The secret life of a PA

person sitting on table, typing on laptop with bags on their head

They know your favourite flowers, never forget your birthday and always book a table at your go-to restaurant, without you needing to ask. They’re not your mother, father, sibling or partner but, in fact, an amalgam of all – your personal assistant

By Hanna Hanra   Saturday 1 February, 2020

Let’s call the person I am about to quote ‘Steve’, and the celebrity he used to work for ‘Monica’. Monica is a Hollywood A-lister. Like, ‘name in huge print at the top of the poster’ level star. Steve worked for her for eight years – a role he landed by chance. You can’t, I learn through Steve, send your CV to some governing celebrity HR (although there are agencies like Sorted PA that place more traditional assistant roles within the industry). As I come to understand through the course of our conversation, the role of PA is so specific – so bespoke to the person you are assisting – that creating an advert for such a role would prove impossible. Steve’s role, essentially, in no way resembled, for example, the PA to Idris Elba. Or Daniel Craig. Or Rosalia. Talent PA-ing is, as with every fine marriage of two persons, intricately unique... and, at times, dysfunctional. 

‘I’d be managing the renovation of her house, collecting her dry cleaning, manually doing an anal cavity search of all three dogs, organising what she was going to wear to what party (sample trafficking from Dior, Chanel, Tom Ford...), taking calls from her manager (both UK and US) about what she could and could not say at the various parties she would attend, as well as being told which scripts to gently persuade her to read first,’ he says. ‘And, on top of that, working out her international publicity schedule for [redacted franchise movie].’ These were all tasks to juggle within the same hour. He had four phones. Steve admits he was Monica’s first PA, but insists this isn’t why the role quickly lost boundaries. Boundaries just, well, don’t exist. He says he once met the PA to Supermodel. They had to sleep in the same bed, where they’d talk into the early hours about the list of potential megastars Supermodel would like PA to approach for her to date, as well as drafting contracts for her many fake and facilitated relationships. They told each other dark secrets and got (I kid you not) matching tattoos. Never mind having a lunch break; there wasn’t even space, head or literal. This isn’t a job, I thought to myself, it’s a BFF.

‘If you want to be a good PA, you have to be available all the time,’ says Steve. ‘I couldn’t date anyone while I was working with Monica,’ he says. ‘I mean, I tried. One time, I took a girl to a restaurant only to discover that the inside of the building had no phone signal. I had a panic attack at the table. LA and NYC agents wouldn’t have been able to reach me, so I had to leave and sit in a cafe nearby on my own to field the inevitable calls that came non-stop (confirming and reconfirming bookings, changing her schedule last minute, etc).’ And also, inevitably, to console Monica herself. ‘Well, in every way other than conjugal, I suppose you already had a girlfriend,’ I say to Steve. He doesn’t follow. Until he does. ‘Oh yes, I guess you’re right. There was only enough space in my life for one partner, and Monica was it.’ PAs can do many things, but polygamy isn’t one of them. With this high level of demand, I’d have been forgiven for thinking that days off to recoup would be a given. ‘Wrong,’ says Steve. In fact, Monica would call him on Christmas Day morning and ask what presents she’d got for her family. He’d explain to his own relatives that between the hours of 8am and 9am throughout the holiday period, it was ‘Monica’s time’, during which he needed to debrief her on all the aspects of Christmas he’d facilitated.

But, despite the all-encompassing hours, what people don’t realise is that PAs are the ones with the most power in the room. ‘That’s not to say that the cliche of lackey isn’t always true,’ says Steve. I hear of another PA who worked for one of the biggest movie stars in Hollywood. His main role – as PA number four in a group of five – was to buy and hand out Rolex watches to the women his boss would sleep with and then duly drop. ‘But, similarly, I’ve known PAs to be brokering huge contracts with brands, signing off all the campaign images and even “doing” the interviews on behalf of their employer,’ says Agatha, a PA for a rising music star who recently won a slew of awards. ‘They’re the one the star turns to for advice, asking, “Should I be doing this? Would you do it if you were me?’”
illustration of hand showing multiple watches
In many situations, the PA essentially takes on the role of sibling or spouse – the advice giver, the shoulder to cry on. Such is the intimacy involved that it’s no longer about doing your job well; it’s about protecting the person you care so deeply about and having their best interests at heart, sometimes even above your own wellbeing. ‘I wouldn’t question working through the night every night, even if it meant I got sick. I just want her life to be as easy as possible,’ says Agatha. She, like everyone I speak to, mentions the one main requisite of such a role. ‘Don’t sell your story to the Daily Mail,’ says Agatha. ‘I’d rather have a job than $100k and be blacklisted.’ It’s not just about career suicide, though. ‘I wouldn’t do that to anyone I love,’ she says.

The next person I am about to quote is the only assistant I’m able to refer to by name. Namelessness, to be fair, is the nature of being a PA – you are the gatekeeper. The whole point of doing that job with someone of note is your proximity to discretion. You know where the bodies are buried. Tizer, however, has had a long, illustrious career as a PA, with only positive stories to tell me. A friend put me in touch with Tizer, a striking woman who was given her moniker by the iconic model and muse Susie Cave backstage at a catwalk show, due to the colour of her hair, which Cave (then Susie Bick) commented was like the drink. Tizer was formerly a model and muse for Vivienne Westwood in the 1980s, before becoming her PA – a role that spanned many years. She says that one of the hardest elements of the job was that there was no one to ask for help on how to handle certain situations. ‘I’d ask my mum,’ she explains. ‘But what if the accounts weren’t adding up? What if you felt undervalued in the workplace – surely there was someone to help?’ I ask. ‘Well...’ Tizer pauses. ‘Generally speaking, you just had to find your way through things. There is no guide or rule book, and often no one who did your job before you to explain a solution. You have to be someone’s facilitator, easing whatever it is they do. You become a third arm,’ she says. ‘An appendage?’ I ask. ‘Yes. They need to trust you at all times for all things, and sometimes they react to you in a way they might not to someone else.’ Upon Tizer’s explanation, this role actually sounds similar to that of being a parent. There are no instruction manuals and at times it can feel like a long list of seemingly thankless tasks.

Other than the obvious (and listed above) downsides of being on call 24/7, once you’ve mastered the Little Black Book aspect of the role – the flowers come from Scarlet & Violet (reportedly Kate Moss’ wedding flowers supplier) or McQueens (Katie Grand’s preferred), and presents are wrapped at Selfridges’ gift department, not with high-street paper – there are lots of ‘money can’t buy’ perks no other job could provide. ‘I’ve been to the Oscars and the Grammys, and on holiday with Oscar winners,’ says Steve. ‘I’ve got drunk with any rock star you can name. I’ve snogged a sexually confused billionaire CEO of a film studio. I’ve been given Cartier jewellery. But I’ve also had calls in the middle of the night saying, “I had a nightmare about the cleaner. I think they’re secretly filming me and tapping my phones. Fire them now, don’t wait until the morning”.’

‘Talent always think they are easy breezy,’ surmises Steve. ‘That it’s really no work at all. However, you’re being paid not to have a job, but to be in some kind of weird relationship. And you do end up loving that person. How can you not? You’re spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with them. They become the closest person to you, and you to them. You are their mother, father, partner, best friend and one true confidante. And, like with any family member, you bicker and argue. But you don’t mind the shouting or the odd thrown item, because you know that you’re their everything. Their substitute family, the entire lot. But you also come with a price. At the end of the day, you tell them they’re going to be OK and schedule it all in to their itinerary to ensure that they will be. And then you cash their cheque.’

Perhaps that makes it the truest kind of family. All the services we expect from a loved one, with the knowledge of how much that service costs.

Illustrations by Anna Bu Kliewer