lot in life and how the public perceives them and sees them now. If you're still hanging on to yesteryear, that's not going to go over well.
This is a really hard month for all the networks since they know whatever programming they put on will have to go up against the Olympics. Were there any reservations about putting Celebrity Big Brother up against the Winter Games?
Chen: No, I think quite the opposite. That's the only reason why we considered putting on Celebrity Big Brother. [Laughs] It's like alternate programming, you know! We're not looking to beat the Olympics. Not even close. Not everybody watches the Olympics and we're just looking to give viewers who don't want to watch the Olympics, who are not into the Olympics, an interesting other choice. A competition of a different kind.
If this is successful, are there plans to do more seasons?
Chen: That was my prediction last night. If it's successful, then absolutely because that's business, you know? If it's received well in the press and if the ratings aren't horrible — if the ratings are good enough where, like, "Hey, we did better against the Olympics this year than running reruns of, you know, whatever, NCIS," then yeah, it would make business sense to do it again. No question. The good news is the bar is much lower. We're not expecting to even come close to the Olympics, but we are looking to see if we can do better than what we've done in years past opposite the Olympics. And if it does better, then why not try it again?
So it would likely always run opposite the Olympics and be an every four years thing?
Chen: Well, that's a good question. You have to ask where else are there gaps in the schedule where you have to fill it. You can't just cancel a series that isn't working and have Big Brother Celebrity two-and-a-half, three-week version ready to go because the ramp up takes a long time — getting the house ready, getting the people cast, hiring the staff to do it. And it's such a weird thing because you need a minimum of three nights, the real estate alone. You need three nights a week to do it unless we did one for All Access, but I don't see a lot of celebrities signing up if it's not on broadcast television. I just don't. Maybe there are other types of celebrities, like reality show celebrities would do one on CBS All Access that's only seen online. If it's not on broadcast TV, you're not going to get your Mark McGrath and Metta World Peace. You're just not.
Celebrity Big Brother premieres Wednesday at 8/7c on CBS. You can also catch new episodes Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday at 8/7c, and don't forget to check out the live feeds on CBS All Access!
(Full disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS.)