Inside the life of a personal assistant to the stars
In this excerpt from his new book, ''Fame Junkies,'' Jake Halpern wonders what drives the men and women who work long hours catering to the whims (and tantrums) of Hollywood celebs
It’s Wednesday evening, and the monthly meeting of the Association of Celebrity Personal Assistants is just beginning. The group has gathered in a private area at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. At the door, the organization’s past president, Josef Csongei, is greeting people. Next to him, someone is handing out coupons for $1,200 worth of injections of a product that she describes as a new and improved version of Botox. ”The idea behind this promotion is that if you use this product — and look good — then your celebrity will ask what you’ve done,” explains the coupon-giver.
As the evening gets under way, several dozen well-dressed men and women in their 30s chitchat and swap war stories. ”As assistants we get some very odd requests,” explains Becky Pentland, 48, personal assistant to Roseanne Barr. ”Like when Roseanne wanted dancing poodles in tutus for her son’s birthday. One of the members of the ACPA turned me on to a company that had a stable of circus acts. That’s how I found the dancing poodles. And we also brought in this guy who lit his farts on fire, which was the hit of the parade.”
Pentland relies on the ACPA, not just for guidance on meeting odd requests but also as a forum for discussing ”boundaries” — an issue that’s especially tricky for her because in 2000 she married Roseanne’s ex-husband Bill Pentland. ”When I’m working I call [my boss] ‘Roseanne,’ and when I’m not working I call her another name, which I can’t tell you,” says Pentland. ”So, at work, I try to be professional. I will say: ‘Yes, ma’am, can I get you something?’ And when I’m not, I’m more laid-back and shooting the s—. If she asks for a glass of water, I will say: ‘F— you. Get it for yourself.”’ (Apparently, this type of response doesn’t fluster Barr. ”Becky is my kids’ stepmom,” says the comedian, ”so I put up with her crabby old self.”)
”This place is like a support group,” adds Gary Potter, 40, former personal assistant to Dom DeLuise. ”It is like the celebrity 12-step program.” Potter said his professional relationship with DeLuise had just ended. ”I was with Dom for three and a half years, but it was time to go. It’s like any relationship. It’s very personal — you know their lives and their private pains — and when you leave, it’s like a breakup.” The key to being an assistant, says Potter, is to end the relationship with your celebrity before you get too burned-out.
Csongei agrees on this point. In a career high point, Csongei worked for director-producer Stanley Kramer, who made such classic films as Inherit the Wind and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. ”After working for Kramer, I needed something more low-key,” says Csongei, 37. ”I wouldn’t want an A-list job like Tom Cruise at this stage of my life. When you work for the big names, your own life can take a backseat without you knowing it and you can become resentful. I was fortunate to recognize that before it was too late.”
In general, the ACPA is a very understated organization. The meetings aren’t advertised publicly, and its roughly 120 members almost never talk to the press. Csongei himself is leery of journalists, especially since the O.J. Simpson trials in the mid-’90s, when O.J.’s sidekick, Kato Kaelin, was widely ridiculed as a mooching toady. ”That was a bad time for assistants,” says Csongei. ”Kato wasn’t really an assistant; he was just a houseguest who occasionally ran errands for O.J., but not everyone realized that. So for a while, people were calling us ‘Katos.’ We were perceived as, you know, hangers-on and freeloaders because people did not understand the difference between being a groupie and being a hardworking aide. But we work very hard. A good celebrity personal assistant is part agent, part accountant, part publicist, part cook, and sometimes part shrink.”
Celebrity personal assistants make up a unique niche among Hollywood professionals. Yet unlike lawyers and agents, who rub shoulders with stars and often earn millions of dollars, assistants are not paid particularly well. According to a survey administered by the ACPA, the average personal assistant is 38 and earns $56,000, not all that much by Hollywood standards, especially given the job’s around-the-clock obligations. What’s more, being an assistant is often not the means to an end, but an end itself. For many, this is a lifelong profession.
Nonetheless, Csongei notes that people come from far and wide to attend ”Becoming a Celebrity Personal Assistant,” a seminar run jointly by the Learning Annex and the ACPA. Then, to prove his point, he relates the story of Dean Johnson.