Call it coincidence, call it irony, but the first thing that Stella English sees when she arrives at the hotel where we are to conduct our interview is a stack of magazines on the lobby table. On their covers loom the unmistakable features of Lord Sugar, publicising the latest series of The Apprentice.
‘Honestly, it’s like everywhere I turn he’s there,’ she says. ‘It drives me mad. The other day my five-year-old son got hold of my phone and managed to download something so that when I next looked at it there was Lord Sugar’s face, staring at me. I can’t seem to get away from him.’
She smiles ruefully, but really, Stella’s relationship with the former Amstrad tycoon is no laughing matter.
No laughing matter: Since becoming Lord Sugar's Apprentice, after winning the BBC series' business talent competition, Stella English's relationship with the tycoon has deteriorated
Until last year, the 32-year-old blonde, a former bank executive, was Lord Sugar’s anointed Apprentice, victor of the December 2010 series, and the sixth to clinch the £100,000-a-year executive role.
She believed it to be something of a golden ticket. But in September last year, two months shy of fulfilling her year-long contract, she resigned following a showdown with her supposed mentor which ended, she claims, with Lord Sugar telling her: ‘I don’t give a s***.’
Far from a stepping stone to even greater professional heights, she now says that applying for the series was one of the worst decisions of her life.
Hardly the endorsement the programme’s producers are looking for as the current series unfolds on our screens, one imagines, especially given that Stella was so unhappy with her experience that she is bringing legal proceedings against Lord Sugar for constructive dismissal — an action which is being contested.
All smiles then: Stella English now says her decision to apply for the TV show was one of the worst moves of her life
She cannot comment on this publicly on the advice of her lawyers, but what is clear is that she has emerged from her truncated apprenticeship bruised and bewildered.
What she is decidedly not, apparently, is cowed. In what some might see as cocking a rather defiant snook at her former employer, she is now launching her own business — and intends to employ an apprentice of her own.
‘A real apprentice,’ as she puts it, archly. ‘Someone who will work with me, by my side, and see how my business is run. They’ll get training and will have a qualification when they leave. Basically, they’ll come out of it in a much stronger position for their next move, whatever that is.’
Sounds rather obvious doesn’t it? But Stella is adamant that her Apprentice experience is the precise opposite: following her ten months under Lord Sugar’s tutelage, she says she was left less employable than when she started.
‘Even if I’d wanted to I couldn’t go back to banking because I’d been out of the market too long and lost my qualifications,’ she says. ‘And I’d effectively taken several steps back down the ladder. Ten years’ worth really. It was very frustrating.’
Today, Stella — who is much warmer and friendlier in the flesh than you might imagine from watching her in the series — is anxious not to come across as bitter. Nor is she interested in starting a slanging match.
‘In a funny way this isn’t about Lord Sugar,’ she says. ‘Odd as it sounds, I do quite like him as an individual — he can be quite funny and quite charming, and in a way I wish I’d spent more time with him — that he’d taken me under his wing more.
‘If he had, I don’t think I would be in this situation. What I experienced had very little to do with him — and that was the problem.’
Nonetheless, you cannot get away from the fact that this was not the outcome she expected, not least because in some ways Stella was a dream victor.
A tall, willowy blonde who became known for her calm demeanour under stress, she had been raised on a crime-ridden council estate by a series of relatives after being abandoned by her mother and then, through raw talent and determination, hauled herself up the corporate ladder.
By her early 20s, she was working for the chairman of Merrill Lynch and, when she applied for The Apprentice, she was earning £85,000 managing the trading floor of a Japanese bank — all, latterly, while raising Edward, five, and three-year-old Frank, her two sons by husband Ray Dewar.
But, given all her hard work, it rather begs the question — why apply for the show in the first place?
Grueling: Stella English, pictured front, second from left, knew the process to become Lord Sugar's Apprentice would be a tough battle
Stella was under no illusions about how gruelling the show would be — and endured her share of critical headlines, which she says unfairly dragged her husband into the spotlight.
‘I did it because I think you should never stop pushing yourself,’ she says. ‘Yes, I had a fantastic job, and I’d worked flat out through two pregnancies to prove I wouldn’t let my employers down. I felt very valued, but I still thought I could do more.
‘Obviously, I absolutely believed it was a step up, otherwise why the hell would I do it? I had a high expectation of what I was going to get out of it — maybe that was naivety on my part.’
In fact, the rot had arguably set in before the episode in which Stella was crowned the winner. By then she and fellow finalist Chris Bates, who was 23, had already spent several months working in Viglen — an arm of Lord Sugar’s empire which provides IT systems to schools, universities and hospitals — while he made his decision on the eventual winner.
A nxious to show her commitment, Stella moved her family from their base in Blackheath, South-East London, to be nearer to Viglen’s headquarters in Hertfordshire.
‘I think if you want something to work, you go for it 100 per cent,’ she explains. ‘I’m lucky that my husband is really supportive.’
There was, even then, little contact with Lord Sugar, and Stella was dismayed to find that much of the work was humdrum. ‘I was being asked to organise a cable being put in at a local school down the road,’ she says, raising an eyebrow.
Gritting her teeth, she accepted this as part of a bedding-in period, but admits that, when she discovered she was being announced as the winner just a few hours before the final was broadcast, there were already niggling doubts.
‘The thing is that I wanted to make it work. I worked hard to get that Apprenticeship and I didn’t want to fall at the last hurdle,’ she says. ‘In a way, I didn’t help myself because instead of voicing my opinions early on, I just got on with it.’
Following her win, Stella was appointed project manager overseeing various IT tasks — a specific role, at least, but one she insists she would not have applied for ‘in a million years’ had it been advertised.
Competition: The competition was fierce among the female contenders vying to become Lord Sugar's Apprentice, from left, Laura Moore, Melissa Cohen, Paloma Vivanco, Liz Locke, Stella English, Joy Stefanicki, Sandeesh Samra, Joanna Riley
‘It was way beneath my abilities and I was totally over-qualified for it. It was like turning the clock back ten years,’ she says.
Lord Sugar, meanwhile, was conspicuous by his absence, Stella adds.
‘The reality was that there were five layers of management between me and the person I’d gone to work for,’ she says. ‘I’d worked for senior people — chairmen of banks, heads of trading floors, so my expectation was that I would be doing the same here. Perhaps I was naive.’
While she stops short of saying she was shunned by her co-workers, it’s clear they didn’t welcome her with open arms. ‘In my old jobs you were part of a company and you’re almost like part of a family, but with this you are “The Apprentice”, and it’s quite isolating,’ she says.
Everyone else, of course, knew exactly what she was earning — which was substantially more than them, in most cases. That, too, caused problems.
‘If you do a job that is worth what you’re earning, then people don’t care. But if you do a job that isn’t, then it’s very difficult for people to like you, and very difficult for the person concerned — in this case me,’ she says. ‘It was basically an impossible situation.’
And one which, unsurprisingly, took its toll at home. ‘It did cause a lot of stress,’ she says. ‘I’m not much of one to cry, but at home I did several times. There’s something very strange about the whole “be careful what you wish for” thing. Suddenly, I had everything I wanted and yet I felt completely hopeless, and I couldn’t understand why.
‘I had a lot of sleepless nights and I even took up smoking again. The point is that while on the one hand it’s work, on the other hand it’s easy for employers to forget it’s people’s lives you’re dealing with.
‘The way you treat them has a massive impact both on what they do and how they feel. It can be very disheartening if you don’t look after them properly.
Boardroom battle: Chris Bates was the last hurdle in Stella English's way to winning the final of the 2010 series
‘It’s a basic responsibility as an employer to make sure people are happy and fulfilled,’ she adds.
‘If you had someone trained as a barrister, you wouldn’t have them running round making coffee all day — it’s demeaning.’
Stella concedes that while she spoke to Lord Sugar several times, she did not complain, partly because there seemed little point: on the one occasion she met him face to face to raise her worries about her role, he told her she was speaking to the wrong person and should go to Bordan Tkachuk, Viglen’s chief executive.
She did, but felt it didn’t get her anywhere and handed in her resignation, only to be contacted by Lord Sugar with a new job offer as Commercial Manager of YouView, a company of which he is chairman and which makes set-top boxes to connect to the internet.
She took it, hoping this might prove a turning point. ‘Ultimately, the last thing I wanted to do was walk away,’ she says.
But, Stella adds ruefully, the new role didn’t amount to much.
Row: Stella English claims, when she announced she was resigning in a final showdown, Lord Sugar told her: 'I don't give a s***'
Save for a couple of appearances in the office, meanwhile, Lord Sugar once more disappeared off the radar until, in September, he summoned her for a meeting at his headquarters at which he pointed out her contract would be up in three months.
The conversation was tricky, she admits, and while she has no particular desire to revisit it she recalls that Lord Sugar told her he had ‘met his obligation to her’ while adding he didn’t ‘give a s***’ about what she did or didn’t do.
It’s clear it was unpleasant, although Stella acknowledges that these conversations are never easy.
‘People have lots of things going on and there’s lots of pressures and stresses, and maybe everyone says things they regret,’ she says.
However, there was no going back: in the wake of the meeting, Stella drafted her resignation letter and has not been back to the offices since.
‘I felt pretty empty on the day,’ she acknowledges. ‘I left with no job, and I did think: “What the hell am I going to do?” At the same time I knew I wanted to get back to work and get my life back.
‘I also knew instinctively I needed to do something for myself, that I didn’t want to work for anyone else again.’ The result is her own business-fashion line, which she is in talks with a major department store to stock.
‘I didn’t have any fashion experience, but I needed to do something relatively straightforward and I needed to sell. The idea came from the fact that I’ve spent 18 years trying to find nice clothes that are suitable for business but still flattering,’ she says.
Making the leap hasn’t been easy. ‘I started from scratch in an industry I know next to nothing about. I had to completely immerse myself in it, working day and night, and it’s been tough,’ says Stella.
Money, too, has been tight. Whatever savings she made from that £100,000 salary have been plunged into her business, and with no income coming in — husband Ray looks after the children — the family finances sailed perilously close to the wind.
‘I had some additional funding but not enough, and over Christmas our house almost got repossessed. It was that close,’ she says. ‘I hope we’ve come through the worst of it, but it’s been sticky.’
Still, she feels confident enough to advertise for her own apprentice — a paid role, she insists, and one she will be taking seriously. So much so that she also sits on a parliamentary group which advises on how companies can make best use of them.
It meets at the House of Lords, which also plays host to another Apprentice-related character. ‘I do feel a bit anxious about the fact I might run into Lord Sugar whenever I’m there,’ she says. ‘I find myself wondering what I would do.
‘I guess I would smile and say hello, although I have no idea what the reaction would be to that. Put it this way, I think it would be awkward.’
A sentiment even Lord Sugar would struggle to disagree with.