What’s it like to work for somebody famous?
Take a letter, entertain my Aunt Sylvia and boil me 72 eggs. As recent revelations have shown, being a PA to the rich and famous can be an almost impossible task. Gillian Orr reports
If you were to believe the headlines, being a personal assistant to a high-profile figure is all middle-of-the-night phone calls, outlandish demands and having the odd BlackBerry launched at you (as Naomi Campbell’s former aide can attest).
And the complex role of the PA has again captured the public’s attention with two recent court cases. In the ongoing News of the World phone-hacking trial, the court heard details last week about the newspaper’s former editor, Rebekah Brooks, from two key personnel: her News International assistants. The Old Bailey was told that Cheryl Carter and Deborah Keegan “effectively ran her life”, dealing with everything from Brooks’ mortgages to her own mother.
Last month we were privy to some of the more quirky requests that Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi made of their two former assistants, Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo, after they were accused (and cleared) of defrauding Saatchi. These allegedly included buying copies of the art dealer’s book to boost his position in the bestseller list and ensuring the fridge was stocked with plain boiled eggs.
Predictably, the media salivates over these juicy titbits about a star’s curious demands. The news that Lady Gaga allegedly made her former assistant sleep in her bed because she hated being alone was reported gleefully. Similarly, it was well-documented that Robert Maxwell was so besotted with his PA, Andrea Martin, that he bugged her phone.
But away from the horror stories and some less-than-favourable depictions in the media, what does being a celebrity PA actually entail? And what are the rewards?
Deborah Shaw, a former personal assistant to Charlton Heston (although she won’t let slip who she works for now), says that salaries are “very dependent on who you’re dealing with”. She suggests that an assistant who is expected to be on call around the clock can enjoy a salary in the region of £75,000 to £100,000, while those who work more regular hours are looking at anything in between £35,000 to £50,000.
Diversity in your working day is also one of the major draws, says Donna Coulling, an assistant to Helena Bonham-Carter and Rachel Weisz. “Every day is different and I love not knowing what I’m doing from one to the next. It takes a certain type of person to do this job – not everybody can do it.”
After working with her clients for more than 11 years, Coulling claims it is easy to go between handling a celebrity lifestyle and returning to her own rather more normal existence (although she has developed an appreciation of fine bed linen). “There are some blurred lines, I suppose. I’ll think, ‘oh I really need to get my teeth whitened, too’. And then you realise, no you don’t because you’re not in the public eye.”
And while some assume assistants are on the receiving end of endless gifts, in reality it’s more often a nice present for birthdays and Christmas. “The same way it is for anybody else, I guess,” Coulling says. “Although after award ceremonies we do get to dive into goody bags.”
Both Shaw and Coulling agree that the details of the exact tasks you will be carrying out should be clear before taking on a job. “You are responsible for that. There are people that do get abused, but frankly, I think they let it happen. There have been times in the past when I’ve told previous employers that I won’t do something, that they’re pushing their luck,” Coulling says.
“I always tell people when they show up for a job, be sure of what you’re not going to do. If you don’t want to do childcare, you need to be clear about it.”
Coulling is a member of something called the Association of Celebrity Assistants (of which Shaw is president), which acts as a sort of network for PAs. As well as a members-only area of the website, in which you can ask for help with any “strange” requests an assistant might have received, they also meet in person to provide support and presumably swap stories about their bosses.
“You have to sign a confidentiality agreement to join,” Shaw says. “So what’s said in the room, stays in the room.”
Discretion is key to this game; any personal assistant worth their salt will tell you that, and most have confidentiality contracts with their employers. Harrison Cheung, who worked as an assistant to Christian Bale for a decade from 1993, presumably had no such agreement in place. In 2012 Cheung published a book, Christian Bale: The Inside Story of the Darkest Batman, that documented his time with the actor.
Among typical tasks such as organising the gardener, replying to fan mail, and running errands, Cheung also received 2am phone calls and was forced to entertain visiting family members.
“He got quite a kick out of getting me to call him ‘governor’,” Cheung recalls.
Now working in internet marketing for IBM, Cheung advises any wannabe celeb PAs to be sure to separate business and pleasure. “It’s far too easy to get sucked in to the day-to-day drama of someone else’s life,” he says. “You end up not really living your own life. You’re living your life for the sake of someone else’s career, at the cost of your own.”
However, Coulling and Shaw insist that the vast majority of personal assistants enjoy their jobs and get on incredibly well with their employers. It can also act as a gateway to bigger and better things. Just ask Madonna’s former assistant, who went on to become her manager.
“I guess it’s the same with any industry,” Coulling says. “There are a couple of horror stories and it taints the whole industry.”
Just remember to adhere to those all-important boundaries. “Even though you can get on really well and you respect each other and enjoy each other’s company, the bottom line is that you’re being paid to be there,” Shaw says.
It would seem that the precarious world of personal assisting is just like any other job: if you’re working for a horror then the weekends can’t come soon enough. That is, providing your boss lets you take weekends, of course.