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Omarosa’s Political Playground Has Always Been Reality TV

On this season’s ‘Celebrity Big Brother,’ the ousted White House adviser continues the theatrical rampage that led her—and the president she once served—to political success

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Omarosa is the most successful loser in the history of competitive American television. She’s such a spectacular loser that she’s spent the past 14 years doing encores for competitive network TV shows that she’s never actually won. She made her big debut to public life in the very first season of The Apprentice, where she not only lost, but then also returned in the season finale to upstage and terminally sabotage the season’s only other black contestant, Kwame Jackson. Currently, Omarosa is competing in the latest season of Celebrity Big Brother, a show that offers the disgruntled former White House adviser at least a few weeks of fun-employment.

While any other Trump alum — Spicer, Scaramucci, Bannon — might be venting off the record as they write their memoirs post-haste, Omarosa has deduced that the confessional booths of reality TV suit her best, offering a much more timely and accessible forum for rehabilitating her personal brand. Omarosa has known this as long as we’ve known her. In an April 2004 postgame interview with TV Guide, Jackson assessed Omarosa’s all-consuming sabotage on The Apprentice — the show that established her as a multi-disciplinary pop villain — as a personal ratings ploy. “My theory is that some folks are still living in what I call ‘the Reality-TV Matrix,’ and they refuse to unplug,” Jackson says. “I think that for her, [it’s all about] the spectacle value and this kind of eccentricity.”

Omarosa Manigault has spent her adult life barging in and out of the White House and wrecking various reality-TV-show sets. If you watch enough Omarosa footage from The Apprentice and Celebrity Big Brother, the desires that animate her professional ascent are pretty clear. Omarosa flatters the powerful. Toward this end, Omarosa throws temper tantrums and wages psychological warfare against her teammates — which is to say, her competitors — in the trenches, who unwittingly reveal their own weakness in their failure to curb her petulance and nonsense. In the first Apprentice season, Kwame Jackson lost to Bill Rancic largely because of his failure to tame, or at least marginalize, the bitter, disruptive Omarosa. With contempt for her so-called peers, Omarosa reveals herself to be the treacherous sort of middle-management enforcer to whom top bosses love to delegate crude work and office politics. But Omarosa will plead and cry in order to dispel these suspicions of her true cruelty. Occasionally, she succeeds, and Omarosa’s opponents — her marks — live to regret having ever crossed paths with such a captivating liar. For Omarosa, tears are a flex. Tears are strength. Despite her 14-year spree of sixth-place finishes and subordinate cameos, tears and fury are the means by which Omarosa has branded herself as reality TV’s second-most notorious winner, subordinate only to Donald Trump.

For Omarosa, the Celebrity Big Brother house serves as a luxurious (if cramped) reputation rehab. Fellow contestants such as Mark McGrath and Metta World Peace may be there to promote themselves and achieve some measure of popular resurgence, but Omarosa has arrived with sound bites and particular headlines in mind. In her first week on Celebrity Big Brother, Omarosa made news once fellow houseguest Ross Mathews individually confronted her about her support for the Trump administration, which Mathews, a gay man, abhors. Crying, Omarosa swears that she, a former staffer for Al Gore, switched parties only to support Trump because of a vaguely patriotic impulse. “It was a call to duty. I felt like I was serving my country, not serving him,” she says. Resigned, Mathews rolls his eyes and tells himself, “That makes sense,” as he seems to realize what all students of Omarosa know to be true whenever she speaks — Omarosa’s full of shit.

In an episode that aired last week, Omarosa warned a few housemates that impeaching Trump would only empower Mike Pence, whom Omarosa describes as “scary” and “extreme.” Omarosa didn’t cry as she described Pence to the houseguests gathered in the living room; instead, this time, she posited herself as a righteous and authoritative turncoat. Reading her words, and her tears, and her body language as she discusses her eviction from the Trump administration, you’d think Omarosa had been Trump’s hostage all that time. Never mind the many accounts that Omarosa left the White House, kicking and screaming, at chief of staff John Kelly’s insistence.

The news reports suggest that Omarosa’s last White House ally standing was Trump himself, and that makes sense. Trump coproduced episodes in three of Omarosa’s reality-TV bids: the seventh and 13th seasons of The Apprentice, starring Trump; plus the first season of The Ultimate Merger, starring Omarosa. For nearly two decades, Omarosa has been Trump’s token black consigliere, a woman whose constant proximity to Trump invites, but simultaneously negates, questions about her expertise. Her junior service in the Clinton administration notwithstanding, Omarosa is no more or less capable than the president himself in matters of public policy or national leadership.

Like Trump, Omarosa tends to frame her political ascendancy as a matter of haters and resentments. “I was called every single racial slur in the book that you could direct towards an African American by African Americans,” she told ABC News in an interview following Trump’s election. “I will never forget the people who turned their backs on me when all I was trying to do was help the black community.” Thus, Trumpland became Omarosa’s professional and political retreat from a wider blackness that she often describes as hostile to her, the exceptional Negro, who supposedly courts jealousy from weaker, lesser blacks. On the campaign trail, and during the victory lap that preceded Trump’s inauguration, she spoke of Trump’s opponents as bullies, cowards, and traitors; and her own detractors as fair-weather friends. But as her place in Trumpland disappeared, and its residents largely disavowed her, Omarosa has beat a seemingly final retreat to one of the few settings she hasn’t already wrecked: the Big Brother House.

It’s tough for me to guess how long Omarosa will dodge eviction. As long as she remains in the Big Brother house, she will continue to tease her housemates, and her TV audience, with scandalous Trump trivia and critique. If she does this for long enough, Trump may break his silence on Omarosa’s departure and lash out against her on Twitter, thus reinforcing her purported, post-facto opposition to Trump’s agenda. This is Omarosa’s signature trade-off, a transaction that undermines her opponents as well as her hate-watchers. Fourteen Apprentice seasons ago, Kwame Jackson understood this much about Omarosa, and he thought he could mitigate all her false mugging and grievance mongering by humoring her at arm’s length. But Jackson, the finalist, lost; and Omarosa, the midseason loser, somehow won.

In the TV matrix, Omarosa’s many betrayals and shortcomings form a story line of perverse, unrelenting success insomuch as they are fascinating to watch. Omarosa fails upward. Unfortunately, the TV matrix that Jackson once described is, in fact, the new American political theater, which rewards losers such as Trump and Omarosa with far more screen time than they’ve ever earned or deserved. It’s fun to watch Omarosa lose; it’s frustrating to realize she’s always been winning at everyone else’s expense.