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Celebrity Aide Job: Whatever

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She will buy your kids’ birthday presents. Field your business calls. Micro-manage your divorce. If you’re famous, she’ll shelter you from screaming fans. If you have a whim of iron, she’ll charter a plane to pick up your puppy--or pay somebody $100 to give you their parking space.

Kerri Campos has done all this, and much, much more, as a member of a curious but increasingly growing niche industry known as the personal assistant. And in the past decade, thousands of people--from Los Angeles celebrities to New York venture capitalists to Silicon Valley Internet moguls--have come to rely on men and women like Campos.

Associations have emerged in New York and Los Angeles, offering books, CD-ROMs and classes on how to become a personal assistant. A blurb on the New York Celebrity Assistants Web page casts the ideal assistant as “the person you would want to have around after the apocalypse.”

Personal assistants get close--really close--to their clients’ lives. Campos’ current employer, Sally Field, “has called me her wife when she introduced me to people,” Campos said. “She says, ‘I don’t know what to call her. She’s my everything.’ ”

Indeed, growing numbers of actors, business leaders, rock musicians and media executives are paying people like Campos to handle the hassles of life with the kind of self-sacrificing attentiveness that American society once demanded of the ideal wife.

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In the 19th century, men called such wall-to-wall adjutants valets. Today, though some personal assistants are men, people often tell Campos that “I need to hire a wife.”

If this seems an extravagance, many people inhabiting Los Angeles’ stratospheric income brackets consider personal assistants a basic necessity.

One Hollywood hostess, Irena Medavoy, tells how her assistant went on a scheduled maternity leave right before Oscar week. A domestic filled in. But in a mix-up, the employee faxed the guest list of a pre-Oscar Vanity Fair bash to the preschool of Medavoy’s son--and shipped form letters for his school fund-raiser to the magazine.

“It was a disaster,” said Medavoy, the wife of Phoenix Pictures Chairman Mike Medavoy. “A secretary from the school called me and said, ‘Are these the real home addresses of all these celebrities?’ ”

Medavoy called Campos with an urgent request to find a new aide-de-camp tout de suite.

Campos, 35, has a reputation in Los Angeles as a highly accomplished personal assistant. She exudes an understated empathy that is disarming and soothing. In the past decade, she has toured with musician Glenn Frey and traveled to film locations with Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith--including the Miami set where Griffith and Antonio Banderas fell in love. When Johnson and Griffith divorced, Campos said as she recounted her unusual career, she helped divvy up their household with enough tact that both actors wanted her to follow them in their separate lives.

A heightened sensitivity to personal chemistry has helped Campos figure out which assistants would get along with which celebrities, and that blossomed into a side business. In the past two years, Campos has placed 50 of them.

Economists view the personal assistant as an exotic species of the rarefied universe wrought by tremendous wealth. Some experts view the label itself as an attempt to avoid the stuffy Old Wealth language of servitude--which sounds unhip--and replace terms such as butler and social secretary with benign, corporate-sounding titles. But there really is no traditional title for this job’s hybrid portfolio.

“You’re not talking about someone who cleans your house anymore, you’re talking about a well-educated, well-spoken person who acts as an alter ego,” said Jim Smith, an expert on wealth at Rand Corp., the Santa Monica think tank. “You’re paying someone to represent you and take on the unpleasant tasks of your life.”

The pay scale, say members of the Los Angeles Assn. of Celebrity Personal Assistants, ranges from $10 an hour for a fresh-out-of-college gofer to the rare $100,000 a year. An average salary is about $1,000 a week.

Smith thinks there are fewer than 5,000 personal assistants in Los Angeles, and no more than 10,000, because “we’re talking about $10 million to get into this special little world.”

The 9-year-old Los Angeles association represents just a fraction. To qualify, members must work full time for a celebrity for a year. The 100 members work for musicians, actors, prominent politicians and even businessmen, as long as they approach the stature of Bill Gates, said association President Pattee Mack, who works for an A-list actor.

Assistants themselves are acquiring a strange stature--as gatekeepers to celebrity Nirvana.

“Everybody’s passing you a script,” Mack said.

Or offering you a drink. At a chic Santa Monica bistro, Liam Lambert--manager of London’s posh Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Hyde Park--wooed 30 personal assistants with champagne and free trips to London.

“We’re mining for gold here,” Lambert said. “If we can get the assistants, we can get the stars.”

But being a celebrity assistant is “anything but a fun job at times,” warned Rita Tateel, who teaches a course for aspiring assistants at the Learning Annex.

“You do everything,” echoed Braden Kuhlman, assistant to Dennis Hopper and, before that, Sharon Stone. “Setting up camp for someone’s kids. You put new trash bags in the trash can. You go to the cleaners, you handle dinner reservations, you gas the car.”

But you also field calls from “all these powerful people . . . the producer, the director,” Kuhlman said. “That dynamic is really nice.”

Campos had never heard the term “personal assistant” back in 1992, when she was 26 and working in the music industry. Someone suggested she interview for a position with musician Frey of the Eagles.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” Campos said Frey asked her. “Do you have kids, pets, houseplants, anything that you need to get back to?”

“I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘That’s great. I don’t want somebody who I have to plan my life around or who has to get back to something.’ ”

She showed up for what she thought would be a couple of days’ work at a concert engagement in New York, and “I was wearing the same clothes for a week before I got to shop for something in Cleveland.”

For two years, Campos’ life revolved around Frey and his band. When the Eagles entourage hit town, band members and roadies would go to their rooms to rest. Campos’ job had just begun: Was the luggage in the right rooms? Food in the dressing rooms at the concert hall? Did security have the latest guest list?

Back in Los Angeles, Campos did things such as help Frey move from his damaged house after the Northridge earthquake.

She moved on when the Eagles began their “Hell Freezes Over” reunion tour a few months later.

She began working on a set for Don Johnson, and she was still with him a few years later when he got back together with ex-wife Griffith.

Life in the Griffith-Johnson camp had glamour. They vacationed in Bali. Stayed in presidential suites in Jakarta. Campos learned to make Chinese herb elixirs, shipping ingredients from the Tea Garden on Beverly Boulevard to places all over the world.

She was with them in Miami when Griffith and Banderas fell in love while co-starring in “Two Much.” Campos said she helped the family pick up the pieces. Then she had to make a choice. She went with Griffith.

“Kerri Campos is capable of handling any situation without any expression of fear or anger on her face, which is quite extraordinary in this world of entertainment,” said a Griffith tribute posted on Campos’ Web site.

But the pace was taking its toll.

“At night I would choose if I could get more sleep or catch up on the paperwork or choose to spend a couple of hours on myself,” Campos said.

After a long stretch of seven-day weeks, she found herself in London--Banderas was recording the sound track of “Evita"--and she made another difficult choice.

“I’m not going to do this,” Campos told herself. “I want to have my own life.”

She went back to Los Angeles for a spell. She got a dog, a Maltese named Buster.

“He was one of the biggest steps that I took into getting my own life,” Campos said. “I said, ‘OK, I’ve got some roots now in L.A.’ It was like starting a family.”

But she kept getting calls “out of the blue” from people who wanted her as their personal assistant.

“I couldn’t believe people found me,” she said. “It made me stop and think, ‘Maybe I’m good at this.’ ”

In 1999, Campos set up https://www.kerricampos.com to advertise her referral service.

Her fee, a month’s salary, is paid by the employer. A year ago, she placed her own mother with a businessman.

She just found a job for Laura Mlak. Mlak, 29, has been a personal assistant in Silicon Valley since she graduated from San Francisco State in 1995 with a degree in developmental psychology and public relations.

Personal assistants are newer to Silicon Valley, and employers are “more humble, and sort of more hesitant to ask you to do personal things,” like picking up dog droppings in the yard, Mlak said--though when she offered “it really grows on them.”

Mlak’s clients--a major software CEO, an investment banker and a venture capitalist--all made more than $50 million a year, she said. When she called Campos, Mlak said she was charging a $40 hourly rate to a “mentor capitalist.” She did his shopping, planned his parties and helped keep track of investments.

But she wanted to relocate to Los Angeles, where personal assistants have more established careers, and sometimes segue into entertainment industry jobs. Mlak started her new job--with Irena Medavoy--on Monday.

“As a personal assistant, you’re it,” Mlak said, describing the allure. “You become their confidant, their advisor, their therapist in a way. If you’re not there, they fall apart.”

Some employers, Campos said, even fear their assistants will “want to go off and get married and leave.”

Campos said she chose Sally Field over others offering her jobs--a motivational speaker, a singer--because she thought the position would most allow her to preserve her own separate life.

She said Field has been very kind, encouraging Campos to bring Buster to work, and to develop her own aspirations. Campos does lots of research on the Internet for Field and has developed a special talent for taking Field’s business calls while playing pingpong with the actress’ 13-year-old son.

“As long as I take care of her,” Campos said, “she doesn’t mind me taking care of whatever else I do. She believes in me accomplishing my own business.”

Campos still exchanges Christmas cards, and sometimes visits, with her former employers. Her scrapbook is filled with family intimacies--kids’ baby pictures, sweet hand-scrawled notes. When Johnson’s teenage son, Jesse, did a cameo recently on his father’s series “Nash Bridges,” Campos watched proudly.

“It’s been amazing to be a pseudo-mom to these kids and watch them grow up,” she said. “It’s just like one big, spread-out kind of family. They’re not like jobs, or former employers, or celebrities. They’re like family.”

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Times staff writer Louise Roug contributed to this story.


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