The Blast Tycoon

updated 01/26/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

In his 66th-floor penthouse atop Manhattan's Trump Tower, a gilded neo-Renaissance palace adorned with mirrors, chandeliers and a marble fountain in the living room, the billionaire real estate mogul known as The Donald is answering the question on everyone's lips: Er, what's the deal with the do? "It's my hair," he says of his signature swept-forward coif. "I don't have a stylist! It's just the way I've combed it for a long time! Many people think, 'Why don't you change it?' But it's been lucky for me."

Must be. For this cheerfully self-promoting titan, listing his achievements comes as naturally as breathing. Inhale; exhale: "I'm the most successful and biggest developer in the city. I create great buildings. I built four of the best golf courses in the world. I took the Miss Universe Pageant from a sick puppy to a very successful show."

Now the man Forbes magazine ranked 71st among the 400 richest people in the U.S. in 2003—with an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion—is crowing over his latest role: reality-show star. NBC's The Apprentice, in which Trump gives 16 job applicants (ranging from MBAs to self-made entrepreneurs) the chance to win a job working for him (see review, page 32), debuted Jan. 8 and drew an impressive 18.5 million viewers. Inhale; exhale: "It beat [the original] Survivor," says Trump, 57. "Can you believe it?"

It helps that Survivor creator Mark Burnett is the new show's co-executive producer, along with Trump. Last spring Burnett, a Trump fan ever since reading his 1987 bestseller Trump: The Art of the Deal, approached Trump about taking on The Apprentice as a way of exploring his corporate universe. "He's a larger-than-life tycoon—probably the last," says Burnett. "The thing about Trump is, Donald tells it like it is. If he doesn't like you, he'll say it, no matter how much he hurts your feelings. He hates people being late, he hates indecision, and he hates laziness."

He also hates—to hear Trump tell it—firing people, a task he undertakes at the end of each episode. "People make mistakes," says Trump, who has some 20,000 employees. "But the premise of the show is: You're fired, and it's something I do."

Often. "You think George Steinbrenner fires a lot of managers? He's not in Donald Trump's league," says biographer Wayne Barrett, author of 1992's Trump: The Deals and the Downfall. "The guy churns through management personnel. He's an extraordinarily demanding, abrasive man. Sometimes that goes with success."

The Queens-born Trump, whose father, Fred, was also a builder, shrugs off his critics. "In the long run it just doesn't matter [what they say]," says the developer, who joined the family business at 21 and rebounded from near-bankruptcy in 1991 ("his greatest triumph," says Barrett). And despite two messy divorces, "I get along great with both" ex-wives he says of Ivana, 54, the mother of three of his four children (see box), who received $14 million in cash after their 1991 split, and Marla Maples, 40, who got a mere $2 million from their 1999 breakup.

Since then Trump has been dating Melania Knauss, a Slovenia-born model. "We have a lot of fun. He's not all work, work, work," says Knauss, 33. Although they sometimes eat in at the penthouse ("He likes the fish I make with breadcrumbs and eggs and flour," says Knauss), more often they spend their evenings out at chic Manhattan restaurants. "We're very close," says Trump. "It's a good relationship."

So why isn't Knauss wearing an engagement ring? "Well, let's see what happens," she says, smiling. Trump, too, is coy. "If you have the right person, getting married is much better than being single," he says. He turns to Melania as they pose for pictures. "Smile, honey!" he says. "You're rich and beautiful."

Michael A. Lipton. Natasha Stoynoff in New York City

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