11 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became a Personal Assistant
You can have a personal life, but you’ll have to plan it around the person you work for.
1. There’s no real job description for a personal assistant, so you have to be ready to do whatever needs to be done. I check emails, answer phone calls, and update her calendar, but I do a lot more than that just that. I work for a stand-up comedian and actress, so I could be on the road with my client when she has shows in various cities and countries. If she’s filming for her TV show, I have to go on set. We were just in New York because she did an appearance and I had to be a stylist for her as well, so I had to go out and pull wardrobe pieces for her. Sometimes, I help with her son because she’s also a single mother, so I could be going to the school to help with a school activity. I decorated her house for the holidays and planned her Christmas party.
2. There’s no such thing as a set schedule in this job. There are some weeks I’m getting up at 6 a.m. and going to bed at 1 a.m. because we’re in New York doing press and have to be on set, and then she also has stuff at night. But when I’m back in Atlanta or L.A., there are some days where there’s a lot to do, and there are some days where there isn’t a lot to do and I’m done at 5 p.m. A lot of the time, my work is very independent. She’ll give me a deadline of when she wants something done, or I’ll be given a task and I create deadlines of when I want things done. Like with planning an event or something like that, I know that I have a two-week timeframe for when I need to have everything under wraps and taken care of, so I put in the number of hours I need to get that done.
3. Learn to prioritize based on your client’s priorities. Not your own. There are certain things I know would make her happy if it gets done, even if it doesn’t seem pressing. She had a pair of Manolo Blahniks that needed to be repaired and she asked me to take them to get repaired next time I went out. I was working on another project that she wanted done, but there was only so much I could do with that project in one day, so I got the shoes repaired because I knew I could get it done right away and make her happy while I worked on other things.
4. You can have a personal life, but you’ll have to plan it around the person you work for. Dating can be difficult because sometimes I could be in five different cities within seven days for this job. You miss out on certain things, but you kind of have to make sacrifices for what you perceive as your dream job. When you work a 9-to-5 job, five days a week, you know that you’ll have your evenings and weekends off. But in this position, you have to make sure everything is OK and set in place for your client before you make your own plans. My birthday is coming up and I have to make sure her schedule allows me to be off for my birthday. She’s very open to me having my own life; it’s more so about timing and notice.
5. If your boss is having a bad day and takes it out on you, don’t take it personally. When you’re working in a corporate setting, you sort of have s buffer and you don’t necessarily get into your boss’s personal life. But in this job, you’re dealing with someone at all hours of the day, and at any given time, there might be something that they’re going through. Their frustration might not be directed to you, but you’re probably the person that happens to be there. I remember one time, we were going to an event and she was having a wardrobe issue and we were running late, and I just let her vent. After a bit, she said she was sorry if it seemed like she was being crabby or bitchy toward me, that she was just stressed out because of the event.
6. Some people will assume you’re uneducated, even if it’s the complete opposite. With social media, you can be whatever you want to be to the world. And so there are people out there that have no background in anything, but they dress well and call themselves a stylist. Or someone gets someone’s coffee one time and they call themselves a personal assistant. I think a lot of people perceive personal assistants like that. But I have a master’s in education and a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations. Having that education is always good as an option to fall back on and it makes you more credible. Nothing in college can teach you how to work as a personal assistant; it more teaches you how to get things done and helps you make connections.
7. If you get into this career to become famous by association, you’re in it for the wrong reasons. Someone who has a personal assistant wants somebody who doesn’t have a problem fading into the background. I was a model and talent agent for three years, but then I decided I didn’t want to work with 500+ models and actors, and I would prefer to just work with one and do creative work, not always just booking models and actors on commercials and movies and stuff like that. I also had a background in wardrobe styling and PR, so I kind of wanted something to encompass it all. Being a personal assistant, I kind of get to do a little bit of everything as far as doing PR events, wardrobe styling, as well as making sure people are where they need to be when it comes down to appearances and stuff like that. I’m not trying to be in the limelight; I just want to be known for what I do in my career as a personal assistant. But some people get into the business for the wrong reasons, because they want to be famous themselves. You can’t try to use the celebrity you’re with for your own gain. There are people that I know who have worked for people, and they might have been on TV a couple of times with the person they work for and now they’re like, “I need a publicist and people should be booking me for clubs.” And it’s like, Wait — you’re a wardrobe stylist or a personal assistant, what do you mean? I can’t even fathom how someone would balance a hectic schedule of trying to make themselves the center of attention when their job is helping their client be the center of attention.
8. If you make a mistake, find a solution before telling the person you work for. If you make a mistake that’s going to make the person freak out and worry, there’s no point in bringing it to their attention before trying to fix it. There was a situation where I had to plan a housewarming party and her son’s birthday party for the same day, so I rented chairs from the same place as a bounce house, but I didn’t realize they were going to take the chairs away when they took the bounce house away halfway through the party. So during the party, I literally had to drive my SUV to Walmart to buy, like, 20 chairs, and I got back just as all the chairs were being taken away. You definitely can’t panic, you just have to be able to figure out how can you make this work.
9. If you don’t want to be miserable, find someone who values the work you do. I’ve heard of people working with celebrities that are nasty and rude and have an attitude of “you’re just the help.” But in every interview my client has ever done or anybody that she talks about me to, she says her life does not work without me. If you work with someone who acts like you’re the help, that’s not a good fit for you, unless you want to just be the help. You need to find someone who fits your personality and matches your level of character, because otherwise it’s not going to work.
10. You can be friends with your boss, but you have to draw the professional line somewhere. I think it’s all about time and place. When we’re at her house and hanging out, we can talk about personal things and to talk each other as friends, but there’s always a level of respect. At the end of the day, this is my employer. But I would definitely say in the public eye, it’s always making sure there’s a professional business relationship. One thing I don’t ever do is drink when we go out. I know people who work as personal assistants, and they’re just laughing and drinking like everyone else, but for me, I want to keep a level of respect for myself and because my actions can reflect on her.
11. People will think you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, which couldn’t be further from the reality of your position. It’s her and then it’s me when it comes down to business. A lot of the time, she’ll ask me what my take on something is and she values my opinion. If I tell her I don’t think she should wear a certain outfit and maybe she should wear this instead, she’ll sometimes agree and go with what I said. And for planning some events like her son’s birthday party, she’ll just give me the money and tell me what she wants and to add whatever else, and she trusts me to make the entire thing happen. People will look at you and think that you’re the help, but a lot of times, you’re the second-in-command.
Damarius Harvell is a personal assistant for actress/comedian Cocoa Brown based in Atlanta and Los Angeles.