Film, Hipstercrite Life

Swimming with Sharks: The Life of a Personal Assistant in Hollywood

The style of an assistant- bags under the eyes, frizzy hair, bewildered look on face

There is a time in my life that I rarely discuss on my blog, yet it constituted a significant part of my story. It was the five years I was a personal assistant in Hollywood. I don’t talk about this chapter for a few reasons- 1.) I respect the privacy of my former employers 2.) I consider my former employers friends 3.) I signed confidentiality agreements that would threaten the soul of my first born. Truthfully, the first two are more important to me then the latter. Though there are a lot of fun and crazy stories I’m itching to tell, I would never share them on a public forum.

Last evening I watched the film I was first told to watch when I moved to LA in 2004. That movie is Swimming with Sharks. This indie gem chronicles the complicated relationship between straight-off-the-bus assistant Guy (Frank Whaley) and his heartless, demonic producer boss Buddy (Kevin Spacey). After a year of enduring abuse, insults, and lies, the assistant takes his boss hostage and forces him to recollect and experience all the injustices he ever caused him. In flashbacks we watch as the assistant grows into the animal he despises and the viewer learns a lesson in Hollywood’s dichotomy between dreams and apathy.

Seeing this movie for the first time in years brought back many memories. Though my experiences in Hollywood were not as outrageous as Guys’- there is a scene where Guy is laughing on the phone and Buddy throws a script at him, yelling, “You’re happy! I hate that!”– there are still similarities that I can relate to, that any personal assistant can relate to. In Hollywood, there is a brother and sisterhood of assistants and former assistants and only they understand what they have been through.

During the five years I was a personal assistant I was often very irritable and stressed. Due to confidentiality agreements that I took very seriously, I did not feel able to vent about this very important and all-consuming part of my life. Even the ones I felt closest to confiding in- my family- could not understand what I was going through. Unless you’ve been a personal assistant, you don’t know what it’s like. It’s easy for your loved ones to say, “Tell your boss to get lost!” or “Just say “No”!” when, hypothetically, he/she a.) tells you that you’re a terrible employee because you got the 2% latte instead of the skim latte b.) calls you repeatedly throughout the evening because he/she can’t get their Internet to work in their hotel room that is on another continent and he/she wants you to call the front desk c.) scrutinizes every little thing you do to the point that you truly begin believing that you can never do anything right. But it’s never that easy to say, “No”. There is a co-dependency that often exists, a mental power struggle that develops between a person who is the superior and a person who is the inferior.

Due to stress, I dropped down to an irregular weight for my height and had to fend off family and friends asking if I had a eating disorder now that I moved to LA. I began losing my hair and had to get used to sleeping with my phone in case my boss called me at 3AM. I had three panic attacks where I found myself on the floor- twitching like a rabid dog- and even went to a therapist for a year in order to prevent myself from losing my mind. I was 20 years old, straight off the bus (or the 1997 Ford Taurus) and trying to stay afloat in the tank of sharks. I probably should have know when my mother first visited me and left crying, saying, “I don’t know who you are anymore!” that this was not the right career path for me.

Looking back what I experienced with my jobs weren’t all that abnormal, but it was a young girl who had zero idea of how the industry worked dealing with them. Being an assistant you have no choice but to take the crap and if you can’t handle it, so what? Get out. Only the strong make their way to the top. Due to my time in LA, it made my skin thicker and I wonder how I would have handled that time knowing what I do now. Nothing really prepares you for the realities of Hollywood. Certainly not film school. Maybe only those who grew up in the industry understand what it is all about. Like Guy, I wanted to work in Hollywood because I loved movies. They were my life. Even when I was a little girl I knew that one day I was going to work in the movies. One day that dream did come true and like Guy, I came to realization that Hollywood often has very little to do with words like “dreams” and “love”. You either adapt or move on questioning if you didn’t have the cajones to make it in show business.

The hardest part about being a personal assistant in Hollywood? It has nothing to do with the menial tasks or the callous words or the purposeful chess plays. It has everything to do with not losing sight of your goals and not letting your spirit get broken. At one point when Buddy begins turning the table on his captor, he says, “Before you run out to change the world, ask yourself, “What do you really want?” That is an simple question that assistants quickly forget when they get caught up in the game. What do you really want out of all of this? Dealing with all this soul-deflating mumbo jumbo? Dealing with the coffee runs and the dry cleaning pick-ups and the yelling and the screaming and the mind games and the power plays? Why? Why do you put up with it?

Finally, after five years, I came out of my cloud of denial that I was unhappy and asked myself that very question. I was so determined to make it in Hollywood that I completely pushed away any doubts that crept up daily. But make it as what, Lauren? To become a part of this machine? To continue the cycle? It wasn’t me. Hell, looking back, I probably was a pretty shitty personal assistant because deep down I knew I didn’t have what it took to be someone’s attendant and then become just like them. Just like Guy.

…And that is a fact that I can now live comfortably with.

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  • Reply Youngurbanamateur March 2, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    I now feel like I know what it was like, as much as it's possible for someone to know, vicariously and through writing, what it was like.

    I also used to confuse "Swimming with Sharks" with "Swimming to Cambodia." I had no idea it was about that. I'm going to check it out, and get vicariously disillusioned once again.

  • Reply Mary March 2, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    That's so crazy. Did the front desk not think it was just a little odd that they received an international call with a complaint about their hotel's internet service?

  • Reply Hipstercrite March 2, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    @YUA- Ha. Yes. Very different movies, though both equally good. You must see. It's a very LA-movie, but it's just an excellent movie all around. I forgot how good it is. Kevin Spacey is brilliant in it.

    @Mary- I wouldn't know. Those were "hypothetical" situations. 😉

  • Reply theTsaritsa March 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    It is really tough being a personal assistant. I never felt like the work I did was good enough and I was constantly being criticized by the woman who hired me and the doctor I was working for. Every day I came home so stressed. Since I left that job I've quit smoking cigarettes for good.

  • Reply The Vegetable Assassin March 2, 2011 at 6:08 pm

    I totally sympathize as I have done this job only not in Hollywood and not for a celebrity. I did it in NY and for a rich bitch of a woman who thought she WAS a celebrity. She was a complete shock to my system, that someone could be so self centered and treat other people like slaves the way she did.

    I was miserable every second of it, had rampant insomnia despite my fatigue and a constant ball of stress in my gut and eventually, like you, I got out before it made me bitter as well.

    I hated the fact I was on call every day all day and she couldn't do the simplest little thing for herself (or wouldn't more like) and stupid things like having to have her lunch arranged on her tray in an exact manner and she thought nothing of ruining my weekend for some trivial matter. All the woman did was spend money and have people run around after her all day while she barked at them and made their lives hell.

    On 9/11 when the rest of Manhattan was in lockdown and meltdown mode and she was safe in her country mansion, she was trying to get through to me and the other assistant to buy her some jewelry. No kidding. Then she was pissed when the lines were down and she couldn't get us right away. It was a cardinal offense not to answer the phone on the first or second ring. Then when she did get through she was furious that I was leaving to try to get home as I lived near the WTC.

    Your entry brought it all back. I'm just SO HAPPY that phase of my life is over.

  • Reply MG March 2, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Yea seriously, the assistant gig isn't an easy one. Especially if you work for a piece of work like I did who didn't even pay me…but that is an entirely different story.

  • Reply IT (aka Ivan Toblog) March 2, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Uh! For a moment there I was having a flashback to when I was married the first time.

  • Reply Tiffany March 2, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    I love this post as I can relate as a PA. Thankfully my client is very appreciative, MOST days I think I got lucky!

  • Reply Hipstercrite March 2, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    @Tsaritsa- Isn't it a great feeling to be free? I'm sure doctors can be stressful to work for?

    @Vegetable Assassin- Gosh, I was cringing just read your story. That story sounded terrible! I'm glad you got out! How long did you do the job for?

    @MG- How come you didn't get paid?

    @IT- bah-dum-chee!

    @Tiffany- Good for you. I should have clarified that all personal assisting jobs are not like Swimming with Sharks. A lot of them are though…hahaha.

  • Reply Kimberly Kaye March 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    You're real good when you're culling from that raw, place, babygirl. Nicely done. And, having recently given up a killer position to take an assistant's job under a real-deal power employer (so I can learn things I need to learn without paying for grad school), I'm only supporting you in that you made the right choice. Because not every power employer abuses their assistant, and not every power employer believes it's okay to abuse their assistant. So good that you got out, because you're too good for that Iiiiish.

    PS: I recently did a reading where I was underscored by live banjo. (Photos for your laugh-at-me enjoyment on the blog.) As I took the stage, and stared into the eyes of my banjo player, and looked at the pages of text in my hands just below the line of my asymmetrical haircut I thought………"This is some serious hipster shit." And I thought of you. And hoped you would be proud.

  • Reply M March 2, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    I think we all have those horrible, slave-labor jobs in our early 20's, before we know better. People get abused in all kinds of work environments, but it seems especially rampant in the arts. I also worked for abusive, horrible, slave-driving bosses in an arts organization until I had to leave (running, screaming) or lose my sanity. Thankfully I no longer work as an on-call slave in the arts, and my current boss is awesome. But it takes time and experience (at least for me it did) to find out what you really cannot take and will not put up with.

  • Reply Sweet Beefy Biscuits March 2, 2011 at 10:57 pm

    I nodded my head in agreement while I read this entire post. I was an assistant in NYC and apparently, it's all the same, coast to coast. PS- I am adding this movie to my netflix!

  • Reply James Mac March 3, 2011 at 1:10 am

    They always tell you the statistic of how many people come to LA with stars in their eyes – ready to take Hollywood by storm. I want to know what the numbers on how many give up on the dream, how many were never really committed to begin with, and how many came to realization that the life is not for them. It takes balls to take a shot at the biz, but it takes real character to realize you don't want it anymore.

    I still think you could have run this town – but kinda glad you didn't. That doesn't mean we don't miss you!

  • Reply Rahul March 3, 2011 at 1:32 am

    I've never been a personal assistant but I'm figuring it entailed a lot of diet coke runs.

    Because thats all anyone drinks out here.

  • Reply Adria March 3, 2011 at 2:35 am

    If your hair starts falling out, change your life. Even if you are a middle aged man. Time for a lifestyle change.

    I hope one day I can get to a point where I treat my assistant(s) with as much respect and generosity as the one person I assisted treated me. Not enough of that going on.

  • Reply Scribbler March 3, 2011 at 11:22 am

    I so relate to this post. Except I realized Hollywood was bullshit while still in filmschool (internship) so skipped the assistant phase and moved directly to bitter bum.

    I actually hated this movie, but love to yell "Who do you work for?" at people.

  • Reply Kait March 3, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Yikes. I don't know how you did it. It's such a different world!

    This is completely off subject, like, totally off subject, but have you ever seen the video for Peter Gabriel's song "In Your Eyes"? Cause if not, watch it. Watch up until the point where he's like "I drive off in my car." Because it's amazing. It's all Peter Gabriel-weird until that point, at which point the video turns COMPLETELY literal and he's in a car, driving off.

    Okay. I've been meaning to mention it. I know, I know, off subject, many apologies!

  • Reply Brooke Farmer March 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    That is an awesome movie that totally reinforces my lack of interest in making it in Hollywood. People keep trying to push me towards screenwriting and even that makes me feel anxious and a little ill.

  • Reply cleveland February 11, 2013 at 2:54 am

    I wonder how camera men and video editors are treated in hollywood because thats something im really good at and tryning to pursue

  • Reply Katie March 11, 2015 at 10:38 am

    I currently assist a hair stylist in “Hollywood” and I am in the middle of sorting out what this job is doing to me and if it’s worth it. You’re absolutely right when you talk about the codependency relationship. It’s not a normal job where I can find another one that treats me better. She needs me for the help and I need her to learn the craft better and get into the industry. My problem is that they say only the strong will make it, or whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. So I don’t know if I’m sticking around because I’m scared of being “weak” or giving up just slightly too soon to see the fruition of my work and dedication or if I’m sticking aRound because I really still want this. It’s also weird to be doing something so many other girls and my old self would only dream of and not want it any more. And I can’t tell if I don’t want it because I’ve tasted it and have simply changed my mind or because it’s just too hard and I’m “too weak”. And what is making me a better more informed hairdresser seems to also be killing my spirit. It’s a sad pathetic trade off but that co dependency and fear keep me there.
    Anyway- it’s nice to read stories of other people they get it because you’re right- other people can’t.

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