Melody Hossaini, the apparent lovechild of Galileo Galilei and David Brent, kicks off this year’s Apprentice with a profound statement on the nature of human endeavour. “Don’t tell me the sky’s the limit, when there are footprints on the moon”, she advises us. Probably a tip she picked up from the Dalai Lama, by whom she was ‘personally taught’ along with ’12 other Nobel peace prize winners.’
Hooray! The Apprentice is back, and this series looks to be just as glorious as the previous ones. There’s £250k on offer from the big man, and twelve weeks of human tragedy, drama and all-out absurdity to savour, with a business lesson given away free with each episode and perhaps unusually for this type of show, it’s the candidates that spout the motivational rubbish and not the so-called ‘expert.’
“Self help through the magic of television” is pretty standard on fare on our screens. I’ve worked in this genre for many years and I do believe there are many truly helpful and insightful programmes of this type. Television experts can often offer a unique perspective on a problem and the directness of the medium means it can often achieve results when other methods fail. But there is one particular strain of TV self improvement that leaves me cold. The Empowering Programmes.
Any mention of empowerment in the pre-titles of a television show is a surefire clue that something demeaning is about to take place. It’s a word that nobody ever uses unless they are about to do, or more commonly, persuade someone else to do, something undignified or unwise. The verbal equivalent of an Andrex advert, rebranding wiping your bum into a litter of cute puppies. And there is one TV expert who has no equal in the Dark Arts of Empowerment. Gok Wan.
How to Look Good Naked, Wan’s flagship show, is, in many ways, like the most memorable Apprentice episodes, the Kosher Chicken or the Pantsman ones, in which the candidates take it upon themselves to do something which can only be described as a Very Bad Idea. The ensuing hilarity is best watched in the ‘turned away from the screen, hands covering eyes’ position shouting “oh God! No!” repeatedly, until ‘Lord Sugar’ steps in and puts an end to the cringefest by telling the candidates that their idea was “blahdy stupid.”
In HTLGN, the contributors also run headlong into acts of dizzying foolishness, but in their case, rather than Gok’s rescuing them from their unfolding indignity, he’s the one pushing them into it in the first place.
For anyone unfamiliar with the format, the basic shtick is as follows. A woman (invariably a woman and more of that later) is living a life of drudgery or tragedy, often involving some combination of a bad marriage and disfiguring surgery. Loathing her life and her body, she calls in Gok, who turns up in the self-righteous manner of a fourth emergency service. After a bit of shilly-shallying with emotional journeys and suchlike, Gok somehow manages to convince the woman that the best way to solve her 40 odd years of complex psychological issues is to remove her clothes and march through a shopping centre, naked.
Astonishingly, not only does the woman actually agree to this loony plan, but also, in what can only be some variant of Stockholm Syndrome, more often than not, falls in love with Gok for suggesting it.
Given that ‘Naked in a Shopping Centre’ is a scenario that for most of us is drawn directly from Page 1 of the Bad Dream Book, in between “Naked in School Assembly” and “All my Teeth Have Fallen Out”, it does beg the question as to how on earth Gok repeatedly manages to carry out this triumph of persuasion over human reason.
The first step is always a naked therapy session. The woman strips down to her bra and knickers, then stands under powerful fluorescent lighting in front of a 360 degree mirror. “What do you think about what you see?” asks Gok. At this point, confronted with the sight of her drooping boobs or flabby stomach reflected back at her in triplicate high definition, the woman usually breaks down in tears. She hates her body, her marriage, her life. Gok composes his face in a mask of powerful empathy, then grabs at her breasts and bottom and tells her, usually inaccurately, that she looks fabulous.
He then gets some giant naked pictures of her printed up, and touts them around town, cornering teenage boys and strong-arming them into trotting out a few unrealistic compliments. By this point, the woman is well on the way to emotional recovery, repeatedly telling the camera how empowering she finds the whole experience of being patronised by a bunch of teenagers. Then the Saviour of Modern Womanhood buys her a pair of magic knickers, teaches her to knot a jaunty scarf around her neck and having healed her thus, he pats her on the bottom and sends her off to Romford Shopping Centre to parade naked in front of a crowd of roaring admirers. While he watches, fully clothed, from the sidelines.
I know that I am alone in finding this whole pantomime deeply unpleasant. Most people seem to view Gok as a feminist hero and women queue up to appear on his shows. But to me, Gok’s shopping-centre shenanigans are not much better than the swimsuit section of a 1950s small town beauty pageant, and his faux-empathy and patronising tone are a lot worse. At least the pageant girls retained a little dignity.
It is no accident that Gok’s victims (or ‘Gokettes’ as he nauseatingly refers to them) are all women. Women, unlike men, are still judged primarily on how they look, and in particular, how they look naked. And instead of doing anything to challenge this assumption, to suggest that there might be any other criteria for confidence or self worth, Gok reinforces it.
He puts women’s bodies up for public appraisal and judges their worth on the result. The only difference is that he widens the net a little to include more body shapes, and stacks the deck to make sure that no one says anything nasty. I’m all for body confidence, but asking people to judge your naked body on the street is not empowering, it’s demeaning.
Lord Sugar’s tough-talking boardrooms are about as far as you can get from Wan’s kissy-kissy therapy love-ins. But ultimately I believe that Sugar pays his candidates more genuine respect. Despite his gruffness, or perhaps because of it, Sugar is never insincere and he doesn’t patronise. And crucially, he doesn’t ask his apprentices to do anything he hasn’t, or wouldn’t do himself. It’s “I got my start in life selling beetroots out of my van, now I want you to go and sell beetroots.” If the candidates then choose to then go and do something silly, that is not Sugar’s fault.
I can guarantee that you will never hear Gok Wan saying: “I launched my career parading through Essex wearing nothing but a garland of feathers on my penis.” And the reason for that? Because doing so is a blahdy stupid idea.