With an arch of her eyebrow, Omarosa Manigault faces the camera and delivers a line like only a reality show veteran (villain) can. “The one thing that I learned from politics,” she says with a vulpine smirk, “is that you have to learn how to watch your own back.”
Now that Manigault has joined the cast of CBS’s Celebrity Big Brother — which has aired two of its three premiere episodes as of February 9 — the former White House adviser has swapped one dysfunctional house of horrors for another. But even given Manigault’s roots in reality television as Donald Trump’s righthand “I’m not here to make friends” Apprentice competitor, it’s still jarring to see her on this show. After all, it was only a couple of months ago that she was part of a historically chaotic administration that nonetheless runs our country. Now she’s lounging in her pajamas and talking Big Brother gameplay with Mark McGrath over calculated champagne toasts.
As per Big Brother rules, every contestant is filmed 24 hours a day, and no one can have a shred of contact with the outside world — where viewers are able to watch raw footage of the contestants whenever they want on CBS’s live feeds. But after watching the first two episodes that aired on CBS this week, I have a feeling that even if Manigault can’t see what’s being said about her outside the house’s walls, she knows full well that talking about her time in the White House will grab people’s attention.
Omarosa is convincingly playing the part of someone who regrets allying with Trump. But how real is it?
The Big Brother clip that’s already become part of the ever-expanding news cycle features Manigault tearfully confessing to housemate Ross Matthews in episode two that she would “never, in a million years” vote for Trump again. Matthews — a longtime celebrity interviewer who notes (correctly) in a confessional that he’s “making headlines” by pressing Manigault — asks her why she went to work for him in the first place.
.@Omarosa opens up to @helloross about her time in the White House on tonight's Celebrity Big Brother. In the meantime, don't miss a minute of the action on the #BBLF: https://t.co/H9nnS6VGdW pic.twitter.com/8x6dFBZxD2— Big Brother (@CBSBigBrother) February 8, 2018
“I felt like it was a call to duty,” Manigault says. “I felt like I was serving my country, not serving him … it was always about the country. I was haunted by tweets every single day.”
This, paired with her insistence that she tried to be “that person who could stop him” and her horror that the situation in the White House is “so bad,” has become its own news story. Manigault’s comments even got a response from White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah, who insisted that she was fired and had “limited contact with the President,” anyway.
I get why it’s tempting to take Manigault’s remorse at face value. Manigault made a name for herself as a cutthroat competitor, so it’s incredibly jarring to see her open up with such horrified vulnerability. Her confession that she’s terrified of what might happen and that “it’s going to not be okay” plays into many Americans’ very real fears about what the Trump administration will do when given the opportunity.
But almost everything Manigault has done on Big Brother outside that moment with Matthews — which, again, he got as much out of as she did — tells a very different story.
In her confessional interviews, Manigault is all scheming smirks as she says that she’s “very competitive” but knows that she needs to build “a very strong social game” if she’s got any shot at winning a game in which the players have to evict someone every week. When she proposes a welcome toast in the first episode, she admits in voiceover that her Cheshire cat smile is a facade. “Believe me,” she says, “it’s game on.”
Big Brother is revealing a Manigault who is happy to shift her personality to match whoever she’s talking to. With roommate Shannon Elizabeth, she’s giddy and excitable, holding hands and preaching the virtues of girl power. With former Cosby Show star Keshia Knight Pulliam, who is wary of Manigault going on some kind of redemption tour after all “the hate [the Trump] campaign incited,” she chooses her words carefully to try and build a connection between them, comparing her apparently inexplicable relationship with Trump to Pulliam’s enduring support for Bill Cosby through his sexual assault trials. And with Matthews, whose trade is celebrity gossip, she gives a sneak peek into the highest plane of gossip there is these days by confirming that the White House really is as messy as it seems.
So maybe Manigault truly does regret her time in the White House and wants to turn over some shiny new leaf. But more likely, she is exactly who she says she is: “a reality TV legend” who plays to win.