Seattle has produced many reality-TV stars on such shows as "The Bachelor," Top Chef," "Survivor," "Project Runway," "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance." But "Apprentice" finalist James Sun may be one of the area's more successful reality-show contestants.
The Seattle area is an incubator for reality-TV stars.
This past season, locals competed on eight shows, from “Top Chef” to “Project Runway” to “Survivor.” In past years, Northwesterners have appeared on some of the top-rated shows on TV, including “American Idol,” “The Bachelor” and “Dancing With the Stars.”
Some contestants’ lives are turned upside-down by the experience. Bothell’s Blake Lewis (“American Idol”) was signed to a record label and subsequently dropped; Eastsider Jason Mesnick (“The Bachelor”), withstood a torrent of bad publicity for publicly breaking contestant Melissa Rycroft’s heart.
But James Sun, who made it to the top two on season six of “The Apprentice,” thinks he may have cracked the reality code.
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“I know the 120 apprentices and out of all the Seattle reality stars, James seems to be the person doing it right. He is the man with the plan,” said Jenn Hoffman, who competed against Sun on NBC’s battle of the corporate climbers in 2006 and now writes about reality TV.
Spending the day with Sun is like a primer on business. He bounces across meetings, advising everyone from Miss Washington to the nonprofit United Way. Sun also flies all over the world, filming scenes for a new reality show, “Sun Tzu War on Business,” set to air in March on National Geographic. He stars as host, making over failing businesses from Asia to Australia.
“I told Jason Mesnick that a lot of people that get on reality TV don’t leverage their experience,” said Sun, 32. “They leave their job, sacrifice and think the riches will come. … You need to make the experience an investment, versus just [seeking] fame.”
Success came early
For Sun, success started before “The Apprentice,” with a Cinderella-like life.
Sun immigrated from South Korea to the States at the age of 4; at the time, Sun’s father had only $35 to his name. But as a teenager, Sun started a technology-investment fund, which he turned into millions by age 23. Upon graduating in business from the University of Washington, he started working for Deloitte Consulting. He also founded a Seattle startup, GeoPage, a map-based entertainment site.
One day while walking through Bellevue Square, he saw a line for “Apprentice” tryouts. He leapt in line with his T-shirt and shorts, next to everyone else in suits.
Usually, reality stars rehearse for this chance, like Seattle break dancers Massive Monkees, which practiced for weeks for “America’s Best Dance Crew,” after one member blew out his knee on the show two years ago.
But Sun’s wife said “Apprentice” tryouts could make a fun conversation piece at a dinner party. It was a grueling experience, however, with initial debates at Bellevue Square, then follow-up interviews and a Navy Seals personality test. Finally, Donald Trump hand-picked each candidate for the show.
“It was a huge application; you would think it was to get into Harvard,” said Sun.
“Apprentice” producers were serious about finding fierce competitors with business backgrounds.
“We don’t look for the underdog or the villain,” said “Apprentice” co-executive producer Page Feldman, who is not surprised that Sun went on to host another show. “It’s really who’s got the charisma, who’s got the drive — people who want to win.”
Feldman said Seattle is a good place to look for gamers: “Seattle is a small microcosm of the U.S. There are a lot of different individuals from different backgrounds, different ethnicities and different mind frames. … It’s a great location to do casting.”
While the “Apprentice” tryout was arduous, Sun said that was just the beginning. What usually takes a business three months to accomplish, took just three days on the show. And 15 minutes of on-screen time might take 4 ½ hours to shoot. Sun had to leave his wife and two daughters — ages 3 and 5 — for nine weeks of taping. For his current show, he’ll be away from home for eight months.
The Eastside resident makes a point to have breakfast with his daughters every morning, via online-video conferences. And when he’s home for breaks, Sun takes over morning-parent duty, dressing his girls in (he jokes) mismatched clothing.
“My oldest daughter thinks it’s normal to be on TV,” said Sun. “She’s taking drama classes.”
It was harder for Massive Monkees to maintain normalcy during their reality sojourn. Most of the members of the group are parents. One dancer’s mom had cancer, while another got married during the taping of the show. They weren’t allowed to talk with loved ones about what took place on the set, because they signed nondisclosure agreements with MTV — typical for reality-show contestants. These agreements can mean fines up to $5 million if violated, said reality consultant Hoffman.
“Idol” Lewis also struggled. His long-distance relationship became a “tough compromise” and has since ended — but it inspired his second album, “Heartbreak On Vinyl.”
“I’m the same person”
Sun is in the minority among his “Apprentice” peers. Most candidates return to their jobs or get promoted. They do not return to reality shows, said co-executive producer Feldman.
But coming in second on “Apprentice” made Sun hungry for more. He plays host on his upcoming show, a pioneering partnership between BBC and CCTV, China’s television network. It’s a perfect setup for Sun, who sees China as an investment opportunity. If the show does well, there is a chance it will spin off an American version, said Sun.
Since “Apprentice,” Sun’s net worth has increased, he said. He makes $8,000 for speaking gigs about leadership. Citysearch partnered up with Sun’s startup GeoPage. Plus, he has Donald Trump’s number, the “Trump card,” to call for help.
“You never know what will happen to you when you achieve a little fame,” said Sun. “You see people with no sense of reality. They are swallowed up by the hype. They quit their jobs, get into drugs, become alcoholics. Their families break up. …
“I feel pretty good. I’m the same person, the same family man,” said Sun, as he drove around downtown Seattle in a Rolls-Royce Phantom. A film crew followed him; Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” blasted on the car’s stereo. “I married my passion and determination. It went a long way.”
Marian Liu: 206-464-3825 or firstname.lastname@example.org