August 4, 2008— -- High-powered, egomaniacal CEOs aside, viewers aren't likely to confuse VH1's "I Want to Work for Diddy" with "The Apprentice."
That's largely because TV's newest competition show focuses on Sean "Diddy" Combs, the blunt-speaking, street-wise business, fashion and entertainment impresario who concedes, "I'm not the easiest guy to work for."
Combs, 38, runs through assistants the way many of us go through tissue paper; several former low-level grunts open tonight's premiere (9 ET/PT) with war stories. For most, however, a stint as a Combs gofer is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Several have used the frenetic job as a steppingstone to business and entertainment careers within and outside Combs' burgeoning empire. Most now make six-figure salaries. And as Combs says: "After you leave me, you will be CEO material."
Yet when the mogul is screaming at underlings and uttering phrases like "sleep is forbidden," and "to work for the best, you have to be the best," viewers may quickly come to understand that the self-made multimillionaire is perpetually intense, both at business and partying.
Capricorn Clarke, one of the three judges on "Work for Diddy", worked as one of Combs' personal assistants for five years. "I couldn't do it anymore. I needed my life back. It's like being a Navy SEAL," says Clarke, now marketing director for Combs' Sean John fashion wear business.
"The skill set, willpower and drive you need to survive is unbelievable," Clarke says. "If he's not sleeping, you don't sleep. And he has a knack for not sleeping."
Combs normally has six personal assistants. "Diddy" is the byproduct of a protracted search for a replacement that included talks with headhunters, Combs' YouTube video plea and an appearance on "Oprah". Eventually, the hunt evolved into a 10-episode series with a street-wise appeal.
"This is a new area for reality TV. It's hyper-reality," says VH1 programming chief Jeff Olde, who envisions a franchise that could endure. "Diddy has the keys to the kingdom when it comes to acting, entertainment, music and fashion. Everyone in his organization, he home-grows them and trains them and promotes from within."
Thirteen candidates were culled from thousands of applicants. Two are ousted after tonight's episode, which features low-level challenge tasks ranging from purchasing socks (30 pairs, black) and apple sauce (organic only) to auditioning party clowns.
Future episodes portend "Survivor"-like scenarios: candidates split into teams and sent on round-the-clock missions where egos clash, tempers flare and emotions crack. The candidates are diverse and edgy, including transgendered Laverne and aggressive Kim, aka "Poprah."
Combs barely appears tonight. But as with most of his efforts, he's hands-on behind the scenes. "Just me looking for an assistant or an apprentice isn't the show I wanted to do," Combs says in an interview. "No disrespect to Donald Trump — I love what he does. But this concept is about people pursuing their dreams and me providing an opportunity and the secrets of success."
Combs' micromanaging style, at times, "drove me crazy," Olde says. "He's a tough taskmaster. We had a whole other treatment for the show. Diddy threw it out the window. Much to our horror, he jiggered the casting. Every cut, every detail, every person cast, he set the pace and the tone. We trusted him. Not that there was a choice. He's Diddy. We're just very happy to have him."
"Diddy" is one of three Combs-produced shows airing this summer, part of a broader expansion effort into TV and film. "Making the Band 4" launches on MTV Aug. 13 (9 ET/PT), while "Run's House" premiered on MTV July 16 (Wednesdays, 10 ET/PT). Eventually, Combs says, he'd like to launch his own TV network.