What It’s Like to Be a Personal Assistant for the Rich and Famous, Part II
“There are job functions that wouldn’t apply to most people.”
Last month we talked to Lisa, a longtime personal assistant who currently works for, among others, a Very Famous Writer. She talked about some of the weird things that come up when you’re handling large sums of other people’s money, what it means to get to 401(k) land, and how making a living as an artist is hard even when you’re on top of the creative heap.
Some readers wanted to hear more about the things Lisa does on a day-to-day basis, so here’s a closer look at her job.
How do you explain what you do?
You say the word “personal assistant” and even to people who do that for a living, that could mean such a range of things. It could be a really lowly sort of coffee-fetcher, run-this-down-to-Kinkos sort of position, or it could be you have the keys to the castle and you are in control of everybody’s move and the whole production of the life of the people that you’re working for. There’s a huge range. So I find that I have to break it down. Whatever my elevator pitch is, it’s like: I work for people with way too much money—I run their lives, I run their work, I manage their house.
Most people don’t know why you would need a role filled—why somebody would need someone like me in their life. It’s this life that my clients are living where they have multiple people on staff and they have multiple construction projects or multiple homes or a private plane, or whatever. They’re thinking of buying a yacht!—or maybe they’ll just rent one, and they have to give that task to somebody, to figure out which is better value. There are job functions that wouldn’t apply to most people.
I’d have thought everyone just said, oh, I want a personal assistant!
Oh they do, they all say that. It’s like, aaah! ‘Cause I say, “I do to, I wish I had one too”.
For instance, today is the first day that I haven’t had anybody needing me. For a very long time. For maybe months. Today is the first day I don’t have some burning task on my to-do list that must get done.
Do people ask you how they can get into the personal assistant field?
I’ll get people asking—you know, “Early forties, I’ve been working a corporate job my whole life, it’s not fulfilling, I’ve been thinking about getting into personal assisting.” I get that quite a bit. People will just be like, “Hey, you seem like you do this, I was wondering if we could talk.” I always tell them, you probably won’t like it. [Laughs] It’s really, really hard.
People need to know that. It sounds very glamorous. There are people who write personal assistant books and publish newsletters, or even have these public personas like, “You too can be a celebrity personal assistant” And I hate those people.
Like, “I’m on a plane to some exotic location”?
It sounds awesome. “Dolce and Gabbana are on the plane, too!” It’s this whole concept that it’s like you just get dropped into this glamorous life and Kim Kardashian’s always there… As though when you’re famous and fancy like that your life is just suddenly, just: There are diamonds falling from the ceiling! I actually get really angry with that kind of mentality because it does a real disservice to the kind of work that goes into helping somebody maintain their life.
It’s clearly not a job for everybody.
Eighty-nine percent of why I’m doing what I’m doing is because I think it’s such an honor to be involved in someone’s life on such an intimate level and be of assistance—in stupid situations where the gardener did something wrong, but really intense situations where someone is dying, or somebody just got diagnosed with cancer, or a teenager is pregnant and what are we going to do. It’s real life stuff that comes up that…augments my life.
How many clients do you have at one time?
Well, I’ve worked in the Bay Area for a long time. So usually I have one majority-of-my-work-week that I keep. But just because I’ve been around so long, people call and need stuff and old clients pop up: “We’re throwing this thing,” or, “Can you help us with this,” or even like a client from a couple years back, “We’re doing taxes, do you remember where the duh-duh-duh is?” I’m like, “oh I’ll pop over.” It’s that kind of thing.
For the past at least year and a half, I’m working almost exclusively for one family. But there has been a lot. Four in the East Bay alone, a couple in the city [San Francisco], some on the Peninsula [another wealthy area south of S.F.]. I mean, I’ve been here a while. I’ve been here for fifteen years.
And you are at that high level, with salary and everything?
Yeah. Because I can demand it. Before, I couldn’t. And also there’s not a lot to select from, I mean there aren’t that many people who—I mean, there are a lot of people who have a lot of money here, for sure—but families who require that kind of support? It sort of requires that either you have two crazy overworking parents with a lot of money and a staff—that kind of family would need someone to manage it all—or you have a situation such as mine currently where you’re supporting people within their home and with their family, but you’re also supporting them at work.
That’s probably more fun, right?
Way more fun for me. Partially that’s just because the majority of my clients in the past have been doctors and lawyers and very linear thinkers and Type A personalities and I’m, like, this musician from the country that likes to cook. I can speak that language and I can totally hang out in that world but it’s not a comfortable place. I’m very grateful to have found one of the few situations at my level that is not in a Type A environment. That’s a really big thing for me.
And it probably helps if you personally like them.
It’s interesting. It’s very much like a marriage in some respects, that there are things that will drive you crazy. I’m actually almost more comfortable calling it a marriage than having a best friend. (She laughs.) Because there’s a contract.
Because you can get divorced?
Maybe. Maybe so.
I feel like because there’s an inherent contract or partnership in a marriage, that there is give and take and you’re expecting loyalty. And you’re expecting things to be hard. And some days are horrible, and you go home and you’re just like, “Arrgh, she’s driving me crazy!” or “Why did he say that?”
But when you are in someone’s home life there are no corporate rules. There’s no office protocol. You’re in their house—they’re in the bathroom right next to you or they’re calling their mom and getting off and being irritated. Or they’re having an argument in front of you. Or their kids yell at them, and you’re here. In a job—in a normal job—you would never know those things about your employer. You would never have any idea that they’re, you know, taking blood pressure medication.
Discretion must be a huge part of your job?
Yeah, for sure. And that’s part of doing that sort of gatekeeper, protective role. You want to maintain, want to keep everything erect and keep appropriate boundaries. And especially when you’re working for famous people, seeing people drive by the house, peering out the window.
Yeah. Or I get mistaken for people who are high profile that I work for, because I’m in their house and coming out, or because I drive a similar car. Or just even being around. It’s like, “Heeey, who are you?” That whole thing…It’s fine. It’s very surreal.
Do clients ever have a hard time letting you get down time? How do you deal?
That’s hard for my personal boundaries, with my family, but it’s also even hard for my clients, because I am so much in their lives that they often don’t even notice that they’re asking that of me—that it’s eight o’ clock and we’re texting back and forth, “I can’t find the sweater that needed the button replaced, where is it? I want to wear it tonight.” They don’t notice that I’m not there because I’m at home with my family, not-working. But I’m the only person who knows that kind of stuff! So it’s hard. I work really hard to be as available as possible and honestly I’m still refining how to maintain some kind of sanity for my own family.
We all understand that it’s perfectly reasonable that I would have a night, and I would have dinner with my family and put my kids down without getting texts about something that has nothing to do with my life. Sometimes I get them—and I say, “I have a two-year-old vomiting into my lap right now, I cannot deal with this.” And then sometimes I run over. It depends. The alarm is going off and no one’s home? Of course I’m going to rail over there and make sure everything’s ok.
It’s very easy for a codependency to develop in that sense because you just being available makes everybody feel better. A lot of times it’s just hand-holding, a lot of times it’s just, “I got that, I’m all over it, it’s gonna go away tomorrow,” and then I can put someone at ease. Even if I haven’t done it. Even just saying, “I’m totally dealing with that first thing in the morning do not worry about it, I got it,” that makes somebody able to go back to focusing on their work or go back to focusing on their kids. They don’t have the information, they don’t have the exchange of emails with the vendor, or the order number, or the expected delivery date of something that’s coming. And they’re sitting at home and they really need this thing. Just the act of being able to ask, “Hey, Lisa, when is that thing coming?” and me saying, “Oh Tuesday. I called, we have a tracking number, don’t even stress”—that makes that problem go away.
So how did teenage babysitting turn into this career for you, of running the whole show for very wealthy clients?
I liked the idea of having that kind of autonomy and being a professional at an early age. And, you know, that’s a lot of trust a parent is placing in you—when you’re that young it’s kind of a thrill to be responsible for someone’s little human beings. And I really loved it and I kind of kept going. I nannied when I moved to Oregon; I nannied in Santa Cruz. I always just found a nanny job to pay the bills and it was something that I enjoyed. And that freed me up to play music, and cook, and do all the stuff I wanted to do. And so eventually that just progressed into more and more responsibility.
If you’re home with someone’s kids, the electrician comes and you let them in, or you pay the gardener. The houses got bigger, the nanny jobs got bigger, then eventually I was working for C-level executives, helping to run their houses. Then their neighbor would say, “Hey, we’re having this little cocktail party, do you cook any? Would you mind throwing together some appetizers?” Or, “Hey, could you house sit?” Or even, “Hey, you’re good at interior design, what color do you think we should paint this wall? Or, “Could you take this to the frame shop?” And then it just grew and grew and grew. And the more you really stick around, the more you make yourself available, the more you end up running things. So it transitioned, ultimately, from being a nanny at sixteen for a family in the suburbs of Sacramento to running the lives of people who have tons of money.
Maya Mirsky is a reporter covering local news in Oakland, Calif.