“The Celebrity Apprentice” has had volatile situations and nasty arguments among the contestants ever since it began airing in 2008, but the 2011 edition of the show has been the most explosive so far: Meat Loaf’s emotional meltdowns (sobbing or going into rages); Star Jones clashing with contestants NeNe Leakes, La Toya Jackson and Niki Taylor (Leakes later quit the show because she said that she couldn’t take fighting with Jones any more); countless arguments, profanity-filled outbursts and and name-calling; “Survivor” Season 1 winner Richard Hatch physically pushing David Cassidy; and eccentric Gary Busey annoying everyone on his team at one time or another, just to name some of the more dramatic moments on the show. “The Celebrity Apprentice” was starting to look more like the catfight/brawl-filled TV franchise “The Real Housewives” than a reality show about business and charity.
“The Celebrity Apprentice” (hosted and executive produced by Donald Trump) features notable public figures doing business tasks to compete for money for their selected charities. The winner is chosen by Trump. When all was said and done for the 2011 season of the show, country singer/songwriter John Rich and Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin were the remaining two finalists. In the final task, Rich and Matlin chose between two past-decade themes to market and promote 7Up Retro. Matlin selected the 1970s as her theme, and Rich chose the 1980s. The 2011 season finale of “The Celebrity Apprentice” airs May 22 on NBC at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time. In a telephone conference call with journalists that took place on March 16, Matlin (though her interpreter, Jack Jason) and Rich spoke about the feuding, personal triumphs and the overall roller-coaster experience of being on “The Celebrity Apprentice.”
Congratulations on making it to the finals. John, you and Lil Jon got along pretty well throughout the competition. Can we expect to hear some kind of musical collaboration between the two of you in the near future?
Rich: I’m glad you asked that question, because it did feel like a very important relationship. Not only because Lil Jon and I are really great friends, but as an example to our two audiences that cowboys and rappers basically can get along and work had for charities and break down some of those stereotypes.
So Lil John and I actually did record something together and it’s on a record coming out right now called “Rich Rocks.” And Lil Jon appears on that record as a guest artist, and it’s a really cool thing. I’ve had a huge response from all the country fans that are really liking Lil Jon, too. And from his side he tells me there’s a lot of his fans that are starting to look at my music. It’s just a great relationship all the way around.
Matlin: [She says jokingly] I was supposed to be a backup singer, but my schedule wouldn’t allow me to do it.
Rich: That’s right and tambourine and dancing too, I thought.
Matlin: Actually I was supposed to be in charge of the cow bell.
John, what is it about Marlee that makes her such tough competition? And Marlee, what is about John that makes him such stiff competition?
Rich: You know, there are several things about Marlee … Let’s start off with how smart Marlee is because she is wickedly smart. And she’s also very funny; she has a great sense of humor and is very charming. So she’s able to really get a lot done. when she’s project manager or when she’s even part of the team, she can really get a lot of things done.
But I think there are other elements to Marlee that make her a very powerful person. One is she’s a mom. She’s a great mom; she has several kids. And to me, I have all the respect in the world for moms. It’s the hardest job there is.
So she’s a great mom, she’s a dynamic personality. And of course she’s overcome her deafness. She has overcome a huge challenge and has gone on to accomplish great, great things and has not let that slow her down at all and is really one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. I would consider her like a superhero kind of. She needs an “M” on her chest.
She’s just a great person. And from the very beginning of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” there was definitely a mutual respect from across the room between the two of us. Just an unspoken thing, it was hard to describe.
It just was looks we would give each other every now and then that was just an understanding of, “We’re both here for our charities. We’re serious about this,” and that we were going to compete all the way as far we could. It was always there, you could feel it in the air between the two of us.
Matlin: Thank you John, that’s very sweet. I’ll make sure that the check comes in the mail to you in the later for all those wonderful things that you said about me. In any case, I would have to say when I first heard that John Rich was on the show, I have to admit that, as a person who’s deaf, I didn’t know who he was as a musician.
But I knew as soon as I had heard that he represented country music, and naturally Nashville and the hat that he wore when he came in, and the charity that he was playing for, I understood — as John mentioned — a very important position that he held here.
I mean, there was an instant and an immediate sense of respect. It was just about eye contact. I’m good at reading people’s faces, and the moment I looked at his eyes I knew that he was a formidable competitor.
In addition, he couldn’t have been a more polite and a more gentlemanly presence. What was most impressed was that he was there for the same reason I was there for; it wasn’t about the drama, it was about the charity.
His passion for Saint Jude’s is so incredible that I finally saw that we both shared a passion for our charities in a way that nobody else could. I knew he was there for a good reason. And I saw that every moment of the day that he worked.
He kept to himself, as a good game player would. He was mature — well, most of the time. No, I’m kidding. But his sense of humor, I mean, he got me, and I got him. And that helped me. And I didn’t at any time with him feel as if somehow just because I’m deaf I’m somehow different.
And he was very, very proud as a dad with his baby boy and his wife, who were always there having his back. And as a family person, I understood what and where he came from, and his compassion for the kids and the charity. And I really have the utmost respect for John Rich — not only as a country singer but also as a gentleman and person who has good intentions for people and for those in situations where they have to struggle.
Rich: That was very nice, Marlee. Thank you very much.
Matlin: You’re welcome
John, can you talk about what you learned from managing a guy like Gary Busey that helped get you into the finals?
Rich: Well, “Managing Gary Busey,” is probably the right way to say it because it is a management situation with Gary. I can tell you that Gary, as everybody saw, has these moments of complete clarity and genius thought. And then the rest of the time he’s kind of like a tornado; he tears up a lot.
So it’s really all about giving Gary … a job that you knew he could do well at and excel with. And it was a big lesson being around him because it was a constant challenge to your focus. Because Gary’s really loud, and he’s really kind of going all directions, all at the same time.
And you can’t let that throw you off your game. You can’t let that get your mind off of why you’re there, which is to win the task or to raise money, or whatever it is you’re doing that exact minute. You have to do it well to stay in the game and get to the point that we’re at now.
Gary is a good person. I like Gary Busey. I got nothing against Gary Busey at all. Matter of fact, I hope to spend time with him in the future. He’s hilarious and he’s intense. And I’m glad that I know him. I think he’s a good man.
Marlee, looking back is there a lesson to be learned with feuding “Celebrity Apprentice” contestants Star Jones and NeNe Leakes and how their feuding impacted the team?
Matlin: I don’t know if it’s necessarily a lesson one learned, but I knew myself that whatever the hoopla that was that surrounded the relationship that they had and whatever drama came … I didn’t choose to involve it, in terms of the way I played the game.
Whoever dealt with whatever way they decided to deal with each other … it’s just not who I’m about. It’s not the kind of person that I am. I don’t find it entertaining to me to get involved in people’s arguments like that. Again, it was about the two of them.
I know a lot of America, as well as internationally, probably enjoyed it. Because of course it’s nice, or interesting to them to see two women go at it. But that’s not how I’ve ever appreciated or approached life.
So I think both of them have different opinions. Both of them come from two different minds. And that’s to be respected. They both have different backgrounds; they both have different upbringings. It’s clear they have different careers.
But whatever clash that occurred, I again, I almost felt like it got too old too quick. And I just decided to focus on the task. I really did. It’s not about who I am. And sometimes it overshadowed the purpose and my aim for being there, which was to raise charity. But I would never let it get in the way.
So that’s what it was about for me. But they are both women whom I respect. They’re both women who I know are very vocal. And that’s what’s great about them. That’s why they are game players. One may be louder than the other. One may deal with things in a little bit more discrete fashion. But whatever it is, it is what it is.
What has it been like trying to handle Meat Loaf’s full spectrum of emotions?
Matlin: Well, I’ve got to say is that when I started with the women’s team, I got to know pretty much everybody and their individual personalities. And I really didn’t get to know Team Backbone so well until Meat Loaf was brought in.
Of course, I’ve known Meat Loaf, of who he was. I’m not a fan of his music necessarily, but I know his work as an actor. And I know the persona he played in the ‘70s with his “Bat Out of Hell” years.
And when he joined our team, I have to say that I knew that when we were talking about the OnStar commercials, he assured me that he said, “He was experienced and he knew what he was doing in film and television. And that he was such a seasoned performer for 30 years in front of audiences.”
But I really didn’t get a clue into how he worked and I tried to keep an open mind with it, about how he dealt with stress, how decided to make decisions, how he decided to listen. And all I can say is that he’s extremely passionate.
He wants to, if he could, take over a task because you have to sometimes have to understand that, as I said on the show, “He’s like a tornado on crack.” And in a good way. When it was his turn and he took over the comedy routine task, I understood that he was very upset one morning. And we couldn’t even find him. And because we normally get together for sound. And he was there in the van waiting and he was sobbing. And that threw me for a loop, because I just never knew that he was this kind of guy.
But I learned that this is only out of his heart, this is only out of his compassion for the Painted Turtle charity that he was playing for. And all I saw was a guy who was so compassionate about raising money and how concerned he was that the money would be taken away, because it was all about the kids and not for him.
He is completely selfless. He is completely giving. And yet he can go off track, but at the same time, who doesn’t who’s that compassionate about charity? So all I can say is, “I’d love to do a movie with him.” He’s really fantastic. And I really, really am glad to have him as my friend. And to work with him for those two tasks.
John, during what time on the show was harder for you to keep your composure: in the midst of the Gary Busey/Meat Loaf fight or when Piers Morgan was insulting your hat?
Rich: I would say that the Gary Busey/Meat Loaf — we call it “the meltdown — that was the toughest thing that I believe I dealt with, because I was project manager. And I watched these two guys that I have. Hell, I’m fans of both of them. I love Gary’s movies and I love Meat Loaf’s music.
And they’re both quite a bit older than me. I mean, they’re up around my dad’s age. I think Meat Loaf is 62. And I’m not exactly sure of Gary’s age. But I definitely felt like the junior member. I’m 37.
And I’m looking at these guys going, “OK, what can I say to these guys to make this stop?” Because Meat Loaf was not playing around. And Gary, I don’t think was in touch enough with situation to understand that Meat Loaf wasn’t playing around.
And it was about one second away from something really irreversible happening there. And something bad. And I didn’t want see that happen for anybody’s sake. So I took a breath. It seemed like everything kind of went in slow motion for a minute and the light bulb went off in my mind, “Remind these guys that we are here for charity, and our charities are going to be watching this episode and this is embarrassing.”
And as soon as I said that, it extinguished everything. Meat Loaf just relaxed and went, “Oh my God what have I just done?” Gary Busey stepped back into his corner and went, “Wow, we got to stop this.” And to me that was a critical few seconds that happened in the show.
And you know what? I think I handled it the right way. And back to the point of you’re there for charity — and I know we say that a lot. But had I not been there for charity — if we were all there for just drama — I would have just let the thing go. I would have just stepped back to see what was going to happen. But that was not what was best, so I stepped in on that.
As far as Piers Morgan, listen, I think he was there to play his role of the agitator. He was throwing darts at people to see if he could get under your skin, see if he could make you say something off-color or expose you a little bit. And listen, I’m wearing a cowboy hat in New York City, for God’s sake. You think I don’t hear, “Yee Haw,” every time I walk around the corner? It’s not a big deal to me.
I grew up in Amarillo, Texas. I’m a Texan. They put a cowboy hat on my head when I was 3 years old to keep the sun out of my face. It’s not a fashion statement to me. I’ve had one on my head my whole life. So a British guy picking on my cowboy hat is not exactly something that’s going to set me off.
When he started picking on my writing and – my creative writing, I thought, “OK, he’s digging a little deeper trying to get – make it even more personal.” But I just wasn’t going to take that bait, because I knew what it was. And it was pretty transparent what he was trying to do. And I know he’s not a bad guy. He was playing a role and I took it as such.
Do you regret picking any of the members of your final team, or are you happy with your choices?
Matlin: My choices were most appropriate for my task. Because this is what we’re talking about; we’re talking about the ‘70s. I understand the ‘70s better than the ‘80s. I grew up liking “The Brady Bunch.” I looked forward to ever day in the ‘70s in my neighborhood. And so I understood the icons in the ‘70s. I knew John would probably be better with the ‘80s because he’s younger than I am. So the ‘80s makes more sense for him.
I wanted to play to my strength as opposed to weakness, if it was ‘80s versus ‘70s, music versus sports. And I think me taking on a music task with me being deaf might take away from John’s passion, which is music. I don’t pretend. I don’t like to play fake games. I want to play something that I am strong with. I wanted to accomplish that.
So using that, the people I chose were for of course, Meat Loaf because he’s an icon of the ‘70s. And he was right there. Richard Hatch was good; he was older and he certainly understood the ‘70s as well as I understood the ‘70s.
And La Toya Jackson, I think in all honesty, was my last choice. It was a schoolyard pick, so I probably would have probably taken someone other than La Toya. But my advantage was is that she’s a Jackson, and she knows all about performing. And she is all about the ‘70s.
So all three members of my team certainly fit in to the advantage that I wanted to play in this game, and the ‘70s that I wanted to focus on to have a well rounded, good job eventually for the task I was given. So it was all about ‘70s for me. And these people all represented that decade as best as I could get it. So that’s why I chose those people.
Rich: I would say that the first thing that entered my mind when I saw that we were going to be marketing a beverage — the ‘70s and ‘80s — was in my mind as, “Which one would be better?” But the number-one thing on my mind was the beverage, 7Up.
And as I’m looking at the folks we have to pick from, there’s only one person in that group that I know for a fact has successfully marketed millions of dollars worth of beverages, and that’s Lil Jon. Everybody knows about Crunk Juice and the stuff that he’s done. I mean, the guy has made untold money marketing beverages. And not only that, he’s a great marketing mind in general. So I said, “You what? He’s a no-brainer for the first pick for me.” So you had Lil Jon.
And then Mark McGrath I thought he exited the show too early. And it was his own fault because you can’t say, “If we lose it’s all my fault.” I mean, he set himself up and got knocked out of the show. But Mark McGrath, to me, he’s kind of like a popcorn machine: just pop, pop, pop, pop, pop all the time, lots of energy, lots of ideas flying out really, really fast. And there’s a frenzy about him that I like.
And I knew that Lil Jon was a little out of gas because we had kept going this whole time. Mark was fresh. Let’s bring in some of this frenzy energy into the room. Plus Mark’s a rocker. He loves ‘80s rock. He’s a huge fan of hair metal and all that.
And then finally, Star Jones. I have obviously seen how Star Jones works when she’s working against you. And I just had to believe that if Star Jones was working for you and with you, she could be unbelievably effective and could keep the team really focused, and really on our timeline, and really take out any of the guess work on what you’re supposed to do and when you’re supposed to do it, and all the stuff that can get in the way of your creative thinking. So that’s why I chose the ones I chose. And I think I wound up with a really strong team.
John, can you talk a little bit about the alliance that you and Lil Jon had? He had said that you guys actually knew each other before the show started.
Rich: Lil Jon and I had met each other, I believe at an award show some time, I think it was 2005, 2006, somewhere in there. And I like his music, I like his production and some of just the crazy songs that he’s done. Because in country music I’m part of a duo called Big & Rich, and we’re known for being probably the most crazy, aggressive country music out there. I mean we’re a party band.
And Lil Jon liked the Big & Rich stuff; we liked Lil Jon. And I remember shaking hands with him at an awards show. And it wasn’t like we became best friends or anything, because we live in different towns.
But anytime I was in Atlanta or L.A. — because he’s back and forth between those two towns — I’d always call him. And every now and then he would come through Nashville and he would always call me. So we kept in touch.
When I decided I was going to go be on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” I actually called Lil Jon — because he’s one of the big stars that I’m friends with — to tell him I was going to be on a TV show and that I might need him to help me out with a task at some point or a donation. And he started laughing and said, “Too late, because I’m on the same show.”
So it was really cool. We just laughed our heads off when we realized that. And it was at that point I said, “Oh this is going to be fun, because I don’t know how I’ll do on the show, but I know I’ll have a friend in there and somebody that I think a lot of, and somebody that’s a lot of fun.”
What was one of the biggest surprises that you saw on “The Celebrity Apprentice” this season?
Matlin: The biggest surprise for me on the show in general. I think the fact that when we got together the night before to sit down and talk about the show, it was about who was on the show that really caught me by surprise. Some people, I really understood the fact when we sat down, what their true colors were. And I’d had no idea that some of these people had the personalities that they brought to the table.
I knew about them in terms of their career. But to know these people on a personal level. Like for example, Dionne Warwick. I knew clearly that she was a music legend, but not really familiar with the music. And I was surprised I would have to say, at her, at the way she chose to play the team member and how she wasn’t familiar with people like myself who happen to be deaf. And yet I took it in stride. And I think it was just a matter of how each person reacted in high-stress situations after working 18 hour days. I have to say I was surprised how people reacted.
Rich: I expected the unexpected, as far as the contestants. But the thing that really hit me was how tired you get doing this show. The fans of “The Celebrity Apprentice” — I’m a fan of “The Celebrity Apprentice” — watching the show you think, “Oh, they’re doing one task a week, no big deal.” But the reality of it is you’re there for … 40-something days total? And you were averaging 17, 18, 19 hours a day sometimes.
Matlin: John, didn’t you feel like you were on an episode of “Survivor,” expect it was set in New York City instead of some remote island?
Rich: Yes. It was like mental “Survivor” because if you crack, you’re going to get beat over the head with it for the rest of your life. And if you if you make a wrong move … They do put in a pressure cooker. They never let you breath. I say they; the producers and the directors of the show. They keep you exhausted and they keep you in that level of fatigue on purpose.
And to me, I didn’t like it, but I understood it. And I just accepted it at some point and said, “You know what? You’re going to be tired. If you want to try to win this thing, you got to power through it.” And I think that separated a lot of contestants from other contestants — the exhaustion factor alone separated people.
And I think for me being a road musician; I’ve been on the road for almost 20 years, and it’s not uncommon for me to be in 200 to 250 cities in a year. And so I’ve learned how to power through exhaustion and deal with it. And that may be the reason why some of the folks fell out when they did.
And obviously it wasn’t a problem for Marlee. And if it was, she never let on to it because I think at the end of the day you just keep concentrating on the fact that if you win this thing, it’s another quarter-of-a-million dollars. And there’s all these opportunities that come into play for you charity. So being tired doesn’t really have a place.
Matlin: I think it’s all about that charity and Red Bull. I was drinking Red Bulls, and I have to say, at the end of the day, the hardest thing about the show is that you don’t realize you have to eat. You really have to take care of yourself.
There’s no assistance, there’s nobody treating you any differently. You’re there on your own. And John was right. I mean, it was really tough, but you stick it out for the charity.
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