Skip navigation! Being a personal assistant can be a humbling experience. While there are certainly pros to a job that immerses you in the lives of the rich and powerful, it can also reveal the ugly side of humanity. It can feel like a roller coaster, with a boss acting like a demon from hell one minute and gifting their assistant an expensive bag the next. Bosses everywhere have their quirks, but a town like Los Angeles — with its abundance of celebrities and moguls — can breed a particularly terrifying species.
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She is a longtime celebrity assistant, a profession that is both hard to find and incredibly difficult to convince to talk to you about.
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- Today over at The Cut , they're featuring the first-hand account of a Hollywood personal assistant who has a lot of particularly damning things to say about a former celebrity boss.
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This is exactly what I want to do. She gave me the first book she wanted to option, and I was like, This is awesome. I want to be a part of this. Because I thought this was going to be a production job.
So I stayed on, thinking it would happen, and it never happened. I broke up with a very prominent actor boyfriend of hers. Could you just tell him to back off and leave me alone? Take the date. Go instead of me. You would think sending a text is the worst — no. Sending your assistant to break up with him is the worst. He had no idea it was coming, either, which was sad. She said yes! I felt horrible for him.
Before I lived with her, I would leave at four in the morning to get to her house. I would get there at five in the morning to go over the daily routine with her, get her tea, her food, all her vitamins. And once I lived at her house, I would start at five in the morning and go down to Starbucks and get her coffee and put it beside her bed. Go downstairs and make her tea. Start up her computer and get the schedule of what was happening that day, print it out.
Go through emails for her and check to see what was coming in. Grab a couple of newspapers and check the book reviews, because then I would have to go to Barnes and Noble to get the books for her, whether or not she would actually read them. Or she would read the first four or five chapters and then give the book away. I was very well informed at that point. She was shooting a lot, and on those days, I would have to be her alarm, and wake her up at 4 a. And then later in the day I would drive her child and the babysitter to the set to visit her, and I would have to be around, in case the kid threw a fit, to take them back.
And I never had privacy whatsoever. To escape, I would have to physically leave her house at certain times. I took a lot of weekend trips. And I would leave the house and just go drink a lot. I would go down the street from her place and walk to a couple of the bars. These next few rounds are on us. That lasted several months, until I was like , This is making me into a drunk.
You had the fake Hollywood smile. Oh no. She was a palm reader. She was a palm reader that we got a discount for in the gift bag at an awards show. She was a psychic.
My eyes were opened. Then I started to check all the details on the things I had to do for her. Once when we went to a film festival, I flew out early so I could lay out the clothes she would wear.
I could have gotten arrested! What are you doing to me? I would go pick up her medicine for her, all her pills, and after that I started checking every little thing to see what it was. I was like, Oh my God, I know exactly what she has now. I realized I needed to warn whoever was with her about certain STDs. Excuse me? So I gave my two weeks. So I survived her.
But I was very jaded, and I hated everything to do with the industry after that. And then she asked me to do her a favor, because I was somebody she trusted. It shocked me. It really did shock me. Even after everything. Already a subscriber? Log in or link your magazine subscription.
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I Was a Hollywood Personal Assistant
She is a longtime celebrity assistant, a profession that is both hard to find and incredibly difficult to convince to talk to you about. I'm in the lobby because in order to walk past the entrance of the Players Club you have to be escorted by a member, and I'm waiting because her principal, which I will later learn is a fancy word that celebrity assistants use to describe their bosses, landed after a long flight with a laundry list of things he needed to talk about immediately.
And also, I had just spent weeks trying to penetrate the inner circle of Hollywood's inner circle, so the connection felt natural at the time. Celebrities are intensely private and as such their assistants are intensely private. This is where I note that some identifying details have been changed here to protect any future careers and also to save the celebrities themselves from embarrassment.
As it turns out, it's purely by accident. I went to school for communications so I thought I would end up in PR. That sentiment was echoed several times. Another was given a random referral and the next thing she knew was moving across the country to live in Malibu and assist an actress right after her first Oscar win. A move that, it's worth mentioning, wasn't revealed until she accepted the job. What isn't random is the interview process.
It starts with full privacy measures to protect the identity of the celebrity—the principal is never revealed and, typically, neither are other details. They were holding things very close to the vest, but with good reason—it was really the height of her fame. Sometimes even the star's current staff is kept in the dark until the last minute possible. During another interview process the posting advertised that the assistant would be required to move to Milan, but that was it.
The big reveal played out in truly dramatic fashion: "She [the principal] was staying in this very luxurious suite at the Waldorf Astoria and I was escorted into this huge, dark wood living room filled with flowers and this wonderful scent.
Here on this floral sofa was this tiny woman with striking long hair and huge eyelashes. I felt like I was in a movie. Or the time an assistant was whisked away to accompany a family vacation in Lake Como. But before all that, you have to take care of business.
The first step of the on-boarding process is signing a non-disclosure agreement. This puts the principal at ease, of course, but it also fast-tracks the process of earning, and building, trust. Past assistants are usually gone well before the new one starts so on-the-job training is exactly that: on the job.
The answer is, in a nutshell: less than you would think. There is travel, of course, often shared by other members of a principal's team like a manager or agent. If Nate's paying I don't typically travel first class. That seems to be another pattern across the industry: Assistants aren't going to be treated to expensive things, but they're also welcome to accept them if they're free.
I bring them all sorts of business from my boss, so if my mom is coming to visit I'll ask for a free town car. Another assistant explained that the system isn't nearly as unfair as it may seem: "I still stay in nice hotels, even if my room isn't as good.
I'm not staying at a roadside motel while he's at the Four Seasons—we're always at the same place. And for some, the perks extend beyond the tangible into the personal.
She's also been able to bear witness to the behind-the-scenes of his famous design projects. But it's not all rainbows and unicorns and first class upgrades. It's crushing. It's exhausting.
It's pandering. It's learning the many personality quirks and emotional instabilities of a group of people whose entire livelihood and self-worth lies in whether or not the world likes them.
It's nowhere near as bleak as the worldview of Tyler Durden, with his rambling speeches in the basement of Fight Club, but he was on to something when he said, "We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. Sometimes this plays out in a rather banal way, the usual mix of stress and frustration that can befall any boss after they've had a long meeting or a terrible travel day. Assistants who are in healthy celebrity-employee relationships cite that the hardest parts of the job come when something happens that is beyond everyone's control.
Or they'll mention the digital toxicity that involves being tied to their phone all day, looking at their texts being the last thing they do before they go to sleep and the first thing they do when they wake up. Sometimes they lament that their typical day is dictated by whatever it is that the principal wants to do that day. Or that there is no true office structure or sometimes even an office. They do their jobs in the celebrity's kitchen or in the celebrity's hotel suite or in the celebrity's limousine on the way to the bathroom or while the celebrity is getting a blowout.
Life is lived constantly chasing after someone who doesn't have time to stop or even respond to an email. To be a celebrity assistant is to realize that talent only texts. Sometimes the business-like nature gets overwhelming.
One interviewee said that she was currently aware of three lawsuits that her former bosses were involved with. An NDA is nothing to be screwed with. And a surprising amount of an assistant's job is to get discounts and freebies for their bosses. Whether it's a home contractor or a clothing designer, or a five star hotel that the assistant needs to convince should give them a discounted VIP rate and a complimentary upgrade of two or three categories.
And sometimes it gets just plain weird. Like the aforementioned Oscar-winning actress who has tasked her assistants with tracking down gourmet cooking ingredients in the middle of the night because she suddenly decided she absolutely had to spend the following day making an elaborate dish. Or the principal who cared so much about the birds who landed in her yard that she instructed her assistants to hand-make them food.
Stars have incredibly large teams consisting of stylists and makeup artists and personal trainers—and while that builds a great network that assistants can rely on to figure out how a celebrity likes things, it also means that at any given moment someone is looking for them. One assistant told of spending a national holiday on a desert vacation with family only to get a phone call on the top of a mountain from the actress' tennis instructor, wondering why she didn't show up to her scheduled lesson.
Everyone I spoke with was realistic in the expectation that working for a member of Hollywood involves some hard labor, but many described certain tasks as simply going too far. After a few years in the business personal assistants begin to understand celebrities in a way no one else does. They begin to see inside the belly of the beast and their analysis of the industry often sounds like it's coming straight out of a therapist's notebook.
They've learned that the air is so thin at the top of Hollywood that everyone knows each other. That it takes something in your DNA to become famous. That they share the exact same peculiarities. They've learned that the business is so intensely appearance- and youth-focused that stars develop the same taste in plastic surgery.
That the surest way to get realistic-looking eyelashes is to use mink. They've learned that even though they have all the money in the world they're still focused on their bottom line. That they will go to great lengths to contest a bill they don't want to pay.
That stars are so averse to doing chores that often a personal assistant isn't enough; they hire house managers to take care of the rest. That often times the worst treatment comes from other members of a star's team instead of the star themselves. I've learned things too. I've learned that celebrity assistants are immensely proud of the work they do. That they get satisfaction in every win and live for the delicious feeling of satisfaction that comes from crossing off something in a to-do list.
That as secretive as the industry is, they love to talk about their work. That they're constantly hit up by friends and family who are fascinated with what they do, and that they are fascinated by that fascination. That the longer you're in, the harder it is to get out. Celebrity assistants get paid handsomely for their services, as they should, but that means that the temptation to stay is strong.
If they wanted to quit and pursue the career in journalism or directing that they initially set out for it would involve a drastic pay cut.
Some assistants, like Engstrom, are lucky to have bosses that foster their talents and skills—She is also the co-head of the digital team and oversees Berkus' website and social media. But others don't have a clear post-celebrity career path. They don't have aspirations to be famous. They don't want to be on TV or in movies. There are actually several clubs that are designed specifically to help out with, and occasionally keep the secrets of, people who work for huge stars.
We can also talk amongst ourselves about salaries and career advice so it's a safe space to be open about anything you're dealing with at work. That's where the rules come in. No one shares anything with anyone without permission. If someone is trying to get in touch with Nate Berkus' assistant, someone else will need to ask Nate Berkus' assistant if that's okay.
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