Interview from www.assistantstellall.com September 2012

So You Want to Be A Better PA?

With Celebrity PA, Donna Coulling

Donna Coulling

Quick Stats

Name: Donna Coulling

Location: 

Industry: 

Position: Celebrity Personal Assistant

Donna Coulling, the UK’s leading celebrity PA, trained as an actor in London and is now PA toHelena Bonham CarterRachel Weisz and Sir Derek Jacobi.

Donna Coulling is known as an expert in her field and has made many television appearances as a Celebrity Assistant including: I’m with the Band – Channel 4 and Pete Burns’ PA – Living TV and regularly seen as a guest presenter on QVC. Last year she ran a seminar for Presenters at Spotlight, was guest speaker at the Office* show, Hays PA of the Year, and judge and presenter at the Mayfair PA of the Year.

This year Donna Coulling has been guest speaker at Planet Hollywood, VA Conference 2012, ExecSec Summit, and for Olswang LLP. Features in publications include: Easy Living Magazine, Executive PA Magazine, Executary News, PA Life Magazine and Top Sante.

Donna Coulling has her own website, www.DonnaCoulling.com, runs a newsletter and recently began running her own PA Seminar’s in London.

Which skills have you perfected that allow you to be an invaluable asset in your role?

Stealth. I work in private homes which are my clients home/work/family space – I leave the space as I find it. I try to liken myself to a ‘magic pixie’ who comes in and does the work without my client knowing that I’ve been there.
For me everyday is different. I never know if I’m going to walk in on a yoga class, script-reading, family lunch, quiet time, interview, etc so I need to be prepared for anything and just go with it.
Respect their wishes, be intuitive – don’t take anything personally, survey the scene and prioritise what you need to do with your client and what you can do on your own.
I’m the ‘Yes and’ girl, not the ‘yes but’ girl. I try to stay three steps ahead of myself (two just isn’t enough sometimes) so if a client asks me for something I will try to think whatever could be needed with that. For example,

Client: Can you research some looks for an upcoming press junket?

Me: Yes and shall I look into which hair and make up are available too?

Rather than “yes, but It’s fashion week at that time so everyone will be tied up”. Positive thinking is important, don’t put up barriers.

When I started my job my black book was fairly thin and I realized quickly that I needed to build on that to be the best at my job that I could be so I went out and met as many fashion, beauty, restaurant, hotel and more PR’s that I could so that I so many people I could call on at any one time.

What are some things that can be found in the infamous notebook of Donna Coulling?

I work from moleskin notebooks. I like their size, durability and they look nice! I have one for each client (I work for five different people) and I keep all essential information in them.

DOB, social security numbers, Passport and driving licence info, insurance details, favorite restaurants/florists, etc. Children’s school info, Car companies, Airline loyalty scheme details, family contact details, birthdays, travel and work dates (as much as I can as these always change) anything and everything that I add to constantly when I find a new ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ to keep it current and up to date.

Which qualities or skills do you think all assistants need to succeed in this role?

Too many to mention and new ones are found all the time (skills not assistants!) Discretion, loyalty, communicative, respect, creative, sense of humour, thick skin, ability to think on your feet, work fast, be realistic and know when to ask for help – we’re only human, initiative, common sense and contacts, contacts, contacts…. I’m certainly nothing without my black book of contacts.

What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of managing a celebrity’s personal and professional calendar?

Finding time from nowhere. Often when there is a film project coming up dates are booked out of the diary and other personal projects and events put in around them, but usually the film dates keep moving around until the film is finished which makes a lot of juggling on other dates that have been made.

Communication works for me, so long as everyone is aware at the start that there is a possibility of cancellation (but this is a last resort) or probably date changes then the other parties can ensure they have a back up plan.

The client never likes to let anyone down so it’s my job to ensure the event manager has a back up plan should the client be pulled away on set (and possibly in another country).

What kind of advice does Donna Coulling have for people who want to be celebrity assistants?

Cheesy as it may sound but, it’s our business to know our business, that’s what makes us useful, knowledgeable and indispensible. If you’re not in the industry to start with how can you expect to be able to do the best job you can?

I know nothing about law, medicine, sport etc, I trained as an actor, was an actor, worked for a talent agent before starting out as a celebrity assistant so I had some knowledge and built a foundation before thinking if I was right for this job.

We have to expect the unexpected everyday (that’s what I love) so it’s important to build our contacts all the time so that when something out of the ordinary is thrown at us we know who we can contact at the drop of a hat and get the job done as efficient and speedily as we can.

What would you like to learn from other assistants on ATA?

I would like to learn from other assistants on ATA – their time-saving tips, share contacts with them, and how they dealt with something that had gone wrong. Associations and memberships they find useful in their work and for networking.

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