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'On screen, I can come across as a bit blunt... that is not me at all'

Midway through The Apprentice series 13, Lord Sugar is still ruthless in the bid to find his latest business partner

By Georgia Humphreys

Suited and booted in the boardroom, a formidable business mogul, uttering that iconic line, "You're fired!": that's the image of Lord Alan Sugar I have in my head. And when I first meet him, looking at his body language alone, he lives up to those expectations.

He's leant right back on the sofa, his arms are crossed tightly across his chest, and he looks at me across the table, almost impatiently.

I'm half-expecting him to ask to see my CV, Apprentice-style. But you know what I didn't envision? Lord Sugar pedalling along on a bicycle.

"I fly airplanes, I cycle my bike," the 70-year-old TV star reveals. "I'm always a five-day-a-week man - weekends I never work, apart from special occasions, where there's exhibitions, or seminars, or something like that."

The London-born entrepreneur, who set up his first business - electronics company Amstrad - aged 21, also cracks more smiles than anticipated throughout our chat.

And he's especially animated when talking about mentoring the winners of past series of The Apprentice, currently half way through its 13th series.

So, off-screen, is the intimidating Lord Sugar actually a bit of a softie at heart?

"Oh, a real softie, absolutely; you should ask my wife," he quips. "That's one of the problems of The Apprentice is that people are a little reluctant to talk to me because they think that. The way I'm edited is, it comes across as I'm a bit abrupt and blunt and all that stuff. But that's not really me in real life."

I start to relax after this jokey exchange (picturing him on his bike also helps) and pluck up the courage to ask whether he ever worries the focus of the BBC One business competition is overshadowed by its humour and drama.

"It's a good balance, that's why the programme is so successful," he retorts. "There's an underlying business message in there which has really inspired youngsters from the age of 13 upwards. The BBC will tell you the viewing audience is from the age of 13, 14 upwards and [The Apprentice] inspires them to go into business."

The Apprentice's much-loved format has stayed largely the same since series six onwards - each week, the candidates (there are 18 to start with) are split into two teams to tackle a business task set by Lord Sugar and his two aides, Baroness Karren Brady and Claude Littner.

Whichever group loses the task endures a grilling from Lord Sugar in the boardroom and then at least one person is fired from the process each week.

Interview week sees the remaining candidates' CVs and business plans torn apart, before the final episode sees the winner given £250,000 investment from Lord Sugar in their business.

"As you've seen with other programmes, when people start to try and tinker with things, it ends up as disastrous," he says when asked if he feels pressure to keep the show fresh.

Slipping into 'Apprentice mode', he adds: "If it's not broke, you don't fix it."

The current series has involved tasks such as creating a range of burgers and planning a premium corporate experience at a sports event (with some entertaining, to say the least, results), tense confrontations between team members and many larger than life contestants.

Big personalities who have starred on the show in the past have gone on to forge reality TV careers, with people like Katie Hopkins and Luisa Zissman entering the Celebrity Big Brother House. But Lord Sugar maintains the casting process hasn't changed and that people don't apply to the show for fame.

"What happens is they get withdrawal symptoms after being seen on TV and they get head-hunted by the producers of these other programmes," he explains. "Those producers know they're just going to use them, for one series, and then just throw them away.

"It's just human nature isn't it, 'I wanna be back on television'. So that's what they do."

I'm curious as to how the formidable Lord Sugar, who has amassed over five million followers on Twitter, and over 17,000 on Instagram, deals with being in the public eye himself.

And not for the first time in our chat, I'm surprised by an answer he gives - when he says he is mindful of what he shares with the world.

"When I first went on social media I was very conscious of the fact that some of, what I would call, high-profile or semi-high profile people that had got themselves into trouble, because every time I tweet a message, the whole world of media looks at what I say," he admits.

"So, I'm very conscious of putting out things that are politically correct, for example, and if I've got to say something strongly, I will. But I'm very conscious of what I put out."

Don't think for one minute though that Lord Sugar holds back on his opinions in real life.

Having seen a glimpse of his 'softer side', I broach the topic of the BBC pay gap which has grabbed headlines over the last few months.

Earlier this year, the BBC's annual report disclosed salaries for staff earning more than £150,000 and the list of 96 talent featured showed that its top-earning male personality was paid at least four times as much as its highest-paid female.

Lord Sugar is his usual, direct self as he responds: "I don't think transparency over pay is the correct thing, it's a private issue and I think it's disgraceful actually that the BBC were forced to publish what people were earning."

He also shares strong views when it comes to how the pay gap can be narrowed.

"It can be narrowed by the lady herself saying, 'No, I want more money'," he says.

I feel like the answer may be a swift "No", but decide to risk his potential wrath one more time and ask - does he ever worry about the way he comes across to viewers as The Apprentice boss?

"It doesn't worry me," he affirms. "There's 140 hours of programming, some of it's quite fun. But that doesn't put bums on seats as far as the TV producers are concerned."

The Apprentice, BBC One, Wednesday, 9pm

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