By Emma Nolan
Naomi Campbell in London, 2010. Photo by Harry Sach.
What seems like a largely exaggerated world in movies such as The Devil Wears Prada and Swimming with Sharks is not so far from reality for many assistants. The lines between professionalism and intimacy can become blurred as the relationship between a celebrity and their assistant develops. Each provides the other with something that they fundamentally need, and often close quarters can result in their lives becoming naturally entwined.
However, the ridiculous demands that certain stars impose upon their personal assistants have long been a point of contention scrutinized by both the media and the ex-assistants themselves.
We’ve all heard of Naomi Campbell’s phone throwing tantrums and Lady Gaga’s need to have someone with her at every moment, even as she enters and leaves the shower and in bed. Heck, Christian Bale’s former assistant even wrote a book about his time working as the Batman star’s assistant, claiming his therapist diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress syndrome afterwards.
The life of an assistant is not an easy one. Sure, there are some perks like being invited to high profile events, movie premiers, award shows and after parties, but personal time is extremely limited.
Stephanie Germanotta aka Lady Gaga’s former assistant Jennifer O’ Neill is suing the star for $380,000 for over 7,000 hours of un-paid over time. According to court papers obtained by The New York Post, Gaga expected O’Neill to be at her beck and call at all times, but is now insisting that she is not owed the money for her work. The star branded her former assistant, roommate, and friend a “fucking hood rat who is suing me for money that she didn’t earn.”
According to O’Neill’s claims however, she very much did earn that money, having to be “by her [Lady Gaga’s] side virtually 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she testified. “That includes sleeping in the same bed with her. Because she did not sleep alone.” O’Neill also had to ensure the promptness of a towel for Gaga after her shower among other strange demands.
“Another thing she would do in the middle of the night, would be wake me up to have me change the DVD in the DVD player because she didn’t want to watch that DVD anymore and she couldn’t get up to walk across the room to change the DVD herself,” O’Neill reported in her testimony.
The bitterness between the former friends and colleagues is palatable through the court transcripts. Gaga certainly did not take kindly to being sued. Her biblical ego radiates through her statement in court, where she claimed Jennifer O’Neill was ungrateful for the lifestyle that she lead while under Gaga’s employ.
“She slept in Egyptian cotton sheets every night, in five-star hotels, on private planes, eating caviar, partying with Terry Richardson all night, wearing my clothes, asking to send her free shoes without my permission, using my YSL discount without my permission,” claimed Gaga.
While these luxuries aren’t afforded to everyone and can indeed be seen to be major perks of a job, O’Neill refutes this by claiming that despite these extravagances she had no privacy whatsoever. “I had no privacy, no chance to talk to any family, no chance to talk to any friends, no chance to have sex if I wanted to have sex,” she said in court. “There was no chance to do anything.”
Lady Gaga and Jennifer O’Neill’s tumultuous relationship is a nightmare assistant experience. To be there for a high profile celebrity’s every menial whim is not a job for the faint of heart. Boundaries become vague when your income ultimately relies on doing just about anything to aid another person’s success.
Bonnie Low-Kramen, best-selling author of Be the Ultimate Assistant: A celebrity assistant’s secrets to working with any high-powered employer, tells BTR that communication and expectations of what the position will entail need to be established very early on in employment in order to avoid the drama and bitterness of Gaga and O’Neill’s working relationship.
“This story makes me sad for both of them,” she says of the Gaga lawsuit. “When an employer hires an assistant they need to be clear of their expectations. Why wasn’t Jennifer O’Neill clear on what her duties would be?”
Having worked as PA to Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis for 25 years, Mrs. Low-Kramen is definitely an expert on the subject.
In order to maintain a successful working relationship between assistant and celebrity, Bonnie Low-Kramen explains that “give and take is required and there needs to be a mutual respect between the assistant and the boss.”
Harrison Cheung, Christian Bale’s former assistant, and focused on his experiences with Bale to write his tell-all memoir, Christian Bale: The Inside Story of the Darkest Batman.
The title alludes to not only the dark and serious side of Bruce Wayne from the latest Batman trilogy, but to the darkness of the personal life of the actor himself. Cheung tells BTR how the Batman star became increasingly private as he became more famous and associated with the iconic Batman character.
“Christian developed a fortress under siege mentality; his already private personality became exacerbated by his new high profile status.”
On dealing with the actor’s need for privacy, Cheung, who has been likened to a real life Alfred, reveals it was a tough job.
“When he’s not working, he needs his home to be treated as a fortress of solitude.” Cheung claims that the actor has a “healthy appetite” and requires a full fridge and plenty of sleep to be truly relaxed. “Christian really likes to veg out in his down time.”
When asked what the key to being a great personal assistant is, both Cheung and Low-Kramen agree that you have to love what you do and be fully invested in providing support for the person you’re assisting.
Low-Kramen felt great satisfaction when Olympia Dukakis won her academy award for Moonstruck in 1987.
“The most rewarding part about being a celebrity PA was that I was there to enable and empower Olympia. I contributed to her Oscar win by helping her in her daily life and it is incredibly gratifying to be a part of that and to contribute to her art,” she says.
Cheung also felt great satisfaction in being there for Bale as his career grew and gained a higher status in Hollywood. Cheung takes pride in his nickname as the real-life Alfred, but despite this dedication to Bale, it wasn’t all pleasant.
In his book, Cheung recounts that “it only took me five years of therapy to get past my Bale years. My therapist would describe my condition as post-traumatic stress disorder.”
While there are personal assistants like Low-Kramen and Cheung who were great at their jobs, it is clear that it is a profession for those who are adaptable multitaskers.
“You can have twelve balls in the air and everything is running smoothly, but the challenge comes when the twentieth ball is in the air and it becomes hard to prioritize; it is an overwhelming amount of activity,” Low-Kramen explains.
So while Lady Gaga, Anna Wintour, and Naomi Campbell all have reputations for being difficult to assist, at least there are people out there like Low-Kramen who can organize and aid these stars in their rise to fame. As such, the life of a celebrity personal assistant is a balancing act where business and pleasure are interchangeable and you’re rarely off duty.