Sophocles: How I got on to The Apprentice

As Britain’s favourite reality TV show returns, Michael Sophocles reveals the gruelling selection process he went through to become a candidate in the last series

March 19, 2009
Michael Sophocles (below) faced testing interviews and challenges to win the chance to impress Sir Alan Sugar and his helpers

Michael Sophocles (below) faced testing interviews and challenges to win the chance to impress Sir Alan Sugar and his helpers

As soon as I saw the third series of The Apprentice [in spring 2007] I thought, this is for me; I’ve got to apply. I was at work at a telesales company and I was looking at the BBC Apprentice website. Our secretary came up to me and said: “Why don’t you go for it?” I thought: “Do you know what? I’m going to do it.”

You have to apply online while the previous series is on. It’s a quick Q&A where they ask you rudimentary questions such as your name, age and why you think you should be in the show.

After about four weeks, at the end of July 2007, I received an email from the production company Talkback Thames, saying, well done, you’ve got through to the auditions. I was overwhelmed.

They were being held over three days at the St George’s Hotel in London. I got there early, and I remembered I had constipation! I had to bring my CV with me and a form which they had sent asking about 20 very personal questions, like: “What’s the worst lie you ever told?” and “Would you accept £10,000 if it ruined your relationship with your best friend?”

As a kind of quip, I wrote: “I’m a nice Jewish boy.” That’s where Sir Alan got his information from [when he mentioned it during the series]. They don’t miss a trick. All that information gets redirected to him.

At the hotel, I was so nervous. Around 25,000 applied online and I think about 5,000 people got through the preliminary rounds. There were people there who were wearing ridiculous outfits. You could tell that some people were treating it like a Big Brother audition. I was thinking to myself: “You’re not going to get in by being purely individual. This is a business show.”

Ten of us were escorted into a room. They arranged us in a line like a we were going to get shot by a firing squad. My heart was pounding. There was a number in front of us. I had 10, I remember. They asked us to say in 10 seconds why we should be on the show. I can’t remember my exact words but I stepped forward and said: “I am the most unnaturally ruthless person you’re going to come across and if you want someone who is going to make great TV together with being a good business chap, put me through to the next stage of these auditions.”

When everyone had spoken, they said: “Could numbers one, eight, nine and 10 step forward? Can the rest of you step back?”

We were led into another room and the guy there said: “Congratulations, you’re through to the next round.” The way they did it was like something in a movie.

The next part was the easiest, actually. They took eight or nine of us into yet another room. It looked like one of those wartime operations centres with women — all very sexy — wearing headsets. There were cameras dotted about.

I sat down and one of these beautiful woman asked me easy questions about myself — why do you want to be on the show, etc. I could tell that she was getting excited, thinking I’d be good for the show. She beckoned to someone to take me to the next room, where I was introduced to this American woman. At this stage I didn’t know who anyone was or what was really going on.

This was probably the hardest interview I had in the whole process. The American woman was really direct with me. She asked things like: “By looking at you and your body language, I don’t think you’re up for this.” I could see was trying to bring out the hard side in me. This is when you start playing up to it. I’m not a nasty person but you start saying things that you know they want to hear. So I said: “I’m completely ruthless. I’m completely right for this show.” At the end of the interview, she said to an assistant: “Right, can you take Michael. I think that they should see him.”

All the time, you’re not allowed to speak to any of the other candidates. When we went on to the next stage, we were ushered down this corridor to some big mahogany doors. They looked like the entrance to a castle. I was sitting opposite Kevin Shaw [who also got on to the show]. It was serendipitous. We kept trying to talk to each other and our chaperone kept saying: “Sorry, can you not do that? I can’t give you a reason.” They were like that during the whole series.

People were led through these massive brown doors into this room and the doors slammed shut. There were other people being led in a different direction. No -one knew what was going on in there.

We went through to the next room. There was a long red carpet stretching away with a desk at the end. I felt dwarfed by it all. It was very grandiose. Three people were sitting at the desk: a chap with silver hair who I never saw again; the series producer, Kelly Webb-Lamb; and senior producer Alisa Pomeroy. They asked some tough questions — “so you went to Edinburgh, that’s not a great university. Shouldn’t you have gone to Oxford if you’re that bright? And the job that you do, telesales, that’s not very challenging. Anyone can do that, can’t they?”

I’ve never performed as well as I did in that interview. You’ve got to remember to stand up for yourself. So I said: “I can understand how telesales has a negative stigma attached to it, but I challenge any of you in this room to do it as well as I do and to make as much money as I do.”

Then, like something out of Agatha Christie, they beckoned to the chaperone: “We want Michael to be filmed, if that’s all right.” I was elated.

They took me down to the basement, where a girl filmed me. She said: “This tape may be seen by Sir Alan Sugar so I want you to be a bit more laid back and more yourself.”

The last thing I was told was that if I heard from them, I would be through to the next stage; if I didn’t, I wouldn’t. I remember coming out of the hotel calling all my friends and saying: “I got through to the last part. I’ve got a really good feeling about this.” I felt really, really happy. There was a lot of adrenalin, I’d really been through it.

After about a week I got a call from Alisa. “Congratulations, you’re through to the second stage,” she told me. It was amazing. I was at work — I screamed anyway. She went on: “This is when things become really serious. Keeping quiet is absolutely paramount.”

I told my parents and no one else.

The second round of auditions were held at the BBC. It was really horrific. There were about 60 or 70 people left by this stage. I thought afterwards that I didn’t get in. It was really hard. I went into a small studio where Alisa and Kelly were waiting. There were 12 of us — six guys and six girls. Kevin was there, so was Claire Young, who also made it to the show.

We had to perform a number of tasks. For the first one, Alisa asked us to line up according to height, without talking. She then said: “Without talking, can you line yourself up according to how much you think everybody earns, with the most first?’

Then we had a selling task — I had to persuade the others to buy a necklace with the name Stephanie on it. I remember thinking: “Think QVC, think QVC.” I put the necklace on one of the girls and said: “Look how amazingly beautiful this necklace looks around a slender neck like this one. This necklace is made from such and such.” Before I knew it, the time was up. I had talked such gobbledygook.

The next task was completely random. We had to go in another room and write an essay in 40 minutes. You are an MP running for a local constituency. What policies would you implement? And what policies would you change from the current Government? I thought: “If I want to individualise myself, I’d better put down some pretty extremist opinions.” So I suggested low taxes for high earners, the reintroduction of corporal punishment, and adoption of the euro. It doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you stand out.

Finally, we were all brought back together to discuss topics suggested by Alisa and Kelly. The first discussion was about whether 13-year-old girls should be prescribed the pill on the NHS. And I came up the most beautiful line. I stayed quiet until Alisa asked: “Michael, what do you think?” I said: “Do you know what, Alisa? I’m completely apathetic.” And that is when I knew I’d got on the show. At the end, Alisa told us: “Some of you will get through to the next stage. From now on, you can’t divulge anything you have said.” The next part was being interviewed by a psychiatrist to make sure I wasn’t mentally unstable. She made a quick appraisal and gave it to the production team.

Two days later, they called my referees — my sales director at work and my personal fitness trainer. I heard a week later that I was through. Alisa called to wish me congratulations. I put down the phone and screamed out loud. I was at work and my mum was waiting to pick me up outside. When I told her she started crying. I was ecstatic.

The Apprentice starts on Wednesday on BBC1 at 9pm. Michael Sophocles was interviewed by Alex Kasriel

Last updated: 2:11pm, March 19 2009