Former White House adviser Omarosa Manigault-Newman is unlikely to win the CBS reality show Celebrity Big Brother – she’s currently on the verge of being the next one kicked off, having intimidated and alienated many of her housemates. But the fact that she’s gotten everything she could have wanted out of the experience seems apparent. For one thing, every one of her competitors has spent the competition so far thinking and talking almost solely about her; furthermore, from the opening credits to the ceaseless conversation, every aspect of the show refers to her only as “Omarosa.” No last name needed.
Part of that comes from her unique status as a figure in the news; given that the very point of celebrity reality shows is to spotlight people whose high point of fame has passed, Omarosa stands out. The Apprentice alumna’s departure from the White House, shortly before her casting on Celebrity Big Brother was announced, was a news event – even though few observers seemed aware of what, exactly, she did in Washington. It hardly mattered: If a person so closely identified with Trump in the public imagination departed, something remarkable must be going on.
Omarosa has capitalized on the obvious interest in her story, giving the audience just enough detail about her departure to ensure that she’ll remain in the news, even post-Celebrity Big Brother. Her approach has been to paint herself as the voice of reason who tried her best to avert disaster in the halls of power, a person who was betrayed and disrespected by everyone in the Trump Administration even as she had the keys to its success. “So I’m there fighting, fighting, fighting, getting my head bashed in, and nobody coming out publicly to say, ‘We support her,’ ” she tearily told fellow competitor Ross Mathews. He asked if the nation would be okay. “No, it’s gonna not be okay,” she whispered. “It’s not.”
This whole conversation rode a line between sincerity and outright fantasy, from its substance to its participants. Omarosa’s tears had been conjured up in an intimate conversation in which both she and Mathews seemed alternately deeply earnest and playing one another to maximize their screentime and sympathy. No surprise that since then, Mathews has emerged as Omarosa’s main rival. On reality TV, situations shift moment-by-moment. It’s a medium to which Omarosa should be well accustomed by now: she landed in the White House by dint of her long association with Donald Trump, who fired her from the first season of The Apprentice but who seemed to have a special affinity for her chaotic approach.
Back then, Omarosa struggled with the core functionalities of her reality show tasks but excelled at argumentation, making the case for herself so forcefully as to bring her opponents nearly to tears. To wit, Omarosa on a fellow would-be Apprentice: “I called her a baby. I told her to go in the corner and get her pacifier and her blanket and go cry, which is what she always does.” It seemed, throughout his Omarosa-like 2016 presidential run, that the candidate and the woman he made a star had learned from one another. On Celebrity Big Brother, Omarosa turned fellow competitor and Cosby Show star Keshia Knight Pulliam’s past support for her former TV dad against her: “People judged you for that, but only you know the inner workings of your relationship with Mr. Cosby.” It was a conversation-ender and a way for Omarosa to justify her own decisions; Knight Pulliam ended up allied with Omarosa.
Omarosa has continued her career-long streak of being a fairly middling reality-show contestant but a riveting reality-show character. There’s little on the show but gameplay — no wilderness survival, no putative tests for business acumen – just silly party games, voting, and plotting. It suits Omarosa as well as any format can, with the endless chatter proving that her smooth ability to define her own set of alternative facts remains unchanged. Having lost a physical challenge and suffered a setback in the game, Omarosa suddenly absented herself, seeking medical attention. Even taking her at her word that she suffered an asthma attack, her ability to consume all the psychic energy of her fellow competitors was something at which to marvel. Her gamesmanship, as described by her, is something of a mish-mosh of conservative politics of the past two decades — she has described it on air with references both to the Iraq War “shock and awe” strategy and Sarah Palin’s “don’t retreat, reload” catchphrase. Omarosa frames it as a new observation based on her time with Trump: “If I learned anything in the last year, I learned this. You don’t retreat, you reload.”
This phrase is both less-than-apt — Omarosa learned to double down from the president she suggests is dangerously incompetent? — and startlingly off-tone. If Omarosa knows the resonance of this phrase, retired as a term of political strategy after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, she doesn’t seem to care. And why should she? Provocation, in big ways and small ones, is what keeps her on the air; that someone, somewhere felt trolled by Omarosa is a win, however slight.
Even if Omarosa manages to make it to the end of Celebrity Big Brother, she only has a couple of weeks left in the spotlight. (The show, designed to compete with the Winter Olympics, will conclude Feb. 25.) And what will she do then? Reality TV success is a matter of jumping from lily pad to lily pad — staying alive in the game week by week, then getting booked for another season of something or other. But there are few future bookings that make the sort of sense for Omarosa than a show where D-listers strategize against one another in a sequestered house. Having done that, there seems little left.
And yet Omarosa has been with us since 2004, a person whose rise has neatly mapped alongside the changes in our society. She lives in a world of perpetual argumentation, thriving on the joy of making her own case in a manner that doesn’t just beat her adversaries but humiliates them. Long before the rest of us began living in a reality show, her life – one season of The Apprentice after another – unfolded with endlessly ratcheting-up drama, fueled by conflict whose very existence is good for her brand. Whether it’s in a second White House season or, more likely, elsewhere in the landscape she helped construct, there will always be a place for her. She won’t retreat.
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