Enron Corp.'s collapse and the deflating of the dot-com bubble led many to predict the demise of the "Celebrity CEO." If only they had known: Waiting in the wings was the High Priest of Hype, Donald J. Trump. A master at hawking his own brand, Trump, 58, discovered reality TV and used it to become the best-recognized and possibly most celebrated chief executive in America. The hoopla surrounding his tube persona was all the more amazing considering that, back in the real world, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts Inc. (DJTCQ ) filed for bankruptcy on Nov. 21 and has long had a poor-performing stock. Ever the optimist, Trump calls the move a success. "I'm restructuring the debt," he says, asserting that the casinos account for less than 1% of his total net worth.
Indeed, Trump the icon has become a national phenomenon. As many as 41.5 million people have tuned in to his hit TV show, The Apprentice. His new line of $500 suits is a top-seller at Macy's (FD ), while his $60 men's fragrance has broken sales records at Marshall Field's (MAY ). Meanwhile, he has cranked out best-selling books, a new board game, magazines -- even a 12-inch doll that spouts such Trumpisms as "You're Fired." The biography on The Apprentice Web site calls him "the archetypal businessman -- a deal-maker without peer and an ardent philanthropist."
Such hyperbole might make the average human blush, but not Trump. He tries to be modest about himself in conversation, but his enthusiasm for all things Trump soon bubbles over. "This has become the best brand," he says. Although he prides himself first as a builder of top-notch properties, he has long recognized the power of myth in building up his largely private real estate empire. The son of developer Fred Trump, The Donald became famous for his relentless self-promotion. It has paid off. In New York, analysts say that the name Trump instantly commands a 25% premium on the apartments he develops -- even as the ostentatious structures inspire the wrath of some neighbors. Other developers pay him millions to put his name on their buildings, and his company is now flooded with licensing offers, including one for an upscale Trump casket (he declined).
Perhaps it's fitting that a brash, flawed entrepreneur should be the hero of working Americans. At a time when rival billionaires drive jeeps and wear blue jeans, Trump vindicates gaudy wealth. While others may fret about corporate corruption, Trump glorifies business as an almost heroic pursuit. Indeed, he argues that The Apprentice celebrates business itself. "Nobody thought a show based on business would ever work, except perhaps on CNBC," says Trump. "But people can't get enough of it." For millions of TV viewers and readers of his books, Trump personifies the savvy businessman many aspire to be -- including, perhaps, Trump himself.