Michael Sophocles: 'Of course I know kosher'
The failed Apprentice candidate, who embarrassed himself on national TV with his lack of kashrut knowledge, sees his next task as learning to become more Jewish
For once, Michael Sophocles is not talking. Instead, he is thinking. And the subject he is mulling over is what, precisely, he gained from appearing on BBC1’s The Apprentice. The answer, when it comes, is surprising. After weeks of competing in Britain’s most popular reality-television show, trying and ultimately failing to persuade Sir Alan Sugar that he was worthy of a £100,000-a-year job, Sophocles has got himself a new ambition — to be more Jewish.
Not before time, perhaps, given that, for millions of television viewers, he will be forever known as the self-proclaimed “nice Jewish boy” who did not know what a kosher chicken was — something, he confesses now, he is still “embarrassed” about.
The first step along the road to reconnecting with his roots, he says, will be to find a role in Jewish journalism. He may have been fired by Sir Alan — but he wants to be hired by the Jewish Chronicle. “I’d like to write for the JC,” he says, “doing film reviews.”
Sophocles’s relationship with his Jewishness has not always been easy. Brought up in Colindale, North-West London, the son of a Jewish mother and Greek Cypriot father, he admits: “I have had my run-ins with North London Jewish people.”
He adds: “Sometimes I felt when I was growing up in and among Jewish people, I found that they were not open-minded about embracing people from different backgrounds. Although they had their reasons for doing that, North London Jews are quite insular people. I believe there is a difference between being Jewish and being a North London Jew.”
His family never celebrated the festivals, and he himself was not barmitzvahed. “I suppose at the time it was a little bit strange, but in the end was never an issue,” he says.
He did, however, visit Israel as a 16-year-old. “I never bothered to find out anything [about Jewish culture], which was laziness on my side. But I went on tour to Israel with the Reform Synagogue youth group, and I did learn a lot. I loved it, because I love meeting new people, and I felt that back home I didn’t look at myself as a complete Jew.”
He confesses to having felt alienated from his fellow Jews in London. “I didn’t feel that I belonged,” he says. “I was judged by a lot of people and sometimes they thought I looked like an Arab, and that was strange for me. I guess that’s why I strayed away from it all.
“But The Apprentice has taught me that I need to learn more. I do plan to go to lectures [on Jewish topics], and I probably will end up marrying a Jewish girl, which is something I would be really happy to do. I think my parents want to see me marry a Jewish girl, but ultimately want me to be happy.”
Sophocles lasted ten weeks on The Apprentice, impressing Sir Alan sufficiently for the tycoon to spot elements of his younger self in the motormouth 25-year-old telesales executive. But having survived the infamous chicken fiasco — when he asked a halal butcher in a Marrakesh souk to bless a chicken to make it kosher — he was finally shown the door after failing spectacularly in a car-hire task.
“People always ask me, did I enjoy The Apprentice?. Enjoy is not the right word. It was certainly the hardest and most rewarding time of my life. There were moments of despair and tearful times, and it was very sad for me in the end, because I just couldn’t give any more.” For someone who started the series bragging about his “effortless charm”, failure has been a chastening experience. “I have definitely learnt to be more humble about things that I thought that I was exceptional at,” he says, before adding: “It’s also taught me to make as much money as you can at an early age, which is something I’ve always tried to do.”
He insists that he has “no regrets” about his performance on the show — except for that humiliating chicken moment. So, what happened there, then?
“About three weeks before I went on the show, I was watching The Weakest Link on TV and there was a question which was: ‘Define the word kosher’,” he says. “And the answer to that was ‘to be made properly’. That’s all it meant to me. So my naivety was not knowing or thinking for one second that there would be a Jewish quarter in a Muslim country. The most embarrassing thing about it was that I really didn’t think I did anything wrong. But of course I know what kosher means. I’m not stupid, I’m an intelligent person.”
It was not until he was on the plane back to London that he realised that he could be heading for trouble in Sugar’s boardroom. “We were told that two things had gone wrong, but I didn’t think it was that. When Sir Alan Sugar said to me: ‘Do you not know what kosher meant?’, I just said no. In the end, though, I am glad it happened, because you learn from these things. So now I am going to learn about being Jewish.”
One person who was even less impressed with his lack of kashrut knowledge was his mother. “She was a little bit upset,” Sophocles says, “more because of the way everyone reacted towards it. I mean, I got a lot of calls from people who somehow got my number, and they gave me a lot of abuse about it. But people make mistakes in life, and that was mine.”
Sophocles’s first impression of the man who ultimately fired him was, he says, “disappointing”.
“At the photo shoot where we first met Sir Alan, I remember he literally came in for five minutes and didn’t even shake our hands or say hello, took the photos and just walked out.”
“At first, I thought: ‘Come on, you could have at least said hello, we’ve just been through all this to get here.’ But then again, I thought it doesn’t really work for him to get into a conversation with us.
“He’s an acquired taste and he likes people who stand up for themselves. And with me, there was a little bit of begging in front of him in the boardroom — but there was a little bit of everything with me.”
Sophocles admits that Sugar was right to fire him when he did. But he believes that had he been more “on his game”, he could have survived a lot longer in the series, perhaps even making it to the final. Comparing himself with the other candidates, he says he was “a lot wiser than Jenni Maguire, Jenny C [Celerier], Raef [Bjayou], and I could have even given [finalist] Helene [Speight] a run for her money as well.
“I honestly feel I deserved to go when I did, not because of my performance in the boardroom, which I always thought in my opinion was pretty damn good. But because I really didn’t perform in some of the tasks.
“I never had any issues with the other candidates. It was only how they manipulated the editing which made it look like that. Like when Raef was fired. It was made to look like I put him in it. But we knew that I didn’t, and me and Raef are still very good friends. We are very similar people, and are very artistic.
“I found it hard at times to fit in, and it wasn’t because of how young I was, but more about how long I’ve been out there in the real world.”
One person Sophocles says he does respect is the eventual winner, Lee McQueen. “Lee will benefit the most from the job, and [fellow finalist] Claire [Young] didn’t even need to win it. I am glad he got this chance, because he never failed to do his job. And in the Marrakesh task, he did a bloody good job compared to Jenni. He even managed to find a Jewish quarter because he looked on the map. I never saw a map.”
The Apprentice candidates famously pledge to give 110 per cent, or even more, to achieve the goal of winning a job with Sir Alan. With hindsight, Sophocles admits there were times when his determination dipped a little. “There were days when you wanted the job, and days when you wondered what the job even was,” he says.
But he insists his motivation had nothing to do with the six-figure salary that went with the position. “Something that did annoy me was that they said Lucinda was the highest-paid candidate. I was the highest-paid candidate, I was on over £120,000 a year before the show. So I didn’t need the money. I could have stayed in telesales and done that, but I think the real reason I did The Apprentice was because of the experience.”
Immediately after leaving the show, Sophocles expressed a desire to get into directing, undeterred by his experience of being asked to make a television commercial for tissues and failing to mention the product. This ambition was dented, however, when he was told “personally by Sir Alan to return to sales”.
He is now back with his former employers, EMP, although he has been promoted to a management position.
His confidence, some might say arrogance, remains intact. “The thing about me is that I am a politician, and a practical person who is really thick-skinned,” he says. “Forget about Raef being the person who is great with the spoken word. I am great with the spoken word. I’m the person who can get basically everyone looking at me and believe in me, and that is my one talent.
“I have absolutely no regrets about The Apprentice at all. I actually think I did everything, and am so happy I got as far as I got and got to show my real character.”