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'Celebrity Apprentice' recap: NeNe Leakes, would you be 'my girl' too?

March 28, 2011 |  7:45 am

NUP_143137_0028 (1)NeNe Leakes stepped forward, and Dionne Warwick got put in her place.

"Celebrity Apprentice" on Sunday night could pretty much be boiled down to that, as the men continued on their merry -- and winning -- way, and infighting continued to plague the women. And it goes without saying, it was a great show. The evening only confirmed my respect and adoration of Leakes and, of course, Marlee Matlin.

The two called each other "my girls." Of all the women on "Celebrity Apprentice" this season, I would have said the two of them may have been the least likely to be kindred spirits. But they share the willingness to work hard in contributing to a team that seems prone to cannibalizing itself.

It was so fantastic to see the NeNe Leakes I know and love from "Real Housewives of Atlanta" finally come into her own, especially this week as project manager. Unlike so many characters of reality television who fit into one box, Leakes really is in a league of her own -- is she the strong-willed villain? Is she the softie who cannot stand up to a legend? Or is this all some kind of act?

She shows herself to be complicated and, ultimately, human and grounded (as much as possible in reality television). The weird thing is, she is a creation of reality TV; she's not a has-been celebrity or a one-time legend in her twilight. This is her celebrity. What endeared her to the "Housewives" audience is that she managed simultanously to be fierce and vulnerable, shrewd and naive. 

She's raw, she's real. 

We saw that as she took the reins as project manager this week. Both teams had to create a commercial advertising a videophone system (anyone heard of Skype?) and then have it judged by sales representatives for the company.

Leakes, leading the women, took the safe route. Their commercial turned out quite well -- it was heartfelt, and Matlin demonstrated that she was an awesome actress by illiciting a visceral reaction within a short clip. 

But the men took a big risk and reaped a big reward when it worked: They went for the funny bone, casting Jose Canseco in eyeliner. (Because of a wardrobe malfunction, we were also blurrily introduced to "Big Wednesday," as Gary Busey calls his "apparatus." But let's go ahead and try to forget that.)

It was a close call, according to the Donald, but the men -- Team Backbone -- narrowly clinched another win. 

For the women, it highlighted the fact that the wrong people had been sent home for the last two weeks. With the class and contributions of Niki Taylor and Lisa Rinna absent, it was apparent that this band of teammates really shouldn't be there: Hope Dworaczyk has been nothing more than a piece of furniture on the show; La Toya Jackson tries but doesn't have all that much to offer; and Warwick -- well, let's talk about Dionne Warwick.

Who knew she was such a villain? She wears her legend status on her sleeve and contributes little. "As matriarch of the group, I deserved a little reprieve," she said pompously. Um, no -- she was neither the matriarch, nor did she earn her "reprieve." (Someone seems to have borrowed Camille Grammer's playbook from "Real Housewives," which happens to be a thesaurus.) 

And in my recollection -- I might be wrong, so please tell me your interpretation in the comments -- I don't think she asked  for permission to retire for the evening. As I recall, she went up to Leakes with her arms out to give her a hug and said she was going home. There was no question. 

That's where we saw the timid NeNe. She disapproved, but she didn't dare confront the legend. (I agree with her call — why start World War III with Warwick when it would have been more productive just to get the job done?)

The whole episode simply reinforced the reasons why I love Leakes on "Housewives." Her ability to speak the truth is remarkable. She was particularly brutal with Jackson: "Yeah, she's sweet but she can't tell you one plus one." As for her job of keeping track of time: Leakes said of Jackson that her 11-year-old son could have done that. 

In a cast full of people deluded about how marvelous they are, it's pleasantly refreshing to have someone who seems to be figuring out who she is and has the raw ambition to do everything to turn it into something big. Her breaking down in the boardroom, shedding tears of real emotion. Or the giddiness she showed as she worked for the first time as a director and how much fun she had yelling, "Quiet on the set!"

Most, if not all, of those people have had a troubled past or rough patches in their lives, but many of them have figured out how to manipulate that as a part of the narrative of their career and their life. Questionable relationships, publicity blunders or failure -- they've been boiled down to another bullet point to list next to their Emmy nominations. But Leakes' roots are close to the surface. It's abundantly clear that she is driven to make something of her future because of the things in her past. 

That's why the contrast between Leakes and Warwick was so stark in the boardroom. Warwick was cocky, acting as though she had nothing to lose. She thought she was being a snake, slithering past the criticism of her teammates by so assuredly putting her neck on the line. It caught her off guard when the Donald actually swung the ax. 

As they left the boardroom, Warwick had the nerve to call Leakes a "coward." She had it all wrong -- she's the one who was a quitter, she's the one who failed to follow through for her charity, she's the one who displayed the behavior of a coward. Leakes may still be figuring out the ropes of this whole celebrity thing and may have not have her path mapped out (I vote talk show). But when she finds her way, I'm confident she will prove to be the legend. 

***

What do you think? Did Dionne Warwick ask for permission to leave as she claims? And should the Donald have taken up her offer to be the one shown the door -- or should it have been La Toya? Or maybe someone else?

Next week, it looks like they might have a reprieve as the men have a little drama of their own, if the promos of a Meat Loaf meltdown are to be believed.

-- Rick Rojas

Photo: NeNe Leakes directs a commercial in her turn as project manager on "Celebrity Apprentice." Credit: Douglas Gorenstein / NBC 

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