Star Chores - Being a celebrity personal assistant

By Jake Halpern

They clean, they cook, they make sure the dancing poodles turn up on time. They're also poorly paid and work punishing hours but they don't care. Why are personal assistants so devoted to their work?

Brief and rather curious statement from the website for the Association of Celebrity Personal Assistants (ACPA): The evolution of stars and their personal secretaries has witnessed the emergence of modern-day personal assistants who are multi-tasking machines possessing the most resourceful, creative, insightful, and results-driven abilities.

Not surprisingly, the concept of personal assistants or courtiers, as they were once known is an ancient one. In Roman times, senators hired nomenclatures, whose chief responsibility was to whisper the names of approaching dignitaries. Napoleon Bonaparte allegedly employed an assistant with the same size foot, whose primary job was to break in the emperor's new shoes. Some of China's Ming emperors maintained a court of 70,000 eunuchs. It only stands to reason that a city like Los Angeles, which is home to so many of the famous and the semi-famous, would have an organisation for assistants.

When I first got in touch with Josef Csongei, the president of the ACPA, he was reluctant to talk because, as he sees it, celebrity personal assistants have not always been treated fairly by the press. According to him, this was especially true in the mid-1990s, during the OJ Simpson trials, when OJ's sidekick, Kato Kaelin, was ridiculed in the media as a toady who did nothing but mooch off his boss.

"That was a bad time for assistants," said Csongei, who slowly opened up to me. "Kato wasnt really an assistant, he was just a houseguest who occasionally ran errands for OJ, but not everyone realised that. So for a while people were calling us 'Katos'. We were perceived as, you know, hangers-on and freeloaders, because people did not understand the difference between being a groupie and being a hard-working aide. But the truth is we work very hard."

A good celebrity personal assistant is part-agent, part-accountant, part-publicist, part-cook, and, sometimes, part-shrink.

Despite the hard work and lack of appreciation that can come with this line of work, the jobs are still highly coveted, Csongei said. He noted that people regularly travelled great distances to attend a seminar titled Becoming a Celebrity Personal Assistant, which was run by the Learning Annex and the ACPA.

To prove his point, he told me about Dean Johnson. In the coming weeks I heard this story from a number of assistants, including Johnson, and every time it left me baffled.

The story begins one night in September of 1994, with Johnson sitting at home by himself. Johnson is a single, 32-year-old business executive in charge of marketing and advertising at a sizeable company in the health care industry. It is 11pm and he is looking to unwind in front of the television after a long day at work.

A talk show appears on the screen, and the host introduces her four guests: the celebrity personal assistants for Whoopi Goldberg, Roseanne Barr, Burt Reynolds and Carol Burnett. As these assistants talk about flying on private jets and attending Hollywood parties, Johnson reaches for a pen and starts taking notes.

Without wasting another minute, he picks up the phone, calls directory assistance in Los Angeles, and asks for the home phone numbers of the four assistants on the show.

Only one of them is listed - Ron Holder, who works for Whoopi Goldberg. Johnson dials his number, and a minute later Holder picks up the phone. "He said I was very lucky to get through," Johnson told me. "Apparently, in the three months since he had appeared on that talk show, he had received about 200 phone calls from people like me.

"He was in the process of disconnecting his phone, but he was nice enough to chat with me for a while." During their conversation Holder told Johnson he should consider attending the 'Becoming a Celebrity Personal Assistant' seminar in Los Angeles.

For someone like Johnson, with almost no connections in the industry, the notion of moving to Los Angeles to become a celebrity personal assistant was beyond impulsive.

The quintessentially American story of the guy in the remote hinterland who falls in love with the glamour of the silver screen, packs up all his possessions, and moves out to Hollywood to become a star is almost a century old. But Johnson's story offered a new paradigm: the guy from the remote hinterland who falls in love with the glamour of the silver screen, packs up all his possessions, and moves out to Hollywood to become an assistant to a star.

Of the thousands of people who work in Hollywood agents, lawyers, stylists, publicists, business managers, and others many gravitate toward the towns biggest stars. What is unique about celebrity personal assistants is that such proximity appears to be the only perk their profession offers. Most assistants describe the bulk of their work as drudgery doing laundry, fetching groceries, paying bills.

And unlike lawyers and agents, who rub shoulders with the stars and often make millions of dollars, assistants are not paid particularly well. According to a survey administered by the ACPA, celebrity personal assistants typically make about US$56,000 ($75,900) not much by Hollywood standards, especially given the round-the-clock obligations they often have. What's more, being a celebrity personal assistant is rarely a stepping stone to fame.

According to the ACPA survey, celebrity personal assistants are, on average, about 38, right in the middle of their professional lives, and many if not most of those I met described their line of work as a lifelong profession. For them, being an assistant was not the means to an end but an end in itself.

Johnson and I had our first talk in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel. He was tall, in his late 30s, with reddish, sunscorched skin, green eyes, a shaved head, and a handsome Roman nose. One of the first things he told me after introducing himself was that he worked for Tiffani Thiessen, who gained fame in the 1990s for playing Valerie Malone on Beverly Hills 90210.

I had a number of immediate questions, beginning with whether Tiffani Thiessen was even still regarded as a celebrity. According to the ACPA, there is no expiration date on celebrityhood. So yes, Tiffani Thiessen was indeed a celebrity, and Johnson was qualified to be an ACPA member.

"My thinking was kind of pie-in-the-sky when I first got here [LA]," he told me. "I thought I would just work for Julia Roberts, or Jodie Foster, or Mel Gibson, right off the bat. I don't know what I was thinking." Instead, he ended up working for Alan Thicke, who played the father on Growing Pains.

"I don't consider myself a vain person or a superficial person, but I would be wrong to say that we all don't like being close to something that's powerful, and entertainment is what captivates the world today. These celebrities are known around the world, and assistants are the gatekeepers. That's a powerful position to be in."

So why not go to Washington, DC? I asked. "Most people can't even name the Secretary of State, but they can tell you who Sandra Bullock is, he said. It's sad but true."

After working for Thicke, Johnson worked for several other actors, including Noah Wyle, of ER, before joining Thiessen. In all these jobs he did his best to play the role of the genie in the lamp, accommodating whatever requests his bosses made.

"One person I worked for had to have their diet fruit drink on the left-hand side of the refrigerator, he recalled. It was a huge ordeal, and more than anything else in the household it had to be done correctly. It didn't matter whether the payroll came in, or the bills got paid, as long as the fruit drinks were on the left-hand side of the refrigerator.

"I don't make judgments, but I think celebrities generally have such little control over what the public thinks or what the critics say, that when they get home they need to exact monumental control. Often it's those little things that most of us don't even think about. The daily minutiae."

The most trying moments for Johnson, without a doubt, were the tantrums. "I remember one time I was back in a dressing room and I got such an ass-chewing from this celebrity over the timing of a publicity shoot. When I couldn't reschedule it, this person threw a tantrum.

"I couldn't remember the last time I'd been talked to like that, and I looked in the dressing-room mirror and I thought to myself, What the **** am I doing here?

And then, a moment later, I realised, if the behaviour is bad at this level, it will be worse at the next level, and you better just be glad this tantrum wasn't from a bigger star".

For the past few years Johnson has been a regular panellist for 'Becoming a Celebrity Personal Assistant'. The event is usually held at the Holiday Inn in Brentwood, a 17-storey cylindrical tower that looks like the handle of a giant screwdriver rising out of the earth and looming over the city of Los Angeles. I decided to attend this event one evening to hear what Johnson had to say to people considering following in his footsteps.

The first to introduce himself was Clay, a well-dressed African-American in his mid-30s, who said he worked in the deli section of a Beverly Hills supermarket, where he'd had quite a bit of experience serving high-profile customers. "I believe I have what it takes to work in a celebrity environment," Clay said nervously. Next, a middle-aged woman named Janice, who had worked in an office for 30 years, announced that she couldn't take another day of sitting behind a desk and answering phones.

A heavy-set woman named Samantha said she was an assistant to a family of makeup artists who had worked for Hollywood performers for four generations. I love makeup, but now I'm looking to get directly into the celebrity world, she said.

Last, was Ingo, a fidgety, tall Austrian with his hair tightly clasped in a ponytail. I keep unusual hours, mumbled Ingo in a heavy German accent. Then he nodded emphatically, as if no more needed to be said.

Seminar moderator Rita Tateel then introduced the three panellists. Tateel turned toward the first, an attractive young woman who wore a nose ring, a camouflage v-neck T-shirt, and a black blazer. "Please welcome the personal assistant to a great artist, director, and actor whom you all know: Dennis Hopper. This is his assistant, Annie Brentwell." Tateel began the three-hour seminar with a kind of drill-sergeant speech in which she laid down some hard truths.

First of all, you must be in good health at all times, because you are running a celebrity's life, and if you get sick their life can't just stop. So, if you get recurrent colds, or the flu, or generally worn down by stress, this job is not for you. And you need to be flexible, able to work all kinds of hours, which means this job often requires all your energy. And you have to be a can-do person. If there is one word that celebrities don't want to hear, that word is no."

The topic of saying yes and whether it was ever possible to say no came up often during the evening. "Johnson offered this solution: I tell my bosses right off the bat there are three things I can't do - I can't speak Spanish; I can't drive a stick shift; and I cant do anything illegal."

Annie Brentwell had a different approach: if faced with an illegal request, she tried to find a compromise. "I've been asked to get drugs", she said. "And I've said, OK I can put you in touch with someone who can make this happen, but I won't do it personally. This way, I don't have to be a no-person, because I was taught to be a yes-person, and I think that's why I still find myself in this job."

Tateel interjected: "As a personal assistant, you could be asked to do anything, and you have to know your boundaries."

At this point Clay raised his hand. "Is it better to have a close bond with your celebrity employer, or is it better not to be close?" he asked.

"What you have to realise is that this isn't up to you," Brentwell replied immediately. "The bottom line is that you are not in control of the boundaries. So I allow myself to become whatever they want me to be."

Towards the end of the evening the discussion turned to the subject of perks. "Celebrities are always getting perks first-class plane tickets and great meals and you are like a secondhand beneficiary", Johnson said. "And it is nice to live a first-class life and to be picked up in the limo and have a thousand people screaming your name."

An awkward silence came over the classroom.

"Did you say a thousand people screaming your name?" Tateel asked.

"Not my name," Johnson stammered. I meant, you know, your celebrity's name.

Tateel nodded and smiled.

Not long after the seminar, I invited Brentwell to meet me for drinks. Almost immediately we started talking about her job. "The mental discipline is incredibly important", she said. "For me, it's an ever-present attentiveness to the fact that you are just doing the job. You're not hanging out with your friend."

As far as I could tell, Brentwell's concept of discipline was not intended to keep her sane as much as to help her serve her employer better. She was constantly adjusting her psyche to become the perfect complement or counterbalance. She could play the humble servant, the trusted confidante, the cheerful admirer, or the supportive family member.

And yet even when she emulated a friend or a family member, it wasn't exactly a realistic scenario because, on principle, she was refusing to talk about herself or even to recognise her own emotions. The result was a pseudo-friendship, in which one person did all the talking and feeling, while the other deftly manoeuvred to stay out of the way.

When I asked Brentwell how she took care of her own mental wellbeing, she laughed. Before working for Dennis Hopper she had worked for Sharon Stone an even more demanding job. "This job can really burn you out," she said. "I imagine psychologists wouldn't approve of what personal assistants do, because we're consciously choosing not to feel certain emotions when we are on the job. So we need sanctuaries. Wherever you can rest your head at night, even for a few hours, that is meditation and solace time. Even going to the bathroom can be a moment of private time."

As hard as her job was, Brentwell said she had several different kinds of joy from being a personal assistant. The most dramatic example was when she accompanied Sharon Stone to the premiere of one of her movies and, as a treat, Stone allowed Brentwell to wear her jewellery and shoes. Best of all, there's the limo ride and the whole experience of walking the red carpet, seeing the flashing lights, and having that very special feeling for one night.

Another, more common joy came on the days when Brentwell worked herself into a stupor. If you have a demanding day, when you work from early in the morning into late at night, and you've done some important things and trivial things, too, like scooping up the dog poop or changing the cat litter and you are dragging yourself back to your house at midnight, you just feel so good.

In fact, you feel great, because you were able to do so much in one day. "I get emotional even thinking about it. You feel like a superwoman. And on the days they throw more at you, you almost feel better. I'm proud of my ability to lose myself and do whatever I have to do, even at the risk of health or sanity."

Roughly once a month, Annie Brentwell carves out a precious two hours to attend one of ACPA's Wednesday-evening get-togethers. These meetings are typically held in the back room of a restaurant or a bar, where members can have a few drinks, unwind, and network.

At one of these get-togethers at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard, Josef Csongei greeted the members as Rita Tateel handed out US$1200 worth of coupons for injections of a product she described as a new and improved version of Botox.

"The idea behind this promotion is that if you use this product and look good then your celebrity will ask what you've done," Tateel told one assistant who was standing beside me.

I spied Brentwell in the far corner of the room and went over to say hello. She greeted me with her typical exuberance. I haven't been coming to these meetings as often as I'd like, she said. But it's good to be here. Sometimes these meetings are like group therapy.

Brentwell said she had been feeling good about her job lately, because she expected to get a weeks holiday in the summer something she never would have had when she was working for Sharon Stone. Back then, she couldn't even take a weekend off for a friends wedding, because she was always on call.

Such events were all part of the personal life she had been forced to sacrifice. But now, at long last, her life seemed to be getting incrementally more independent. The very fact that she was here tonight, she insisted, was proof that she was serious about making more time for herself.

"People have always requested me, wanted me, even tried to take me away from the person I was working for, and I feel proud that I was wanted like that. But is this what I really want? Because there are other things I would like. I wish I travelled around the world more. And I do wish that I had kids, which I still want." Occasionally, thoughts like these made her consider quitting her job. But there was still time, she insisted.

One evening Dean Johnson invited me to his house for dinner. His place was sparsely furnished with cream-coloured fitted carpeting, two black cloth couches, and a glass coffee table strewn with a few copies of Entertainment Weekly. He explained that he was trying to break into movie-making. So far, he'd had some encouraging success. His boss, Tiffani Thiessen, had helped him to get finance for a short film called Just Pray, which he had written and she would direct. They were planning to start production this year.

He hoped this might pave the way to a new, more creative professional life. But until then he was still taking care of her dry cleaning and managing her gardeners.

"Tiffani has been great to me, he said. But she is the exception. In general, I suppose if you are a celebrity, you don't really want to give your personal assistant a job as an associate producer in your new show. Then you'd have to hire someone else to run your life and they might not get everything just right."

When I asked how much longer he envisaged himself working as an assistant, Johnson hesitated. "There are times when I probably thought I'd be doing this forever. But a 65-year-old can't be speed-racing across the city and down the freeway to get that special pink-elephant gift."

- canvas, Weekend aherald

Adapted from Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind Americas Favorite Addiction by Jake Halpern. Copyright Jake Halpern, 2007. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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