Rod Blagojevich (right) talks to another contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice
The ex-governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich (right) chats with fellow contestant Michael Johnson during last night’s two-hour season opener of The Celebrity Apprentice


Teammate Sinbad Says: "He’s the Elephant in the Room"

Since being ousted as governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich has been mostly unemployed. What the future holds for him is unclear—and it certainly won’t be determined until after his upcoming trial for corruption—but if last night’s premiere episode of NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice is any indication, Blago should cross “waiter” off his list of potential future jobs.

True to the form established over nine seasons (this being the third celebrity edition), Donald Trump took his motley crew of 14 formerly famous contestants and divided them into teams by gender: the men versus the women. That put Blago on a team—they decided to call themselves “Rock Solid”—with baseball player Darryl Strawberry, wrestler Goldberg, and rocker Bret Michaels, among others. With the exception of chef Curtis Stone, Blago was the only non-entertainment, non-sports figure. Comedian Sinbad called it as he saw it almost immediately. “[Blagojevich] is the elephant in the room,” he told the audience. Even Trump acknowledged Blago’s tricky position. “You’ve got a hell of a lot of guts,” Trump told the ex-gov. “You’re out there punching away.”

Actually, for the first part of the two-hour season opener, Blago tried to fly under the radar, much like his wife Patti did when she appeared on NBC’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, an adventure-reality show shot in Costa Rica. (Blago had wanted to do that show, but a judge wouldn’t let him leave the country.) Sporting a suit and tie, he smiled a lot, laughed at his teammates’ jokes (even the one where Sinbad greeted him with a boisterous “I’m innocent!”), and struck various GQ poses. His two favorites were a three-quarters turn with one hand in his pants pocket or putting his hand under his chin ala Rodin’s Thinker. He didn’t seem to fool the other contestants, though. When the women’s team had to pick the men’s team project leader, they immediately looked for the weakest link and turned to Blago’s photo. Their reasons? “Nobody likes him.” And, “He did get caught.” But they chose Bret Michaels instead. It wasn’t the only bullet Blago would dodge last night.

The episode’s task was to run a diner for three hours. Whichever team brought in the most money would win. The build-up treated viewers to many fun moments, such as Blago working the kitchen line with a little white grill man’s hat perched precariously on his famous hair or Blago learning how to handle the carbon paper when writing up restaurant orders. “I didn’t cook at all when I was the governor,” he told the camera in a cutaway. “I was cooking up results for the people.” Hmm, maybe he wants to rethink that phrasing in the future?

Once the diner opens for business, Blago worked the tables as a waiter, yet he compulsively talked about the charges against him. “I didn’t do those things, by the way,” he told some hungry customers. “I’m here to serve.” He also kept mentioning how he was the governor of the fifth largest state in the U.S., almost as if he couldn’t believe he now was slinging burgers on TV. But he truly undercut himself and his team when Trump sent Joan Rivers, the comedienne and the previous winner of The Celebrity Apprentice, to do a little undercover dining. The team she liked best would win an extra $10,000 toward its project manager’s charity. The players should have know that Rivers won last time, but everyone seemed to write off her appearance as a New York moment. It was a golden opportunity for one of the teams—and Blago blew it by yakking with the customers. “Somebody’s lying and it’s not me,” he told one booth, as an on-screen timer ticked up the minutes since Rivers’s cheeseburger appeared on the pass from the kitchen. Blago said to another table, “They stole me out of office. They stole me from the people.” By the time he remembered to deliver Rivers’s burger, she described its temperature as “arctic.”

“If he ran a state, nothing could get done,” she deadpanned. “God forbid you’re waiting for a death-sentence commutation.”

Back in the board room, it was a clash of the titans’ hair thanks to the Donald, Cyndi Lauper, and Blago. Rivers’s surprise $10,000 gift went to the women’s team, but the men won the challenge: They took in an astonishing $58,000 to the women’s $39,000. Still, the celebration was short-lived. “Joan told me the food was cold and it was the governor’s fault,” announced Trump. “Rod, did you start talking to people before food was delivered?” For a moment, Blago’s mouth opened and shut silently, like a goldfish. “I, uh, hmm, uh,” he sputtered.

Finally, Blago found his explanation. “I don’t specifically recall,” he said. Then, he clarified, “I’m in an unusual position.” Which could be called a vast understatement. But Trump liked it, saying again that Blago has a lot of guts. “But you didn’t stop talking to people,” scolded Trump. Judging by his teammates’ downcast glances during Trump’s lecture, it was obvious that Blago would have been fired had the men lost. Then the smackdown moment moved on to the losing women’s team. The comedienne and television producer Carol Liefer got the boot.

Back in the war room at Trump Tower, Blago looked nervous, keeping on his coat and tie while the other guys kicked back to shirtsleeves or T-shirts. Relax, they told him. “We’re not going to the board room. You don’t have to worry.” Not until next Sunday, that is.  

  • The Chicago Tribune’s take. The television critic Mo Ryan wrote, “Biggest non-surprise: Blago’s grandstanding and inability to focus on the task at hand.”
  • New York magazine’s recap at its Vulture blog. Emma Rosenblum noted that the ex-wrestler Goldberg may not be a fan of our ex-gov and quoted him saying: “It’s an honor to be associated with all of [the other contestants], but Rod Blagojevich? Not necessarily.” 



Photograph: Courtesy NBC Universal