There is something fundamentally wrong about wearing a three-piece suit to an amusement park. And yet hundreds of hopefuls applying for the third season of NBC's ''The Apprentice'' (the second season starts Sept. 9) have done just that on a Friday morning in July, opting to swelter in line at the Los Angeles-area Universal Studios theme park for a chance to impress the star of the show. Today Donald Trump is making a rare appearance at an ''Apprentice'' casting call.
The Donald shows up wearing a navy blue suit, a light blue shirt, and an electric pink tie. The infamous Trump hairdo is perfectly in place. He spots a group of T-shirt-wearing tourists as he arrives, and shakes his head. ''I thought they were trying out at first,'' he explains. ''And I thought: That doesn't look right. I'm not saying it's necessary to wear a suit in life, but there's something very nice about people who are really into the system. If you look at a group of people like that,'' he says, nodding towards the line of sweaty but snappily dressed applicants, ''it's very impressive.''
Of course, it will take more than a good suit to land one of the 16 coveted spots on ''The Apprentice.'' Knowing that, almost everyone waiting in line has an angle. ''I want to be the Asian guy,'' says attorney Dan Wu. ''My sister said they need a tall, good-looking guy on the show who's Asian-American. I may not be the best looking guy, but William Hung cannot be the Asian face of reality TV. I'm almost doing a public service.''
Tina Humdy's gimmick is more obvious: A large yellow sign around her neck screams ''$5''; a suitcase of shoes sits at her feet. ''I like to be referred to as an 'entreprenegro,''' jokes Humdy, an independent shoe saleswoman who is African-American. ''The show needs me, because I have creativity, style, and grace.'' And plenty of shoes.
Blond, curvaceous businesswoman Robin Ebert stumbles across a way to catch the ''Apprentice'' overlord's eye. Walking past, Trump pauses to chat with Ebert and give her a hug. ''He asked me what I've done, but I think he liked the way I looked the best,'' she laughs. ''I think he's a flirt.''
Standing at the entrance to the theater where group interviews will be taking place, casting producer Rob LaPlante coolly surveys the candidates. ''A gimmick works in the sense of maybe getting my attention,'' he says with a shrug. ''But you're not going to get on the show because of it. You've got my attention, but then you've got to deliver the goods.''
If any of these applicants have the goods, it's now time for them to deliver them. The doors to the air-conditioned building are thrown open, and the hopefuls are seated at tables in groups of eight. They have 10 to 15 minutes to make their mark on the casting director leading the discussion. No one gets one-on-one time to plead their case. ''Reality shows are a study in group dynamics, so I want to introduce them to that,'' explains LaPlante.
Introducing the wannabes to a little conflict isn't a bad idea either. After one casting director asks her table which person in the group seems least qualified for the show, a salesman with a bushy mustache struggles to maintain his cool when he is singled out. At another table, a muscled bouncer tries to defend his lack of business experience. Everyone is trying to be polite. Some are more successful than others.
As for Trump, he's stuck fielding questions from the media and posing for photographs. ''This show is much more time-consuming than I thought it would be,'' he admits. Eventually he approaches one of the tables. The eight applicants in front of him are any employer's dream. There's an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, a Harvard grad, and four M.B.A.s who certainly don't need an apprenticeship on a reality TV show to score a good job. But this could be their only chance to run one of Trump's companies. ''I'm not going to say it yet, but I do know what job the winner is going to get,'' says Trump. ''I have 79 different corporations, so I can keep this show going for a long time.''
As the candidates introduce themselves, Trump nods approvingly. ''Great school,'' he says several times. Still, it takes a lot to wow the businessman these days: ''In the second season we have people from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the Wharton School of Finance,'' he says. ''I've learned how smart these people are. They're really, really smart.''
But not, of course, smart enough to outmaneuver Trump. After making some small talk with the group and asking questions about their work histories, he concludes the interview. He gathers up the applications with a poker face and slowly eases towards the exit, shaking hands along the way. ''Everyone thinks they have the great secret, because they've seen every one of the episodes,'' he says. ''So I've had to step it up a little bit. They acclimate; so do I.'' And that's why he's the boss.