Is Omarosa Onée Manigault-Newman a celebrity? Undeniably. Is it wrong to reward her with a starring role on national television in CBS’ inaugural Celebrity Big Brother season? Probably. Is it absolutely fascinating to watch Omarosa on television? Hell yes.
It might seem strange that the former reality television star-cum-Trump White House aide could so effortlessly step back into her role as a reality TV villainess, but to truly understand Omarosa is to understand that everything is a parlor trick. She was last seen in the public eye as she was ousted from her White House position in December and, according to reports, when chief of staff John Kelly fired her, she made a “ruckus” by attempting to storm President Trump’s residence.
The last-minute gambit to save her job may appear melodramatic, but it’s par for the course for a woman who’s been on television in some form or another since 2004, antagonizing Donald Trump while somehow earning his respect or battling other celebrities like Piers Morgan (on The Celebrity Apprentice), Janice Dickinson (on The Surreal Life), La Toya Jackson (on The Celebrity Apprentice), and Bethenny Frankel (on her own damn talk show, Bethenny). Omarosa’s behavior has always been sneakily cunning: malicious to whomever she perceives as her enemy, and always self-aggrandizing. It’s no wonder she fit right in with the Trump administration. She’s a mélange of Trump’s flailing ego, Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts, and Ivanka’s hot air.
It always seemed odd that Trump took to Omarosa, but the two do share a persecution complex. In the first season of The Apprentice, she stirred up a bogus controversy by alleging that a fellow contestant was racist against her for using the phrase “that’s like the pot calling the kettle black”; faked a head injury in one of Trump’s properties; and then torpedoed another contestant’s chances in the finale by refusing to do any work. Omarosa’s innate ability to manipulate the truth and the press are qualities that Trump admires, as is her formidable presence. It’s only when Omarosa clashes with an even more formidable opponent—whether it’s Morgan, who was able to challenge the strength of her “celebrity,” or crafty White House staffers—that she folds.
Omarosa’s turn to Celebrity Big Brother probably amuses Trump, because Omarosa knows better than to say anything truly damaging on national television and it gives people another reason to talk about him. Due to the very public nature of her ousting, most conversations with Omarosa will involve a mention of Trump and there’s no way he isn’t absolutely okay with that. It’s why most of the people fired from his administration—and his large adult sons—slink off to the press so often. The only way to curry favor with Trump is to stroke his ego and keep him part of the cultural conversation. And what better way to do so than a reality TV competition, especially since he used to run one himself? I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump was tuning in with a few cheeseburgers and rooting for her.
The odd thing about Omarosa is that she’s never come across as genuine—save for the brief period following the death of her partner Michael Clarke Duncan in 2012. She’s always seemed like she’s up to no good, and part of the fun is that you know she’s gaming you. It’s why reality television is her preferred modus operandi—taped confessionals allow her to break the fourth wall and deliver soliloquies about her true motives. In the White House, without such an outlet, she was but one of the trio bewitching Macbeth, creating chaos without any discernible motivation.
The reactions to Omarosa’s appearance in the Celebrity Big Brother house are varied. The only person who truly loathes her is E! personality and RuPaul’s Drag Race co-host Ross Mathews. Everyone else appears to be in a state of shock, but it’s a game, and most of the women are willing to align themselves with Omarosa in order to win (none more surprising than American Pie actress Shannon Elizabeth, who takes to Omarosa like a bee to honey). Perhaps the most surreal moment of the evening was discovering that there are people in this country who have no idea who Omarosa is—or her Trumptastic origin story.
In an interaction with former Big Time Rush band member James Maslow, Omarosa is asked what reality show she used to be on. “The Apprentice,” she replies. “And who were you apprenticing for?” he asks. “Donald Trump,” she says, incredulous. Omarosa immediately begins gunning for Maslow, of course, both because she perceives his lack of awareness as a “threat,” and far more importantly, her ego.
Omarosa initially attempts to play down her return to television when the other contestants are around, but you can see the madness waiting to burst at every turn. Her first appearance in a pre-recorded package has her wearing a pink ball gown, immediately demanding your attention. She knows she’s the biggest “get” of the season and she’s playing it up. She enters the house in a black, almost sheer dress, perfectly matched with her lipstick. She wants to be the star, but she’s also incredibly competitive and wants to win, so she’s laying low for now as she gathers an all-female alliance to take out the men in the house. It’s shocking how mundane she is and how utterly unperturbed I am to witness her back at it.
But perhaps it’s because the villainy that’s gone on in the White House has been so brazen, so unrepentant, that it all feels like…camp? Trump aside, there are so many White House figures who strike me as commedia dell’arte characters rather than actual human beings. You might be sickened by their behavior, but when they turn up on a reality television show they somehow appear less threatening. Are they real? It’s why it’s so easy to watch Omarosa slide back into reality television like her stint in the White House never happened—like it’s the punchline of a long-forgotten joke.
Trump is for sure watching Omarosa on Celebrity Big Brother and he’s probably taking notes on how to make us like him again when all this is over.