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Image: Piers Morgan
Justin Stephens  /  NBC Universal
"Celebrity Apprentice" winner Piers Morgan raised more than $500,000 for Intrepid Fallen Heroes fund.
TODAY contributor
updated 3/28/2008 12:39:53 AM ET 2008-03-28T04:39:53

You know how sometimes you flip through the channels and TBS or TNT is showing a movie starring someone who used to be famous? You turn to your spouse or your buddy and say, “What happened to that guy?” Well, I have an answer for you: He’s on reality TV.

The has-been stars have long enjoyed a haven in VH1. They flocked to “The Surreal Life” and “Celebrity Fit Club.” Some might be lucky enough to get a dating show of their very own. Sometimes a reality show makes a star. For example, who ever heard of Lauren, Heidi, Whitney or Spencer before “The Hills”? By and large, however, celebrities come to reality TV to breathe life into their dying careers. Sometimes it works. (See Mario Lopez and “Dancing with the Stars.”)

For some contestants, “The Celebrity Apprentice” was just another way to extend their fleeting moments of fame. But on live TV, in front of a studio audience, Donald Trump might have done reality shows a disservice. When he named Piers Morgan the winner, Trump did little to change the notion that the genre is for the slightly better-than-mediocre stars — at best. Clearly, Piers is crafty, intelligent and capable, but he is not a genuine celebrity. Sure, the cantankerous Brit has many important friends. He was able to call Richard Branson, Sharon Osborne and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. He persuaded an executive from the investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald to spend $200,000 at the “Celebrity Apprentice” auction.

“The Celebrity Apprentice” came down to Morgan and beloved country star Trace Adkins. Trump himself billed it as an epic battle between good and evil, the United Kingdom vs. the United States.

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Had Trump named Trace Adkins the winner, he would have added some credibility to the reality genre. Right now, Adkins has a No. 1 single, “You’re Gonna Miss This,” and has long been a staple on the country charts. If nothing else, the show introduced a humble, funny and genuinely good person to the Americans who don’t listen to country music.

After many of his fellow contestants lined up on his side, it was surprising that Adkins didn’t emerge victorious. Trace also starred in some of the show’s best moments, namely his interactions with the Backstreet Boys. The boy band represents everything a cowboy detests: vanity, entitlement and metrosexuality. “BSB,” as Trace called them, sent him on a fool’s errand looking for wheatgrass juice. Against everything he holds sacred, Trace fetched them black nail polish.

“Talking to the Backstreet Boys is time out of my life that I will never get back,” he said.

The country singer also brought something more than down-home humor to the show. Gene Simmons — of all people — said it best:

“Piers outperformed in pure cash. Trace has a quality that’s missing in America, and that’s called a tug of the heart. That feeling when you see the flag go up … that aw-shucks demeanor.”

Where have all the celebrities gone?
“The Celebrity Apprentice” bills the contestants as “14 of the world’s most successful celebrities.” Really? Omarosa? Jennie Finch? Gene Simmons, OK, maybe, but Vincent Pastore? As far as reality TV goes, the show did feature some decent-size stars. Lennox Lewis was heavyweight champion of the world. Former supermodel Carol Alt used to be known as “The Face.” Stephen Baldwin was in “The Usual Suspects” and has a really famous brother.

Part of watching TV is the willing suspension of disbelief, so we understand that of course, these people are not George Clooney, Gwyneth Paltrow or Brad Pitt. So fine, they aren’t the biggest stars in the world, but even being somewhat famous usually means you are somewhat eccentric, so it makes for good television.

Case in point: Omarosa, who makes a living from her bizarre behavior. The perennial reality star knows that she is expected to berate and connive her way through the show. She set her sights on Piers. calling him a bad father, an alcoholic and gay — baseless accusations that only made her look bad. She’ll resurface on some VH1 show — perhaps “Celebrity Anger Management.”

Stephen Baldwin did not disappoint, either. The former Hollywood bad boy turned evangelical Christian no longer does drugs or drinks, so he must he simply high on life (or Red Bull or something). Baldwin says things like “Huckleberry! What ya doin’, playa? Rockin’ and rollin’, bro …” He is prone to outbursts of song at inappropriate moments. Piers tried to apologize for being rude. Baldwin didn’t even let him finish before he belted out: “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

The show accomplished what all good celebrity reality shows should: It pitted colorful personalities against each other and treated the viewing audience to people who are better-looking than they are (well, except for maybe Pastore, Morgan and Simmons. The women are all gorgeous). Trump made his decision based on dollar signs, not heartstrings. Piers raised the most money, so Piers won.

But Morgan won’t connect with the American viewing public. After a few weeks, he will go back to merely being the cranky British judge on “America’s Got Talent.” Or maybe there is room in our silly American hearts for another Simon Cowell.

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