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At Their Service

Andy Meisler has written for West, the New York Times and Los Angeles magazine. His Los Angeles Times Magazine story "The Fright Stuff" was included in the 2004 anthology "Best American Sports Writing."

The poor and helpless will always have Big Government, nongovernmental agencies and Bill and Melinda Gates to look after them.

But what about the rich, powerful and/or instantly recognizable? Who’s looking after their needs? Few people realize this, but your average chief executive, superagent or A-list actor or director is virtually hors de combat without an intelligent, infinitely flexible, utterly ego-free and usually career-capped gatekeeper by his or her side to make sure no important call goes unreturned, no important meeting missed, no personal checkbook unbalanced, no wayward son un-bailed from jail, no luncheon or airline reservation unmade.

Luckily for scores of L.A.-based big shots, Rachel Zaslansky is on the case. Zaslansky is cofounder and a principal partner of the Grapevine, a year-old employment agency--one of several like it in Los Angeles--that specializes in locating personal and executive assistants for the needy elite. She’s constantly searching for intelligent and presentable people who are equal parts Jules Verne’s fictional manservant Passepartout, “Silent” Calvin Coolidge, Tonto, the Invisible Man, MacGyver, Hudson the butler from “Upstairs, Downstairs” and--just for spice--Nanny McPhee or maybe a touch of Cardinal Richelieu.

Not a very common personality type these days. “I interview 10 or 15 individuals for every one I place,” Zaslansky says.

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That’s why she works very hard, racing from one Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Starbucks and Peets outlet to another to interview as many as 10 referred candidates in a day. (Aspiring actors, possessors of sloppy resumes or inappropriately dressed applicants probably will get no more than a chai latte out of the deal.) And the executive and personal assistants she chooses work even harder--albeit for salaries that can sometimes reach $150,000 per year.

“A lot of these jobs are intense, 24/7,” Zaslansky says. “Some have boundaries. But some have no boundaries.”

She adds that it’s not uncommon for an assistant--after a full day of answering phone calls, scheduling appointments, fending off sycophants, straightening the employer’s tie and picking up his kids from preschool--to be summoned “up to the house” at 2 a.m. to whip up a wee-hours BLT.

There also are impromptu Big Challenges: A personal assistant, says Zaslansky, once boarded a private jet with his employer and was told after takeoff that he wouldn’t return to L.A. for months.

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to get the job categories and requirements straight, an executive assistant usually works in an office, handling the phones and guarding the Big Cheese’s inner sanctum. The personal assistant is generally office-less but elaborately PDA’d, sticking to the boss’ side like white on risotto. Of course, in case of emergency--like a bad stain on the living room carpet or a First Family member’s fender bender--the personal assistant must be able to adapt quickly and head to the site of the catastrophe like an anxiety-seeking missile.

He or she also must maintain a level of confidentiality that’s rare in this town. “Oh, my God!” says a woman we’ll call Ms. X, an executive assistant who’s “chained to her desk” 10 or so hours a day for a Westside mogul. “He’ll freak if he ever reads my name, or his name, or figures out it’s me who talked about my job. I’ll be fired immediately.”

Likewise, most assistants, who almost always undergo background checks and frequently sign confidentiality agreements, are as reluctant to be quoted by name as they are to reveal the name of the person--celebrity or not--for whom they work. Which isn’t to say the job doesn’t have its psychic compensations.

“I love the fact that no one talks to him unless they talk to me first,” says Ms. X of her anonymous chief. “He doesn’t see his mail until I see it. I play dumb sometimes, but I know everything that’s going on.”

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A slightly milder version of that is voiced by Andrea Dunlap, executive assistant to John Cochran, president and chief operating officer of Fiji Water. “John travels a lot, so I’m his eyes and ears in the office. I get a feel for the office politics and let him know if there’s anything he needs to address. At the same time I can go home at night without having to worry about the problems.

“No,” she adds, “I don’t want to be an executive like him. I have a lot of influence--but it’s peripheral influence. That’s the way I like it.”

which brings up perhaps the most interesting part of the gatekeeper gestalt: In this era of ambition and ego, the most successful of them are fulfilled by being an unseen force, finding satisfaction in helping “their” man or woman succeed.

“They’re happy to be the man behind the man,” says Zaslansky. “They’re the kind of person who’s happy working as a concierge at a five-star hotel.”

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Indeed, Jimmy Cannon, a 20-year veteran assistant who’s worked for Farrah Fawcett, Lily Tomlin and the CEO of Telemundo, among others, got his start behind the front desk at the Pierre Hotel in New York. “I get my satisfaction out of making life as uncomplicated for them as possible,” says Cannon, who once defended Fawcett from a screwdriver-wielding gypsy-cab driver. “I see my job as getting them exactly the right piece of information they need at exactly the right time--not a second too early or too late.”

Says Stacey Tesser, the personal assistant for a prominent L.A. philanthropist: “I tend to be open and friendly, but a bit of a perfectionist--too much of a perfectionist when I’m taking care of myself. But when I’m taking care of other people I have a better perspective. I don’t obsess about it.”

It’s also a weirdly intimate kind of life, say most people in the profession. “You become, quote, a member of the family, unquote,” says one personal assistant who asked not to be identified. “You know everything about them, and there’s nothing too personal for them to ask you to do. An executive assistant friend of mine, a woman, once was asked by her boss to schedule his vasectomy for him.”

The personal assistant adds, “At the same time, you realize they know virtually nothing about your personal life, on the off chance you have time for one. And then, of course, when you get burned out and want some time off or want to move on, you’ve ‘betrayed’ them.”

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The other confounding conundrum of the gatekeeper life is that, no matter how often you get to fly on a Gulfstream V, you aren’t going anywhere. Except for a select few swimming-with-shark slots for, say, talent agency assistants for whom the job is a kind of boot camp, there is absolutely no room for advancement. The better you do your job the more certain it is that your employer will make sure you keep doing it. The best-case scenario involves salary increases.

“Everybody tells them that upfront,” says Zaslansky, “but a lot of times people think: ‘Oh, if they love me and I do a great job, then maybe I can get promoted.’ A couple of years later, they discover that’s not going to happen, and they leave. Which is hard--because when you leave you wonder, ‘I’ve already been an assistant to the best, so what’s next?’”

a few assistants have it figured out and are making other long-term plans. Andrea Dunlap, who is of Sierra Leonean descent, plans to join her sister and mother, who are running a school in that country’s capital, Freetown, in a few years. Stacey Tesser will soon start her own business devoted to what she loves to do best: organizing other people’s closets.

And then there’s Rachel Zaslansky. Raised in Chappaqua, N.Y., she spent time working in a Manhattan fashion showroom before moving to L.A. She eventually became assistant to Kevin Huvane, a CAA big cheese, before realizing that making job matches interested her more than making movie deals. She, Lori Zuker and Caroline Bassett founded the Grapevine, and now she gets her thrills sluicing through the L.A. talent pool for the rare individual born to be a secretary/psychologist/real estate agent/short-order cook/lightning rod/nanny.

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“My biggest thrill,” she says, “comes when I look into a person’s eyes and realize I’ve discovered a brand-new star. I mean assistant star.”


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