Celebrity assistants work hard for the stars and the perks

John O'Sullivan has gone to Hawaii, but has never set foot on the beach. He has made a date for a Broadway play, but then canceled at a moment's notice. And he has even risked his own personal safety, all in a day's work.

When Mr. O'Sullivan, a 30-something native of London, signed on six years ago as the personal assistant to Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, he expected to travel like a rock star and see the world. Instead, he may find himself in a small-town hotel in the wee hours of the morning, ironing his boss's suit.

"In some out-of-the-way hotels, they don't have laundry or valet service, so someone has to do the ironing and that someone is me," O'Sullivan says. "I always joke to the Duchess that she has my mother to thank for my ironing skills."

Celebrity assistants take care of the needs, wants, whims, and emergencies of the rich and famous - such as supermodel Cindy Crawford, "Sopranos" star Edie Falco, talk-show host Ricki Lake, and Broadway and film star Olympia Dukakis.

The salaries of personal assistants in New York vary widely - from $25,000 for beginners to $125,000 for people with many years under their belt, according to Bonnie Kramen, a founding member of the New York Association of Celebrity Personal Assistants.

O'Sullivan is one of 75 members of the New York association. The Los Angeles branch is comprised of 100 official members. But there may be as many as 5,000 personal assistants in Hollywood alone, including part-timers and freelancers.

The image of lavish parties and hobnobbing with actors, authors, and business moguls is all true. But the assistants work hard for those perks.

There are last-minute reservations to arrange at a swank Manhattan hotel for Christmas Eve, finding where to get a BMW gift wrapped, or calling a taxi for a dog.

O'Sullivan says he always places Ferguson's needs above his own, but one day he was put to the test.

"On a trip to Chile, we came out of the airport in the early morning hours," he recalls. "There were hundreds of photographers and journalists. I opened the car door, the press surged forward, and the door slammed shut with my finger in it. I calmly opened the door and got [the Duchess] in, and I got in. She said, 'you're really quiet,' and I said, 'I think I've broken my finger.'

"I said to myself, 'I cannot scream when we are surrounded by all this press - it would be so not cool.' "

So why has O'Sullivan put himself on 24-hour call for the Duchess?

"The good definitely outweighs the bad," he succinctly explains. "I see places and meet people that most of us could only imagine in our wildest dreams."

This type of work suits O'Sullivan because he is diplomatic, and he is able to juggle 100 things at once.

"You must be extremely good at multitasking," he says.

Ms. Kramen has been employed for the past 15 years by Ms. Dukakis and her husband, Louis Zorich. Working out of an office in the Dukakis home in Manhattan, Kramen handles Dukakis's personal life and business matters.

Kramen recently helped find a nursing home for Dukakis's mother, dealt with an insurance company to have carpeting replaced after a radiator burst, and assisted Dukakis when she starred in "Credible Witness" at the Royal Court Theater in London earlier this year.

"I've helped [her] buy and sell four houses," Kramen says. "I have even learned [different] time zones and currencies, because she has worked all over the world. But all of this is what keeps me interested."

How do people become personal assistants? Working as a secretary or administrative assistant in the entertainment field is one stepping-stone to these coveted jobs.

Networking is another key. "Tell everyone you know what your goal is," Kramen says. "Many personal assistant's have obtained their job through word of mouth."

In the case of Lynn Matsumoto, assistant to Ms. Falco of "The Sopranos," clicking with a star's personality will help get your foot in the door.

A former publicist in Los Angeles, Ms. Matsumoto remembers interviewing with talk-show host Ms. Lake in the early '90s. She passed muster with Lake and her cockerpoo, Dudley.

"I was so happy to see the dog, so I began petting him," Matsumoto says. "And Ricki said, 'I can see that he likes you,' and her face lit up, so that was a good sign."

She also had no problem picking up the dry cleaning or walking the dog each afternoon. "Everyone thinks this is such a glamorous job, but not when an afternoon outing with a pooper-scooper is on the schedule."

After working for Lake, Matsumoto wanted to get into production work, but another assistant job came along - this time for Cindy Crawford, who was more than willing to help Matsumoto acquire production experience.

"She had me come out and work as an associate producer on the prime-time show she was doing for ABC television," Matsumoto says. "It's very rare for an employer to open a door for an assistant like that."

When her employment with Crawford ended, Matsumoto heard that Falco was looking for her first personal assistant to help manage her new celebrity life. They started working together last summer, as Matsumoto helped Falco adjust to a life where "all these [press] requests are coming at her."

What advice does Matsumoto have for a prospective celebrity assistant?

"Have your own life and keep your perspective," says Matsumoto. "You have to create whatever environment you want to be in. I like taking the requests, setting the schedule, and making Edie's life easier. This is the right kind of work for me."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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