Wide Angle

The Omarosa Effect

It’s hard to overstate the enormous—and damaging—cultural influence of history’s greatest reality TV villain.

Omarosa smiling broadly.
Omarosa Manigault in New York City on May 20, 2004.
Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage for Fingerprint Communications

As Omarosa has been making the cable news rounds to promote her new book, she’s presented herself as a martyr whose well-intentioned efforts to use her influence to effect change in the black community were thwarted by a corrupt White House. In an effort to show herself as a scorned but resilient black woman, she is painting herself as a victim of misperception and misinformation. In a recent interview with Newsweek, when questioned about how African American women have responded to her recent resistance to Trump, Omarosa said, “Across the board, women have applauded my strength and have been inspired.”

This new persona—relatively reserved, confident but conciliatory—is barely recognizable to anyone who watched Omarosa’s turn as the sole black woman on the first season of The Apprentice in 2004. Also surprising is her new self-professed allegiance to black women writ large, as she is notorious for being culturally tone-deaf and completely out for herself. While Omarosa’s willingness to do whatever it took to get what she wanted made her a formidable contestant on a reality competition show, it also, of course, made her universally disliked.

It’s hard to know exactly how much of the characterization of Omarosa on The Apprentice—manipulative and untrustworthy, conniving and contradictory—was her own willful creation, and how much was manipulated and edited by producers. But Omarosa, whose impressive real-life pre-Apprentice credentials included working for Al Gore during his vice presidency, has said that the cameras focused on her specifically when she was acting aggressive or competitive, instead of when she was trying to collaborate. Producers also allegedly pushed her to angrily interrupt a board meeting in one notable scene. Her persona eventually took on a life of its own, becoming a trope that drew on cultural assumptions and fears about ambitious black women as self-centered and mean-spirited. Omarosa went on to capitalize on her “angry black woman” image and became not just the first recognizable black female reality star, but a villainous archetype that has cast an incredibly long shadow over the past decade and a half of TV.

Omarosa did not invent the stereotype of the “angry black woman.” Popularized in the mid-1900s, this trope rose to prominence on black sitcoms in the late 20th century with memorable characters like Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son, Florence Johnston on The Jeffersons, Pam James on Martin, and Maya Wilkes on Girlfriends. But she was the first to make it into a personal brand. After The Apprentice, in an effort to maintain relevance, Omarosa furthered her bad black woman depiction by appearing in the failed dating competition show The Ultimate Merger, where 12 men competed for her affections, claiming to not be intimidated or put off by her exaggerated manner. (“Is there anybody that can tame you?” Donald Trump asked her in the show’s pilot.) The show, which aired on TV One with the likely intention of reaching the same demographic that made Flavor of Love the No. 1 program on VH1, ultimately failed to entice viewers and was canceled after two seasons. Omarosa would continue to emerge on assorted reality shows, including Celebrity Apprentice and Celebrity Big Brother, always cast as the “black bitch.”

The trope that Omarosa made famous has since been taken up by other black women on reality shows seeking an easy route to reality TV celebrity. Many of them have imitated Omarosa’s brash, dismissive arrogance and antagonism toward other characters—you could call it the “Omarosa effect.” Take Tiffany Pollard, aka New York, whose audacious and backhanded behavior toward other women on Flavor of Love included gaslighting, bad-mouthing, and manipulating. Or Nene Leakes, whose mean-girl antics on and off camera on The Real Housewives of Atlanta have made her both famous and infamous. Or Moniece Slaughter, who is widely known for picking fights, starting rumors, and throwing drinks at castmates on Love & Hip Hop: Hollywood. Often, the Omarosa type manages to alienate all the alliances she has and finds herself—at the end of an episode, a season, or a reunion—entirely alone.

But a defining distinction between Omarosa and the women who followed her is that unlike her imitators who appeared on cable networks that catered to a predominantly black audience, Omarosa’s first performance was viewed by a predominantly white audience, making the implications of her unpopularity immediately racialized. She was performing for white viewers, knowing black people might see her, while later black women reality stars were and are performing for a black audience, knowing white people might see them. These more recent reality stars are catering to viewers who instinctively understand black culture and the performances of ratchetness that are often part of a black working-class aesthetic—and this has allowed them, even as they play with the Omarosa archetype, to ultimately appear as a kind of anti-Omarosa: someone who is redeemable despite her antics.

In addition, Omarosa has always appeared on competition reality shows, whereas many of these other women were on reality series that allowed them to be seen in more complex ways, making them more relatable and less alienating. Ironically, some parts of Omarosa’s character—her self-assurance and unapologetic attitude—have been taken up by women of color on reality TV in ways that celebrate womanhood and resilience. K. Michelle from VH1’s Love & Hip Hop franchise has Omarosa’s confidence, but she has also been refreshingly open about challenges in her private life—including her health challenges as a result of body modification—with the self-declared goal of helping other women. Basketball Wives Evelyn Lozada, who moved on, briefly, to her own show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, attempted to repair her image by highlighting her role as a mother instead of her fractured female friendships. Kenya Moore, who rose to fame for her antagonistic behavior on The Real Housewives of Atlanta, gained empathizers when it was revealed that she was repeatedly rejected by her birth mother, became involved with an abusive partner, and dealt with fertility challenges. Even Joseline Hernandez, the villain from VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, was given a special episode to document the birth of her daughter and showcase a vulnerable and sensitive side to her personality. Such glimpses into the interior lives of these women feel humanizing rather than exploitative.

The Omarosa archetype, though, has done real harm to cultural representations of black women in general, and to Omarosa herself. Like the archetype of the “strong black woman” (i.e., Olivia Pope), Omarosa and her imitators position themselves as impenetrable, unbreakable, and unemotional. Real black women are not that strong or magical or unaffected by pain. The Omarosa trope is what happens when your fear, anxiety, sadness, and vulnerability are edited out of the version of your life that everyone can see.

Omarosa once claimed in a “Where Are They Now?” interview with Oprah Winfrey, after becoming an ordained minister, that her TV persona is just a “character” she plays. But her reprised role as an unbothered, uncouth, self-serving opportunist has translated into her real life in real ways. Now, as she continues her book tour and attempts to rebrand what cannot be rebranded, she is suffering the consequences of a public persona designed for maximum drama and conflict. Omarosa, compared to many of the reality stars who followed her, never developed as a character over time. She was never seen in ways that didn’t frame her as vindictive and defensive. She has now lost all her credibility and influence in the black community, if she ever had any to begin with. Many people in the black community regard her as a sellout—not just because of the fact that she worked with Trump, but because of how fully she leaned into and profited from that “angry black woman” archetype.

Omarosa taught us to see her as a caricature whose calculating ways, business savvy, and money-seeking hustle took her from the boardroom to the penthouse to the White House. She really did win the prize she’d initially sought on a television show, but she got more than she bargained for. In real life as in reality TV, it’s not so easy to turn a villain into a victim.