Years ago I wrote a piece for The Observer newspaper about being a PA to a celebrity, a job I had for a short while back in 2002. (I repeat, 2002, that’s not me on the left, just a random image I chose to illustrate this blog piece with. Anyway, I digress…)
I suppose writing the article was a way of testing the waters to see whether or not people would respond to the subject matter. At the time I was heavily ensconced in writing ‘Me and Miss M’, my novel based very loosely on my own experiences, about a girl who worked for a nightmare actress as her PA. As a result I was very glad when the piece did indeed elicit a great response from all sorts of people who had suffered at the hands of a terrible boss. This gave me the encouragement I needed to continue with my book. In case you’re interested in reading the article, I have posted a slightly edited version of it below.
When I was at school a group of us were sitting in the playground when my friend announced that her mother was going to be interviewed for the role of Fergie’s PA. Although we never would have admitted it at the time we were all intrigued and impressed.
‘What’s she like?’ one girl asked nonchalantly, chewing gum.
‘She’s really lovely,’ said our friend.
We all nodded seriously.
As it turned out her mother didn’t get the job, but she did receive through the post a signed photo, which to this day has pride of place in their family bathroom.
I remember thinking even then how incredibly narcissistic it was to assume that someone should want a glossy five by eight of yourself as some kind of consolation prize.
Twenty years later I myself became a personal assistant for a period of four months to an actress whom you will most certainly have heard of. When the job finished it was with more than a small hint of irony that I hung up my signed, framed photo that I’d been given in the toilet. For the purposes of this article let’s call the actress in question Miss M.
When I got the job I was delighted. The interview went well and Miss M was charm personified, just as you would expect from her public persona in fact.
I beamed all the way home, still bathing in the afterglow of my starry encounter. I had high expectations for what was bound to be not only a glamorous and interesting job but an easy one too. I mean how much could there really be to do? Pick up a bit of dry cleaning, organise a few dinners. Miss M seemed really nice. Certainly very beautiful.
One month later and I was nearing the end of a disturbingly long list.
Number 34. I scribbled. Buy Lancome cleanser and eye make up remover (light blue not dark blue).
‘Then I want you to call my bank and tell them I need another five thousand pounds transferred in to my current account.’
Number 35. Ah hang on. I looked up ‘Will I be able to do that? I mean am I authorised that is?’
She looked irritated ‘Oh damn, I suppose you won’t be. Ok I’ll phone the bank and tell them you’re authorised.’
It occurred to me that if she was going to have to call the bank anyway, then she may as well organise the transfer herself, but I wisely kept this logic to myself. Besides, over the course of the last few weeks I had learnt that actresses love creating extra telephone calls where ever possible. For example, instructions would often go along these lines.
‘Will you call Mr D’s assistant and tell her to call Mr D and say that I would like Mr D to call me.’
‘Ok what is Mr D’s assistant’s number?’
‘I don’t know but I’ll give you Mr D’s and you can call him and ask him.’
…………….I know. But then, I suppose if you’re paying for the luxury of having a personal assistant who will do everything for you, then your time becomes full up with thinking of things for your personal assistant to do. Are you with me?
‘Then I need you to pick up some of that coffee I like. Get it from Harvey Nicks. Four tins should do.’
I dutifully scribbled. Four tins. Jesus, no wonder she was so highly strung.
‘Can you stop the car at Starbucks?’ she asked her driver.
Terry nodded his response.
I was surrounded on my side of the back seat by various bags, dry cleaning and a set of plates she wanted me to take back to Harrods. When the car stopped I automatically put my pad away and struggled out of the car to fetch her venti, quatro, decaff, skinny latte with a hazelnut shot. My mobile was ringing and I could see it was her publicist. Miss M remained in the car, smoking. I answered the phone and was still listening to her publicist drone on about a forthcoming shoot for the Mail when I got call waiting. The coffee was handed to me as I changed lines. It was Miss M calling from the car.
‘I want some Starbucks gum, eight tins, and when you get back, add to the list that I want some new socks for the gym.’
Trying to change lines whilst carrying the coffee and eight tins of gum was always over ambitious. I scalded myself severely and suffered minor burns to the hand. Terry leapt out of the car with some wet wipes.
Miss M’s window slid down. ‘Seeing as that one’s gone, will you make the next one the same but a frappe? I’m a bit hot.’
A personal assistant needs the following criteria. One, to have done ‘The Knowledge’. Two, to have close relations working at the airlines and all the local councils and three, a degree in the inner workings of a mobile phone.
Miss M stockpiled everything and I became used to buying in bulk. Why buy one Diptique candle when you can buy five? Two bottles of Evian? Don’t be so ridiculous. Buy three cases, and make sure that at least ten bottles are in the fridge at any given time. Oh, that reminds me of something I need to add to the above list.
Number Four. All personal assistants need arms like a navvy, with biceps like Popeye.
As another PA once said to me ‘Stars simply don’t understand the words no or can’t.’ Or do they? Maybe given the chance they would.
I wonder how much of the bad behaviour on the part of the celebrities happens precisely because they are allowed to get away with it, with nobody daring to question anything for fear of losing their job?
‘Get me the Donna Karen lookbook, will you?’
Like an obedient puppy I scampered to fetch it and brought it to my master.
She flicked through it sticking post its on the pages she liked. What a way to shop I remember thinking.
‘What do you think I should wear for opening night?’ she asked.
‘Well, I think that dress is amazing,’ I said, pointing at my favourite.
‘So do I,’ said Miss M excitedly ‘Will you organise it for me to borrow?’
Many phone calls ensued. There was only sample of the dress in her size that could be borrowed and it was in New York. Thanks to a more than helpful PR the dress arrived three days before the event.
The night before, Miss M tried it on. It looked gorgeous.
‘What shoes shall I wear with it?’ she asked.
I rummaged around in her cavernous wardrobe and pulled out a selection that I thought would go well. She looked disgruntled.
‘Don’t Donna Karen do some shoes that go with it specifically?’
My heart sunk. I knew what was coming and had to fight an urge to say ‘What’s the magic word?’
That night was spent on the phone to New York pleading and bargaining with the PR who by now was somewhat less than enthusiastic.
She finally agreed to let someone else down and to Fedex the shoes over.
However, I wasn’t leaving anything to chance and the next day I ran around like a nut case. Sure enough there wasn’t one pair of the shoes in Miss M’s size left in London.
I prayed that Fedex would come through.
They did, and with hours to go I rushed over to the theatre with the entire outfit.
‘How did it all go?’ I asked the next day.
‘Oh it was fine,’ said Miss M, idly flicking through a copy of Hello.
‘And……..Did everyone love the dress?’
‘Oh I didn’t wear it in the end. There was so much going on I decided to just go to dinner casual.’
There were some positive aspects of working for Miss M. The job itself was a fantastic mixture of the mundane, (grocery shopping, running errands), the challenging (organising shoots, solving problems) and the glamorous by proxy (watching rehearsals, picking up clothes from Bond Street.) I found this dynamic really fun and loved having a job that wasn’t office bound and that often allowed me to work from home. The biggest advantage however was being allowed an insight into a completely different lifestyle, which for someone as curious as myself is a rare and wonderful treat. I also found that there weren’t many days when despite my frustration I couldn’t find something to chuckle about. Admittedly my sense of humour may be a bit warped.
‘We need to send flowers to my agent. Fifty pounds worth and use Jane Packer.’
‘No Problem. What will the note say?’
She closed her eyes, exhaling smoke through her capped teeth.
‘Sorry, what will the ………….’
I waited. My wrist throbbed gently.
She inhaled dramatically. ‘Say this……. ‘My darling Geoffrey……….Let these brighten up what has been ………..a bleak time for us all………..Let these remind you, that we too are like flowers, delicate, in need of food and water…………..in order to survive……..but in need of love and care to truly live, love always M’
I turned away so she wouldn’t notice that my shoulders were shaking.
Miss M opened her eyes and looked to me for reassurance and general praise for her writing talents.
‘What do you think?’
What I actually thought was, she’s stark raving mad and I hope she’s joking, but I bit my lip and found myself saying ‘Really lovely.’
People often asked me ‘What exactly is it you do all day?’ which I tended to translate as ‘Do celebrities really need assistants on hand at all times? Are they a necessary part of a celebrity’s life or simply a way of ensuring that someone is on hand to massage their egos at all times and carry their shopping?’ In short was I just a status symbol?
I think back nostalgically to the carefree days when I had no idea.
For most celebrities a personal assistant is most definitely a necessity rather than a luxury. They have such hectic schedules that they would not be able to cope without any help. Miss M’s phone never stopped ringing with people who all wanted a piece of her. On a daily basis there were her many work commitments to deal with, plus all of her publicity to organise. There were also social engagements (she received at least five invitations a day to various events), fan mail to reply to and dozens and dozens of other bits of business to contend with. And this is all before you’ve taken into account the upkeep of her houses, the management of various staff, and family commitments. Add to this never ending training sessions, waxing, manicures and hair appointments and you can see why she needed help. It’s hard work being famous.
Equally an assistant is also someone to rant at, someone to provide on tap compliments and someone to blame when things go wrong.
Miss M was in a flap. She had a dinner date with an American producer who was in town from LA for one night only. For weeks his half-baked assistants Kristi and Stacey who seemed to be oblivious to the concept of time difference, had been phoning me with vital questions such as ‘What’s the zip code of the restaurant?’
Arrangements had been made when I was either in bed, in the pub or inebriated.
Anyway, on the one occasion that this producer had actually spoken to Miss M directly he’d really managed to rile her.
‘I’m worried Miss M.’ he’d said. ‘I have concerns that you might put on weight whilst in the UK, which would be a problem when we come to shoot the love scenes in your movie. How about I foot the bill for a personal trainer and a nutritionist?’
Quite rightly Miss M was livid.
‘How patronising can you get?’ she’d exclaimed to me later.
‘I’ll take them up on the offer of the gym sessions because I’d be having them anyway but I think I’m old enough to figure out what I can and can’t eat.’ She said finishing off her pot of cottage cheese lite.
At times like this I began to understand why so many stars go to such extreme lengths to remain slim. The pressure to maintain her svelte, toned figure was enormous and came from all directions. Even stars of Miss M’s calibre who are protected by the best publicists, agents and lawyers that money can buy have no choice but to look perfect for as much of the time as is humanly possible.
Whereas I’d once seen Miss M’s figure as an enviable asset I viewed it differently once I understood what pressure she was under to maintain it. Given the choice I’d prefer to remain a comfortable size twelve and enjoy a pint with my friends and an exercise plan that was less like boot camp.
As I wondered the aisles of ‘Marks and Spencers’ searching for wheat free bread and organic salmon I could see why despite her incredible lifestyle she was sometimes less than happy.
Don’t get me wrong I’m not suggesting that we feel sorry for our pampered stars who have the bank balance to allow them to duck out of the limelight at any given time should they wish to do so. I’m just suggesting that maybe fame and fortune isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and that it presents it’s own set of problems that we couldn’t even begin to relate to. On paper Miss M had everything. An amazing career, beauty, wealth, health and a wonderful personal life, and yet the more time I spent with her the more I realised that I was the lucky one.
After having witnessed an actor of the A list variety extolling the simple virtues of hanging your washing outside on a line I also now firmly believe that the proverb ‘the grass is always greener’ really does apply to everyone.
Despite everything I’ve told you, working as a celebrity personal assistant is a much sought after job. In fact if you ‘google’ those very words it comes up time and time again as a dream job. And it can be, as long as you vet your employer as thoroughly as they vet you.
On that note I’ll leave you with a tale that Liza Minelli’s assistant Linda Brumfield has been dining out on for years. She reported a lasting image of her boss freaking out that her trousers were wrinkled. Brumfield got the iron out and pressed them.
Minnelli gasped, ‘Where did you learn to do that?’