The one and only Bonnie Low-Kramen, former PA to Oscar Winner, Olympia Dukakis, and now best-selling author and instructor, takes the time to share with us what it takes to be an incredible, indispensable personal assistant.
DC: Okay, let’s get the ball rolling. Let’s start off by telling us about yourself!
BLK: I am from Belleville, New Jersey. Scenes from “The Sopranos” were shot there. Nuff said? I graduated from Rutgers Univ in New Jersey with a BA in English and Theatre.
DC: How did you become the celebrity assistant of Olympia Dukakis?
BLK: Timing, luck, and relationships are how I landed my job working with Oscar winner Olympia Dukakis. A friend introduced us a year before Olympia became famous from the film “Moonstruck” in which she played Cher’s mother. All our lives changed after the Oscar.
Olympia ran the Whole Theatre in Montclair, NJ and I took the job as the PR Director which meant it was my job to get bodies into the seats. Olympia and I needed to work very closely together. When she landed the role in the movie and needed to go to Canada for a month to shoot, she needed someone she trusted to be “communications central” for everyone who needed answers from her while she was away. That’s how it all began.
DC: When you first began as a PA, how did you fill up your contacts and little black book?
>BLK: Filling my black book was hard. I was winging it every day. I learned by burn. Trial and error. I went to the bookstore to search for resources and found nothing. I stood in front of the stacks of Barnes and Noble and said, “I’m going to have to write the damned thing myself.” That was 2000.
In 1996, I co-founded NYCA – New York Celebrity Assistants – as a professional networking and resource organization. I knew I needed other colleagues with whom I could share information and resources. I believe the #1 resource we have as assistants is not the computer (that’s #2) but one another.
DC: What has been your most memorable experience as a PA?
BLK: Sitting on an airplane with Olympia on an early morning flight and sharing stories about our lives and discovering that we had a lot in common. It’s the quiet times I remember most. Ordering room service in a hotel and hanging out watching a movie after the major event that we spent the last 3 months planning.
DC: Do you have any cringe-worthy moments? How did you recover?
BLK: I gave Olympia the wrong speech which she began to give and then realized that something was wrong, so she spoke off the top of her head. I made plenty of mistakes in 25 years but I never again gave her a wrong speech. I owned it. I took full responsibility which builds trust. Admitting when you are wrong is a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. Mistakes are going to happen as an assistant. The only thing we can do is be as diligent as possible and hope that they aren’t too expensive!
DC: What is your advice for someone who wants to be a PA for a celebrity or high net work individual (HNI), but does not have any experience?
BLK: Volunteer to do tasks for people to gain experience. Organize a closet, a basement, a bookcase. Create a filing system and set-up a computer system. Volunteer to work a charity event. Build your resume by doing the things that PAs do, even if at first, you don’t get paid for it. The experience is what matters and letters of reference are all the better.
DC: What makes an email get a response from a busy person? How can one connect with people to get advice, even job offers?
BLK: Clarity is the goal on all communications. Subject lines can say “Time Sensitive” or a “Re-send” before the subject. Pick up the phone and call if you still get no response. Connecting with busy people involves thinking about how you can help them and not only about how they can help you. LinkedIn is gaining traction every day and is a terrific tool with which to connect. Also, www.leanin.org and www.meetup.com Networking is most effective in person rather than email. Set up coffees and informational meetings, rather than interviews.
Respect other’s time. If you say you want 20 minutes of their time, honor that. Be a person of your word. That matters a great deal.
Be professional always. No gossip, no back-stabbing. Perfect grammar, spelling, appearance. People notice even if you think they don’t. Ask “What is your biggest problem and I’ll tell you how I would solve it?” Meet as many people as possible and be generous with help and resources. Paying it forward works.
DC: Why and how did you transition from celebrity assistant to business owner?
BLK: After 25 years of loving my work and being at the top of my game, I resigned from being a PA. I continued to see the strong and pressing need for training and education for PAs. I designed the workshop that I wished had existed when I first started…only better. It’s a 16-hr. workshop which includes 3 hours of technology with Vickie Evans, the best technology trainer in the United States. She is a former PA and a Microsoft Certified Trainer. To teach the soft and hard skills is absolutely necessary in today’s workplace.
I love sharing what I have learned with eager students whose lives are changed from the 2-day experience. Learning is transformational and I get to see it happen before my eyes. It is very satisfying and I feel the entire profession is elevated when it happens.
DC: What are your current goals and when do you think you have ‘made it’?
BLK: Current goals include doing a TED talk one day. I want to be a part of ending bullying in our workplace. I want to inspire business leaders across the globe to invest in the training and education of their administrative staffs because it is a very smart business decision to do so. I want to inspire college leaders to increase leadership training for graduating students so that they enter the workplace more prepared for what they are going to face.
I am actively working on all of the above and doing the work I love. I have made it.
DC: As an A-list celebrity assistant, you have traveled all over the globe. Who is the most intriguing person or story you have come across that you can’t quite forget?
BLK: Olympia Dukakis has been the most important and powerful mentor and influence in my life. She represents a strong yet feminine woman who speaks her mind and commands sincere respect. Her support of me is immeasurable. She wrote the Foreword to my book. After she read the final draft and I offered to take out anything she didn’t like, her response was, “Don’t change a word.” Priceless and unforgettable.
DC: Who is your closest confidante and what is the best advice she/he has given you that can help other PA’s/EA’s?
BLK: I have a dear friend who is a gifted psychologist and her counsel over the years has been deeply important. Her wise words have included – Do not reward bad behavior. Hold yourself and others accountable. Don’t accept the behavior of bullies. Silence is the enemy.
I take these words with me everywhere and empower PAs with them.
DC: Brilliant Bonnie! Truly amazing and resourceful answers, but now it’s time to get a little more personal!
DC: What is your personal style like?
BLK: Casual elegance
DC: What are your interests outside of work?
BLK: Theatre, film, going to stand-up comedy
DC: What is the gutsiest thing you have ever done?
BLK: Confronting bullies and watching them back down.
DC: What is your favorite quote?
BLK: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” Spencer Johnson, author of “Who Moved My Cheese?”
DC: What is the last book you read?
BLK: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead I think every PA needs to read this book and lean it. It is having an important impact on our workplace.
DC:What House would the Sorting Hat pick for you?
BLK: Open concept, lots of color! No white walls.
DC: What is your favorite movie?
BLK: “The Way We Were” Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford I love to see movies that make me weep!
DC: If you could not be an instructor or PA, what other career would you choose?
BLK: If I could not be a coach, I would be Director of Roadway Signage for the State of New Jersey. The spelling errors are appalling!!
DC: What is the best gift you have ever received?
BLK: My 25 year old son watching me speak and at the end said, “Mom, I’m so proud of you.”
DC:What is your stress reliever?
BLK: Laughing until my stomach hurts watching Kathleen Madigan or John Pinette or dozens of other stand-up comics. I think THAT is the hardest job!!
DC: “I am most happy when _____.
BLK: I am most happy when I am hanging out with my partner Robert and my son Adam.
DC: What would you choose as your Super Secret Power?
BLK: No contest. Increasing the numbers of hours in a day by 4 because there are never enough hours in a day.
DC: And last but certainly not least, cupcake or muffin? What kind?
BLK: Yellow cake with chocolate icing. Pretty simple eating tastes!