Apprentice? More like Lord Sugar"s skivvy: How BBC show nearly wrecked Stella English"s life


Apprentice I was more like Sugar's skivvy: How reality TV show nearly wrecked Stella English's lifeWinner of 100k-a-year job from BBC series now suing Lord Sugar

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UPDATED:

09:06 GMT, 9 April 2012

Call it coincidence, call it irony, but the first thing that Stella English sees when she arrives at the hotel where we are to conduct our interview is a stack of magazines on the lobby table. On their covers loom the unmistakable features of Lord Sugar, publicising the latest series of The Apprentice.

‘Honestly, it’s like everywhere I turn he’s there,’ she says. ‘It drives me mad. The other day my five-year-old son got hold of my phone and managed to download something so that when I next looked at it there was Lord Sugar’s face, staring at me. I can’t seem to get away from him.’

She smiles ruefully, but really, Stella’s relationship with the former Amstrad tycoon is no laughing matter.

Stella English, winner of BBC show The Apprentice,

No laughing matter: Since becoming Lord Sugar's Apprentice, after winning the BBC series' business talent competition, Stella English's relationship with the tycoon has deteriorated

Until last year, the 32-year-old blonde, a former bank executive, was Lord Sugar’s anointed Apprentice, victor of the December 2010 series, and the sixth to clinch the 100,000-a-year executive role.

She believed it to be something of a golden ticket. But in September last year, two months shy of fulfilling her year-long contract, she resigned following a showdown with her supposed mentor which ended, she claims, with Lord Sugar telling her: ‘I don’t give a s***.’

Far from a stepping stone to even greater professional heights, she now says that applying for the series was one of the worst decisions of her life.

Hardly the endorsement the programme’s producers are looking for as the current series unfolds on our screens, one imagines, especially given that Stella was so unhappy with her experience that she is bringing legal proceedings against Lord Sugar for constructive dismissal — an action which is being contested.

All smiles then: Stella English now says her decision to apply for the TV show was one of the worst moves of her life

All smiles then: Stella English now says her decision to apply for the TV show was one of the worst moves of her life

She cannot comment on this publicly on the advice of her lawyers, but what is clear is that she has emerged from her truncated apprenticeship bruised and bewildered.

What she is decidedly not, apparently,
is cowed. In what some might see as cocking a rather defiant snook at
her former employer, she is now launching her own business — and intends
to employ an apprentice of her own.

‘A
real apprentice,’ as she puts it, archly. ‘Someone who will work with
me, by my side, and see how my business is run. They’ll get training and
will have a qualification when they leave. Basically, they’ll come out
of it in a much stronger position for their next move, whatever that
is.’

Sounds rather obvious
doesn’t it But Stella is adamant that her Apprentice experience is the
precise opposite: following her ten months under Lord Sugar’s tutelage,
she says she was left less employable than when she started.

‘Even
if I’d wanted to I couldn’t go back to banking because I’d been out of
the market too long and lost my qualifications,’ she says. ‘And I’d
effectively taken several steps back down the ladder. Ten years’ worth
really. It was very frustrating.’

Today,
Stella — who is much warmer and friendlier in the flesh than you might
imagine from watching her in the series — is anxious not to come across
as bitter. Nor is she interested in starting a slanging match.

‘In a funny way this isn’t about Lord
Sugar,’ she says. ‘Odd as it sounds, I do quite like him as an
individual — he can be quite funny and quite charming, and in a way I
wish I’d spent more time with him — that he’d taken me under his wing
more.

‘If he had, I don’t
think I would be in this situation. What I experienced had very little
to do with him — and that was the problem.’

Nonetheless,
you cannot get away from the fact that this was not the outcome she
expected, not least because in some ways Stella was a dream victor.

A tall, willowy blonde who became known for her calm demeanour under stress, she had been raised on a crime-ridden council estate by a series of relatives after being abandoned by her mother and then, through raw talent and determination, hauled herself up the corporate ladder.

/04/09/article-2127068-0B637571000005DC-856_634x317.jpg” width=”634″ height=”317″ alt=”Grueling: Stella English, pictured front, second from left, knew the process to become Lord Sugar's Apprentice would be a tough battle ” class=”blkBorder” />

Grueling: Stella English, pictured front, second from left, knew the process to become Lord Sugar's Apprentice would be a tough battle

Stella was under no illusions about
how gruelling the show would be — and endured her share of critical
headlines, which she says unfairly dragged her husband into the
spotlight.

‘I did it because
I think you should never stop pushing yourself,’ she says. ‘Yes, I had a
fantastic job, and I’d worked flat out through two pregnancies to prove
I wouldn’t let my employers down. I felt very valued, but I still
thought I could do more.

‘Obviously,
I absolutely believed it was a step up, otherwise why the hell would I
do it I had a high expectation of what I was going to get out of it —
maybe that was naivety on my part.’

In
fact, the rot had arguably set in before the episode in which Stella
was crowned the winner. /04/09/article-2127068-0B63B178000005DC-392_634x498.jpg” width=”634″ height=”498″ alt=”Competition: The competition was fierce among the female contenders vying to become Lord Sugar's Apprentice, from left, Laura Moore, Melissa Cohen, Paloma Vivanco, Liz Locke, Stella English, Joy Stefanicki, Sandeesh Samra, Joanna Riley” class=”blkBorder” />

Competition: The competition was fierce among the female contenders vying to become Lord Sugar's Apprentice, from left, Laura Moore, Melissa Cohen, Paloma Vivanco, Liz Locke, Stella English, Joy Stefanicki, Sandeesh Samra, Joanna Riley

‘It was way beneath my abilities and I was totally over-qualified for it. It was like turning the clock back ten years,’ she says.

Lord Sugar, meanwhile, was conspicuous by his absence, Stella adds.

‘The reality was that there were five layers of management between me and the person I’d gone to work for,’ she says. ‘I’d worked for senior people — chairmen of banks, heads of trading floors, so my expectation was that I would be doing the same here. Perhaps I was naive.’

While she stops short of saying she was shunned by her co-workers, it’s clear they didn’t welcome her with open arms. ‘In my old jobs you were part of a company and you’re almost like part of a family, but with this you are “The Apprentice”, and it’s quite isolating,’ she says.

Everyone else, of course, knew exactly
what she was earning — which was substantially more than them, in most
cases. That, too, caused problems.

‘If
you do a job that is worth what you’re earning, then people don’t care.
But if you do a job that isn’t, then it’s very difficult for people to
like you, and very difficult for the person concerned — in this case
me,’ she says. ‘It was basically an impossible situation.’

And
one which, unsurprisingly, took its toll at home. ‘It did cause a lot
of stress,’ she says. ‘I’m not much of one to cry, but at home I did
several times. There’s something very strange about the whole “be
careful what you wish for” thing. Suddenly, I had everything I wanted
and yet I felt completely hopeless, and I couldn’t understand why.

‘I
had a lot of sleepless nights and I even took up smoking again. The
point is that while on the one hand it’s work, on the other hand it’s
easy for employers to forget it’s people’s lives you’re dealing with.

‘The
way you treat them has a massive impact both on what they do and how
they feel. It can be very disheartening if you don’t look after them
properly.

Boardroom battle: Chris Bates was the last hurdle in Stella English's way to winning the final of the 2010 series

Boardroom battle: Chris Bates was the last hurdle in Stella English's way to winning the final of the 2010 series

‘It’s a basic responsibility as an employer to make sure people are happy and fulfilled,’ she adds.

‘If you had someone trained as a barrister, you wouldn’t have them running round making coffee all day — it’s demeaning.’

Stella concedes that while she spoke to Lord Sugar several times, she did not complain, partly because there seemed little point: on the one occasion she met him face to face to raise her worries about her role, he told her she was speaking to the wrong person and should go to Bordan Tkachuk, Viglen’s chief executive.

She did, but felt it didn’t get her anywhere and handed in her resignation, only to be contacted by Lord Sugar with a new job offer as Commercial Manager of YouView, a company of which he is chairman and which makes set-top boxes to connect to the internet.

She took it, hoping this might prove a turning point. ‘Ultimately, the last thing I wanted to do was walk away,’ she says.

But, Stella adds ruefully, the new role didn’t amount to much.

Row: Stella English claims, when she announced she was resigning in a final showdown, Lord Sugar told her: 'I don't give a s***'

Row: Stella English claims, when she announced she was resigning in a final showdown, Lord Sugar told her: 'I don't give a s***'

Save for a couple of appearances in the office, meanwhile, Lord Sugar once more disappeared off the radar until, in September, he summoned her for a meeting at his headquarters at which he pointed out her contract would be up in three months.

The conversation was tricky, she admits, and while she has no particular desire to revisit it she recalls that Lord Sugar told her he had ‘met his obligation to her’ while adding he didn’t ‘give a s***’ about what she did or didn’t do.

It’s clear it was unpleasant, although Stella acknowledges that these conversations are never easy.

‘People have lots of things going on and there’s lots of pressures and stresses, and maybe everyone says things they regret,’ she says.

However, there was no going back: in
the wake of the meeting, Stella drafted her resignation letter and has
not been back to the offices since.

‘I
felt pretty empty on the day,’ she acknowledges. ‘I left with no job,
and I did think: “What the hell am I going to do” At the same time I
knew I wanted to get back to work and get my life back.

‘I
also knew instinctively I needed to do something for myself, that I
didn’t want to work for anyone else again.’ The result is her own
business-fashion line, which she is in talks with a major department
store to stock.

‘I didn’t
have any fashion experience, but I needed to do something relatively
straightforward and I needed to sell. The idea came from the fact that
I’ve spent 18 years trying to find nice clothes that are suitable for
business but still flattering,’ she says.

Making
the leap hasn’t been easy. ‘I started from scratch in an industry I
know next to nothing about. I had to completely immerse myself in it,
working day and night, and it’s been tough,’ says Stella.

Money, too, has been tight. Whatever savings she made from that 100,000 salary have been plunged into her business, and with no income coming in — husband Ray looks after the children — the family finances sailed perilously close to the wind.

‘I had some additional funding but not enough, and over Christmas our house almost got repossessed. It was that close,’ she says. ‘I hope we’ve come through the worst of it, but it’s been sticky.’

Still, she feels confident enough to advertise for her own apprentice — a paid role, she insists, and one she will be taking seriously. So much so that she also sits on a parliamentary group which advises on how companies can make best use of them.

It meets at the House of Lords, which also plays host to another Apprentice-related character. ‘I do feel a bit anxious about the fact I might run into Lord Sugar whenever I’m there,’ she says. ‘I find myself wondering what I would do.

‘I guess I would smile and say hello, although I have no idea what the reaction would be to that. Put it this way, I think it would be awkward.’

A sentiment even Lord Sugar would struggle to disagree with.