"Do you ever get vertigo?" he is asked.
"Yes, I do," he replies, pulling back with a timorous smile.
Afraid of heights? The Donald? Has the Fountainhead finally come down to earth?
Sort of. He tells anyone who will listen these days that he is sticking to his knitting: real-estate. No more runs for president; no more buying airlines. Just developing properties and, yes, stewarding brand Trump.
"Trump is the hottest brand out there," he boasts later in his office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower on Fifth Ave. "I put my name on a building and I get $5,000 a square foot. That's twice what the guy gets across the street. I put my name on a golf course, Trump National in Briarcliff Manor, and I get $300,000 per member. Other guys only get $25,000. If I didn't put my name on it, I'd get nothing."
Modesty aside, the man known as "the human logo" is jump-starting a brand blitzkrieg that will put his face and name in front of millions of consumers.
The main push is "The Apprentice," an NBC reality series produced by Mark Burnett, the man behind "Survivor." The 13-part series begins shooting Sept. 15 and will air during the February 2004 prime-time sweeps. "The Apprentice" stars the mogul and 16 contestants who compete to become his aide-de-camp.
Contestants will live in a communal, video-monitored warren of suites that are being built on the third floor of the Trump Tower. Every week he will make each contestant jump through hoops.
"We may give them a store in a bad location," Mr. Trump said. "Give them a little seed money and say `Good luck, we'll be back in a week' and then see who does the most business. Or I may send them out to the desert to buy an airplane, cheap as hell. And whoever picks up the best deal stays on."
Those who don't pass muster get the ax. Those who stay are invited into The Trump Tower's gilded elevator. The one who hangs on longest wins a job with a six-figure salary at the Trump Organization.
"The Apprentice" was given the nod by Jeff Zucker, president of NBC Entertainment. "Trump is one of the best brands in the country," said Mr. Zucker. "His involvement makes it a smart upscale show."
"'The Apprentice' is a positive development for Trump," observed Shari Ann Brill, VP-director of programming services, Aegis Group's Carat North America. "His name isn't as omnipresent as it once was. He's lost a lot of his buzz."
Behind the Image
But he's busy trying to build it. Earlier this year, 100,000 copies of the second issue of Trump's custom-published glossy, Trump World, hit the street and Michael Jacobson, the title's publisher, claims it is so popular with advertisers he hopes to sell it on newsstands next year. Coming this month, The Donald's own bottled designer water: Trump Ice.
On Aug. 9, the tycoon and his real-life apprentice, son Donald Jr., were featured in a National Geographic special, "The Geography of Wealth" in which the narrator called Mr. Trump "the personification of wealth."
But what exactly is the image attached to brand Trump? Millward Brown, a WPP Group marketing research company, created a study exclusively for Advertising Age that evaluates Trump's brand potency and the potential for success of "The Apprentice." Millward Brown surveyed more than 2,000 adults. The study compared Mr. Trump to five other branded business entrepreneurs: Oprah Winfrey, Ted Turner, Martha Stewart and Sean "P. Diddy" Combs.
According to Ann Green, VP, Millward Brown, the study demonstrates that the Trump brand is caught between floors. "He clearly appeals to a younger, male, aspirational audience," said Ms. Green, who points out that opinions about The Donald have not really changed over the years. "That's a good place to be in."
On the other hand, he is polarizing. "If you look at older females, he does tend to alienate them. He is not necessarily actively irritating like some of the other names we surveyed, but he has a weakened appeal," she said. Only 2% of respondents would buy a product associated with Donald Trump compared to 13% for Oprah, who is described as high-quality, popular, sophisticated, outgoing, a leader and charming.
One in five said they would not buy a Trump-branded product. "He is a wealthy man, so there is this perception that `Why would I want to put more money in his wallet?"' said Ms. Green. Forbes lists Mr. Trump's net worth at $1.9 billion. The Donald begs to differ but refuses to go on record with a number. Executives at his company proffer the figure of $5 billion and growing.
Mr. Trump's critics say there was never much behind the hype. After successes in the `80s, Trump's world collapsed in 1990, when he was almost forced into bankruptcy after taking on too much debt for his three Atlantic City casinos. And Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett published a bestseller called "Trump: The Deals and the Downfall" that accused him of conspiring with controversial lawyer Roy Cohn, the Mafia and corrupt unions to get tax abatements on real estate deals. Mr. Trump denied the accusations.
Is the Trump logo a complete facade?
"His name is not a facade if he's worth $1.9 billion," Mr. Barrett said, "And also if he managed to work his way out of what would have bankrupted many others. Certainly as a successful businessman, you can't take that away from him." Mr. Barrett suggests viewers should go back after the show is over and see if the winning apprentice is still at Trump Tower. "He may give up the six-figure salary just to get out of the room."
"The show will be a great way for [Trump] to get the spotlight back on him, his name, his fame and fortune," Ms. Brill said. "God knows his ego isn't big enough already."
Ego, however, is not an issue for Mr. Trump's image, the Millward Brown's study found. "He is described as egotistical, but not in the same sense as Martha Stewart and P. Diddy," Ms. Green observed. "With Donald, the ego is part and parcel of who he is, and can't be seen completely as a negative."
"We like the fact that some contestants will be Ivy Leaque M.B.A.s," said Robert Reisenberg, director of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Magna Global, after seeing NBC's presentation in May. "That should attract an upscale audience, which our advertisers want and you don't normally find in reality programs."
This isn't Mr. Trump's first involvement with a TV show. In 1990, Warner Brothers created an unsuccessful, syndicated game show "Trump Card," shot in one of his Atlantic City casinos. And it isn't the first idea he was pitched. "The other networks have asked me to do reality shows but I didn't like any of the ideas," Mr. Trump said. "I told Mark Burnett that the business jungle in Manhattan is a lot tougher than anything you have in your beautiful tropical islands in `Survivor."'
Mr. Trump will appear in every episode, but not in every scene. He is a 50/50 partner with Mr. Burnett's production company. "It's a lucrative deal," he said. If the show is successful, a second season may feature Mr. Trump again, or another tycoon.
Another player behind the scenes of "The Apprentice" is NBC Chairman-CEO Bob Wright, who has known Mr. Trump, 56, for almost 20 years. Mr. Wright is a member of Trump International, a golf course in Florida.
"We have big hopes for `The Apprentice,"' said Mr. Wright. While Mr. Trump's brass-and-glass domain reminds visitors of a casino, Mr. Wright's lofty realm-white carpets, blond furniture and a pervading quiet-is virtually Olympian. "We've had a lot of inquires from advertisers, and lots of requests to get into the show. If it isn't sold out already, I'd be surprised."
And yet, Mr. Wright is cautious. "I'm skeptical though, because business and television don't generally mix. ... Business is what you get away from when watching entertainment. So the concept of business in the show was a turn off to me at first. But it's also about competition, striving, scheming, conniving, wheeling and dealing, which has proven very appealing in these reality shows."
The success of "The Apprentice," ultimately, will depend on Mr. Trump's performance and the public's appetite for voyeuristic reality programming, a taste the "people's billionaire" apparently shares with them. On a recent walking tour of the set of "The Apprentice," The Donald and Donald Jr. were shown where video cameras will hang in the suites. "So we catch all the action," said the show's production designer. Finally, they are led into a honeycomb of steel. "What's this?" asked The Donald. "These are the showers," the designer answered. "Oh, will they have cameras in here too?" he asked, arching an eyebrow.