Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Personal Assistant?

IT'S LIKE A CIA CONVENTION, A 12-STEP PROGRAM and a revival meeting all in one room. Here in an airless, pie-shaped Holiday Inn suite overlooking the 405 Freeway, a capacity crowd has paid up to $59 a person for tonight's Learning Annex seminar: "Becoming a Celebrity Personal Assistant."

Let's get this straight: Being a celebrity personal assistant is not a glam job. According to the event's host, the Assn. of Celebrity Personal Assistants, the average salary is $850 per week for knowing how to proceed when the cat gets eaten by coyotes or the London house needs a new roof, and how to tell the mistress from the wife (answer: ask the housekeeper).

Before presenting the seminar's four panelists, ACPA moderator Rita Tateel asks the rest of us to introduce ourselves. The crowd is older and more experienced than I expected--accountants, Realtors, administrators and RNs. "It's a steppingstone," asserts Firestorm, a single-named woman in her 30s sporting a leather bomber jacket, a PhD in film studies and the spit and polish of a prior Air Force career. "I have a friend who works for a celebrity, and all he does is make plane reservations and take care of the guy's keys because he tends to lose them all the time. But I have another friend whose job involves reviewing scripts for his boss."

Tonight's first topic is preferred job skills ("articulate, tactful, photographic memory helpful," a woman in front of me jots on a tablet). "You have to be able to connect the dots," says panelist Dean Johnson, an effervescent South Carolina native whose employer goes unnamed ("we all sign nondisclosure agreements"). Like a Bible Belt preacher, Johnson wins over the crowd with his resounding belief in the rightness of his calling. "Make sure they have dinner," he intones. "Make sure they have gas in their car. This person has invited me into their life. It's such an honor for me. Such a privilege. Every little detail matters--"

"Their favorite water in the limo," chimes in another panelist.

A cell phone rings, and the panelists simultaneously glance at their tiny screens. Johnson takes the call.

"What about your personal life?" someone calls out. "In 15 years, I've only been sick three days," claims Leeza Tander Tostenson, who works for several celebrities part time. "You cannot be sick. People get fired because they're often sick. You have to be fit and healthy." (The woman in front of me writes, "Don't get sick. Fit and healthy.") "No divorce. No custody battles," Tostenson continues. "If you're missing for a day, they don't know what to do."

What about drugs, asks someone in the front row. Tateel's eyes get steely. "It's well known that some celebrities have problems with drugs. If you're working with someone who has those issues, you need to know what you're willing or not willing to do."

And the upside? "Let's talk about glamour," announces Tateel. Everyone exhales. We hear about the assistant who got a $50,000 bonus. The one who received a Range Rover. The lunches at the Ivy. The Oscars. The Grammys. The private jets and first-name-basis calls from the White House.

It seems too high a price to me, but others here disagree. As one woman, now a VP of operations at a company she wouldn't name, put it: "I'm already baby-sitting a bunch of men at work," she says as we walk to the elevator. "And that kind of work is not appreciated in corporate America. So I want one person--even if it's a difficult one--to spoil rotten."

"Do you need a personal assistant?"

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