The Junior Apprentice who beat Alan Sugar

Zoe Plummer didn't win the youth version of the business series, but now she's the youngest shop owner in England

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“I’m a strong-minded person, obviously,” says Zoe Plummer, who was the standout contestant in last year’s Junior Apprentice, rebranded this year as Young Apprentice, “but I think I came across a bit more ballsy than I really am.”

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Zoe may have been beaten in the final by Arjun Rajyagor, but she was without doubt the most memorable candidate. She was a teenager but had the confidence and appearance of a no-nonsense 30-year-old: put it down to her I-want-it-now attitude or that severe blonde fringe. And that lipstick. Blood red. Lips like a vampire between courses at a banquet.

Caricature

But, she says, the “cruel and hard-hitting” woman depicted on the show isn’t the real Zoe. Before the show, “I’d never really had a confrontation with anybody. I’ve always been quite a bubbly, friendly kind of person who gets on with people… It’s really funny how they made me into a kind of caricature.”

Back then, Zoe was a 16-year-old schoolgirl, who was already making money selling clothes off a market stall. Today, she’s 18 and just about to start a degree. We speak a few days after her arrival at Nottingham University, where she’s studying modern languages and business. She says that, despite her image, she’s nervous about starting afresh, meeting new people. It’s 2pm on a Saturday afternoon and she’s dressed in “slouchy” pyjamas. Ah, typical student!

Not quite: she’s been up since 6am and has spent the morning at drama auditions (she’s going for the role of Beverly in Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party). Plus she’s dividing her time between typical student pursuits and running a business 125 miles away in London.

Young success

Last year, she and her 26-year-old sister Becky opened Victory Vintage, a clothes shop in one of the capital’s best-known shopping centres, Whiteleys, which, she believes, “makes me the youngest person ever to have a shop in a commercial shopping centre in England”. And as if that’s not enough, “I’m currently in the process of getting a lease on a new shop in Nottingham as well.”

How will she have time to combine a full-time university degree with a full-time career?

“Well, we’ve got someone working full time in the shop and my sister and me covering weekends – and the way that the university year works is that you’re only actually here for five months so I’ll be back in London for the majority of the time anyway.”

She says her business would not have been so successful so quickly without the nationwide exposure she received on Junior Apprentice. “I was gutted at the time that I didn’t win. But undeniably it’s given me a foot up that I wouldn’t have had.” That said, there were downsides, too, though she makes light of them now. When the show was broadcast (a year after it had been filmed), the interest from tabloid newspapers and magazines was almost suffocating. And it came while she was studying for her AS-level exams.

Stress

“I was doing my exams and it was quite a stressful time for me. I started having paparazzi at my door every day. They were going to my boyfriend’s house, they even went to my nan and grandad’s in Bognor Regis and my uncle and aunt’s house in Dorset.”

This, remember, was a schoolgirl. “Some days we’d have five people turn up. I’d send my boyfriend to the door and they’d keep hounding him and trying to come in. They were quite persistent. And loads of my friends were getting phone calls asking to dish up dirt and sell stories about me.” None of them did. Why? Because “I went to a very, very Christian school,” and there was no jealousy among her friends or acquaintances.

And her advice to this year’s crop of young Apprentices? “Get yourself noticed. Don’t stand back. And, even if you don’t win, make sure you forge a good relationship with Lord Sugar, so that he doesn’t forget you once the cameras have stopped rolling.

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“I think Lord Sugar’s great. I say that with full sincerity. He said to me when I left the show: ‘I want you to think of me as your uncle and your mentor.’ He’s really supported me since the show finished. I’ve got his email and his phone number. He’s been really helpful.”