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.