NEW YORK – His trademark hairstyle has stayed the same, but since he became a hotshot TV star last season, Donald Trump (search) has turned into a friendlier, funnier, teddy-bear version of his old self.
The Donald's navy blue power suit and his mastery of self-promotion remain intact. Yet the rich, powerful, hubris-filled real estate mogul of the 1980s and '90s has — since "The Apprentice (search)" debuted a year ago — been replaced by a rich, powerful, arrogant-yet-approachable tycoon.
And with season two of "The Apprentice" set to premiere Thursday, audiences will no doubt become even more familiar with the gentler Donald.
"He's come out of his golden cage down to where everyone can get to know him," said Roslyn Rolan, president of the Image and Etiquette Institute (search). "He was always a caustic, cold guy out for the kill. … He's different now. He's a human being."
The TV Trump has become lovable to audiences partly because of his increased exposure, which shows off his flaws as well as his tough-talking side.
"You're seeing more of him, and that helps soften him up a little bit," said Jennifer Armstrong, an Entertainment Weekly correspondent who interviewed Trump for a recent story on the new "Apprentice." "He's also fun to watch. He's the perfect television character. We like characters with foibles."
It's those imperfections that have been so important in repackaging The Donald.
"Really great personal brands not only share their strengths but also their flaws," said Peter Montoya, author of "The Brand Called You." "It allows everyday people to connect with them despite their success."
But the fact that Trump is seen as more congenial than ever isn't without irony, since he's done it by giving young, aspiring business executives the ax — and on national TV, no less.
"He's pulled off this transformation by going on television and brutally firing people," Armstrong said. "But even though he's firing, you see his rationale. You see him being a mentor, and that's key."
Equally ironic is that the tycoon's new persona hasn't been scathed by the fact that Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts Inc. (search) fired The Donald as CEO this summer, declared voluntary bankruptcy, and began plans to restructure its $1.8 billion in debt. Trump is still the company's chairman.
Who knows exactly how the casino canned Trump? If it took a page out of his book, execs there would have bluntly said, "You're fired!" — punctuated by a catchy but to-the-point hand gesture – and sent him walking out of the boardroom. That simple, signature end to each "Apprentice" episode helped contribute to Trump's cult-like following.
Despite his firing finales, Trump has finally learned to laugh at himself, chuckling good-naturedly at his own expense in many media interviews — often on the topic of his distinctive wrap of orangey-auburn hair.
"Somewhere maybe there's a hint of self-parody," Armstrong said. "You're not sure, but he seems like he might not be taking himself so seriously."
With "The Apprentice 2" debuting, a new magazine called Trump World hitting stands this month, a Trump board game and a potpourri of "You're Fired!" merchandise out, more real estate projects in the works and even talk of an online business school called "Trump University" down the road, The Donald seems on top of the world.
"It's got to be the pinnacle moment," Armstrong said. "He's getting married to the former Miss Universe or whatever she is, everyone loves him and he walks down the street and people ask him to say 'You're fired!' This is the best time to be Donald Trump."
But will he be able to sustain his new-found star status? Armstrong predicts that while the charming Donald image could stick, the ooh-aah following he's attracted is probably fleeting.
"These things tend to run as cycles. I don't know that the hype will continue," she said. "He's not going to go through some crazy image transformation every few years a la Madonna where he'll become Kabbalah Donald. He's not a movie star or anything."
Can't you picture it now? "This summer, catch the story of one man's quest for success: his rise to the top and his fall from grace, when he learns that what matters most isn't money or power ... but stardom, popularity and a little bit of love. Donald Trump stars in 'Wealth Is Not Enough.'"
Stranger things have happened.