What's It Really Like To Be A Personal Assistant? We Interviewed One.
October 24, 2014
What’s it really like to be a personal assistant? Before interviewing one, everything I knew about that line of work I learned from The Devil Wears Prada. Sure, Andy (Anne Hathaway)’s job seemed torturous at times (really, any moment that Miranda Priestly was near), but there were some pretty glamorous parts, too. Like flying to Paris or getting to borrow all that Chanel. (I mean?!) With the bad came a lot of good–but was it worth it?
On the surface, it’s a fascinating/exciting line of work–you get to know a famous person so intimately that you see inside their marriage and their underwear drawer–but there are some obvious downsides, too. Thanks to court documents, we know that Lady Gaga did everything short of physically abusing her personal assistant and that Lindsay Lohan chased hers down in a stolen SUV. Naomi Campbell was accused of beating hers because the poor woman booked the wrong hairdresser for an event. Ouch.
These examples might seem extreme, but it turns out that assisting someone so self-important (and sometimes, volatile) can really take its toll. At least according to a 28-year-old NYC woman who for two years was the right hand woman to the CEO of a MAJOR fashion brand. Agreeing to speak on the condition of anonymity (she still fears her ex-boss), Suzannah* shared her grueling experience:
The recession hit right when I graduated from college, and like everyone else in my class, I needed a job badly. It was a matter of being able to stay in New York or moving back home and into my parents’ basement. I was at a point where I would have taken anything, but then a job opening came up as a showroom assistant at an extremely well known fashion house, so I went in to be interviewed. That specific position had already been filled, so HR referred me for a position to personally assist one of the owners of the company.
I’d told HR that I was interested in this other position, so they set up an interview with my future boss at the showroom. I was called back for a second interview, which took place at his home. I wasn’t looking to get into this industry per say, I’d never really had a specific interest in assisting someone so high-profile, but I’d wanted to stay in the fashion industry—fashion is what I went to school for—and my boss was a major player in the fashion world. I honestly don’t think that most college grads want to remain as assistants, but when you have the opportunity to assist someone really high-profile, you are exposed to so much at such a high level, so you end up having a really good grasp at what things are like from the top—that’s how I rationalized with myself when I decided to take the job.
At first it was exciting. I was 21 years old and freshly out of college, lucky to have a job, especially in the industry I went to school for. I started off working out of his house, and once his office was ready, I split my time between his home and the office. I had to deal with a lot of mundane administrative stuff, all of his scheduling, and walking his dogs, but overall it was still a very cool job to find. He had both professional and personal relationships with everyone who was anyone—socialites and media personalities, editors at Vogue and W Magazine, basically everyone you would have read about or had bylines in the biggest publications. And I’d get to see these people at meetings and such.
I also spent a lot of time on the phone with his wife. We’d speak on a daily basis, and since I manned his schedule, I’d go over his agenda with her, and find time to fit her and their children into it.
The salary wasn’t huge, I started at $35,000 with the promise of a 5k raise after six months (which I made sure to put on his agenda), but there sure were perks. I got to go to Italy and London with him a few times, and the New York office environment was pretty autonomous most of the time since my boss wasn’t often there. I’d also get gifted certain products to wear, like bags or shoes that the brand wanted me to represent. I got great holiday gifts, like a really expensive beanie his wife picked out for me. At the time I got what I thought was an awesome Christmas bonus, but in actuality it was really only about 1% of my annual salary. I was accustomed to a smaller paycheck, so the bonus looked great to me.
Over time, the job got more and more demanding. I made the mistake of making myself available 24/7, always said yes, and never ignored an email on the weekends, which I’d come to understand he’d expected anyway. It sort of beat me down when on a Saturday night instead of having a social life, I was dealing with trying to get him on the next flight back to The States. Things like that were always coming up, and it was somewhat part of the job description, but what valuable work experience was I really gaining? And he really had no appreciation—it was all expected of me. He was accustomed to people just doing things for him—he grew up with a silver spoon, and was used to the fine things in life.
When I didn’t meet his standards, he sure let me know it. I’ll never forget the time he shamed me in front of his entire staff. He was sitting coyly on his sofa, blasting me for leaving his international executives alone in his showroom on a Sunday instead of staying to babysit them. He was angry that they had smoked inside, which was something he himself did all of the time. At that point, I wanted to walk out, I was mentally drained and felt that I had little left of my identity, but I stayed.
Being involved in his personal life also meant bringing his agenda to his home when he came down with the ‘Irish Flu’. On one of those days, I was going over his messages and calls, and as I started to relay the message of some woman, he quickly shut me up. He then gave me a list of female names that I was to leave off his agenda and never to speak of, especially around his wife.
Things got particularly uncomfortable on the days I’d be working from his home, listening to screaming matches between my boss and his wife, where he’d use the home office as his safe-haven, and I’d have to tell his wife not to come in because we were busy. Or there were the times when I’d have to coordinate sending gifts to certain women with his driver. I didn’t know which women were actual business associates and which were his ‘personal friends’, my responsibility was simply to get it done.
Those things were a little too personal for me, especially because I was trying to respect his privacy to a degree, while I was completely engulfed in it at the same time. I was constantly in this gray area of boundaries.
When I first accepted the position, I was told that I wouldn’t be dealing with personal tasks like scheduling haircuts or having his art collection received at his home, but once I started saying yes, those tasks kept on coming. I’d do things like schedule his doctor’s appointments, pick up his prescriptions (which included a medication for herpes—gross), and schedule sessions with some specialist that came to the house to help him quit smoking. I did everything under the sun.
There was the time when rats kept getting into his garbage cans, so he made me knock on his neighbor’s door—who just so happens to be an extremely famous high-profile media personality—to inquire about how to deal with the rat problem. That was obviously degrading, but again, I was so beaten down and drained that nothing even fazed me. I was like, “Okay, I have to get this rat problem under control.” I was totally putting my four-year private school degree to use with that one.
Then he really crossed the line. He was working on a new business venture with one of his collaborators, and was having me put together an intensive list of budgets and projections. I was on the phone with his partner gathering information, which took quite a while. As I walked out to update my boss, before I could even speak he said, “Who were you on the phone with? Your rabbi?” I’m a Jewish girl, so to me that was very offensive. Clearly he knew that I was not on the phone with my rabbi, but here he was making fun of me, yet again in front of a group of people. I felt completely violated.
In reality, the entire experience was a complete mindf*ck. Knowing what a day was going to be like made it hard to even go in, especially when I had to force myself not to be rattled by it. And that rabbi comment really set me off, so by then I knew I needed out. I had a constant pit in my stomach, and I realized that I wasn’t going to be there forever. It had already been two years and I didn’t see my future there.
He did not react well when I put in my two weeks notice. I’d already groomed who I’d thought would fill my position, but I think he just really liked having me in that role. I was his very efficient right-hand—I knew what he needed and could get things done quickly. But his reaction was explosive. He just walked out of the room, and then came back in to tell me that it was the most unserious thing I could have ever done. I honestly think he was worried about what I’d say or do once I left—I was the girl that knew too much. So he sent his lawyer to sit down with me and try to coerce me into signing a ridiculous contract, which my lawyer advised me not to sign. This did not go over well, and I was dismissed prematurely of my two weeks notice.
Since then I’ve seen him around a couple of times. Once I saw him walking his own dogs, but I pretended not to see him and picked up the pace. I don’t really feel any ill will though. Yeah, it’s a shame that things ended poorly, but I don’t hold a grudge. He ultimately did provide me with a great stepping-stone and first entry point into the industry.
Looking back, I can’t say that I was abused, but there is a certain sense of entitlement that can start to wear on anybody when you don’t feel recognized or appreciated. Anyone looking to get in to that line of work should lay their ground and establish boundaries from the get-go, instead of yessing yourself into a catchall—that advice would have really helped me back then.