How nasty do you have to be to win 'The Apprentice'?

As the latest series starts this week, leaks about the new contestants suggest that past misdemeanours are excellent publicity – for them and the show

There are still three whole days before Lord Sugar fires the pistol, but the race to become this year's Apprentice is well under way in the weird world of leaked pre-publicity.

Since the line-up of 16 ball-breaking young men and women was announced last week, we have learnt, thanks to a carefully choreographed drip of redtop stories, that two of the contestants have criminal records, one has a formal warning from the NHS, and a fourth is a "gangland moll".

Christopher Farrell, 29, is a mortgage broker currently on the run in Spain having skipped bail from Devon and Cornwall police after being arrested on suspicion of fraud. His former boss has piped up to confirm she fired him from the imaginatively named West Country firm, Mortgages4Plymouth, and that he was escorted off the premises.

Then we learnt that Joanna Riley, a 25-year-old mother-of-two, was convicted of racially abusing three taxi drivers after a heavy night out. She pleaded guilty and was given a two-year conditional discharge.

Shibby Robati, described as a surgeon and business owner, is said to have had a string of complaints against him while working at St George's Healthcare NHS Trust, and now Stella English is reported to have grown up among south-east London's "most notorious crime families," and dated a couple of colourful characters.

Of course none of this will make a shred of difference to the outcome of the sixth series of The Apprentice, which is already in the can. But grabbing a few headlines ahead of Wednesday's opening episode is as vital to these ambitious young hopefuls as any humiliating task they will have to perform for His Sugariness.

As previous series have shown, it's not necessarily the winner who takes all. Take Saira Khan, the runner-up of the first series who became much more famous than Tim Campbell, the official victor. Khan is a regular pundit on business and Anglo-Asian affairs, has a column in the Daily Mirror and landed several TV gigs, including Celebrity Mastermind.

Ruth Badger, the runner-up of series two who was revealed by The Sun to be a lesbian who had divorced her husband, went on to host her own TV show, Badger or Bust.

But of course the biggest winner from all this publicity is Lord Sugar himself. If it weren't for The Apprentice, would Gordon Brown really have given him a seat in the House of Lords? Without all those column inches, we fear Lord Sugar would still be the half-remembered founder of a rather minor computer firm.

Winners and losers

Series 1

Tim Campbell beat Saira Khan in the final to land the £100,000 job at Amstrad, but Khan's career has been more enviable by far. She is a familiar face on TV, presenting Temper Your Temper and Beat the Boss, and has popped up on Ready Steady Cook. Campbell now speaks at "Business Roundtables", whatever they are.

Series 2

5.7 million viewers watched Michelle Dewberry pip Ruth Badger, though she quit working for Sugar after 11 months. The tabloids delighted in stories from Badger's ex-husband about her lesbian affairs, but she went on to host her own TV show on Sky One, Badger or Bust, and owns two successful businesses.

Series 3

With an IQ of 174, the Cambridge graduate Simon Ambrose was an impressive victor. But the runner-up, Kristina Grimes, had been the bookies' favourite and had no difficulty landing a lucrative contract immediately afterwards as director of a property lettings firm. Ambrose is now chairman of the London Contemporary Orchestra.

Series 4

Lee McQueen, a milkman's son, won despite lying on his CV that he had spent two years, not four months, at Thames Valley University (surely it would have been better not to have been at all?). The runner-up, Claire Young, won plaudits for her straight-talking and was offered a job at Birmingham City FC, but now runs her own wedding planning firm.

Series 5

Half-Iranian Yasmina Siadatan elbowed Kate Walsh aside at the eleventh hour, and now works for Sugar's Amscreen Healthcare. Meanwhile, Walsh, who was called "too perfect and robotic", has kept her name in lights, having a relationship with her fellow contestant Philip Taylor and landing jobs with GMTV and Five.

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