Sugar's prize apprentice quits to set up on her own

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When Sir Alan Sugar began fronting a television reality show aimed at finding a budding tycoon to mould in his own image, he insisted that his business acumen would help him to pick the right winner over mere media wannabes.

But while The Apprentice has attracted huge ratings, massive publicity and a move to a prime-time slot on BBC1 for the third series next year, Sir Alan's judgement seems a little more questionable.

The millionaire businessman whose catchphrase is "You're fired!" has parted company with his latest protégée, just months after he awarded her the prize of a £100,000-a-year job with his Amstrad company. Michelle Dewbury, a former checkout cashier who won the second series of The Apprentice in May, announced she was leaving Sir Alan to set up her own consultancy firm.

The project that Ms Dewberry had been assigned to within Amstrad - setting up an environmentally friendly computer recycling company - has been put on hold indefinitely.

Ms Dewberry, 26, said: "I am so grateful for the experience I have gathered from Sir Alan and others within his organisation. I am excited to take these learnings and help other companies by way of my new company, MDL."

Sir Alan said: "I wish Michelle the best of luck with her new venture. She leaves with my blessing, and there is no question that I would consider using her new company to work with her again on special projects that need evaluating."

A statement from both the Amstrad boss and Ms Dewberry said she had decided to move on because her computer disposal project had been "concluded", although she was only a few months into a year-long contract with the company.

The statement said: "Michelle was given the task of investigating an environmental recycling project on behalf of Xenon Green, a subsidiary company of Viglen. Based on Michelle's research, both Michelle and the board concluded that to move to a full implementation of the proposed activity was too premature a move for the group as a whole. It was decided not to proceed with the proposed expansion plan for the time being."

Sir Alan was determined that his show should be about finding good business brains rather than the usual type of publicity-hungry reality stars, but that has proved rather more difficult than he thought.

Ms Dewberry has made headlines since she won the show, partly because of her rags to riches background; she left school with two GCSEs and, spurred on by the death of her drug-addict sister, set up a successful telecoms company.

But her on-off romance with a fellow contestant, Syed Ahmed, and his regular confessionals to magazines and newspapers, began to overtake stories about the programme itself. She became pregnant by him, but lost the baby and has been off work since.

Other contestants from the two series of the programme to have aired so far have also turned their backs on tycoon-ism in favour of 15 minutes of fame. Ruth Badger, who came second to Ms Dewberry, is now a presenter and adviser on a Sky One reality show to find budding inventors and entrepreneurs.

The runner-up from the first series, Saira Khan, is presenting a children's programme on BBC1 and writes a column for the Daily Mail. Another contestant, Paul Torrisi, has also become a television presenter.

Tim Campbell, who won the first series, still works for Sir Alan and is responsible for an anti-wrinkle skincare gadget called Integra.

The final of the second series of The Apprentice attracted 5.7 million viewers, a record for the show and more than the Uefa cup final on ITV1. The programme won a Bafta award this year for best feature.