They are secretive. They are loyal. They are tribal. They often are rude, unless they have reason to fear you.
They are officially “assistants,” but specialized: They only “assist” superstars and, as such, their behavior represents both the best and worst of the celebrity circus.
A smart and appropriately bitchy tell-all about celebrity assistants has been written by Byron Lane, himself a graduate of this trade. A Star Is Bored presents itself as a novel and hence is evasive about naming names, but an alert reader can identify the above-the-line egotists as they demand the best tables, confuse their medications and seem both brilliant and lazy in their starring roles.
The job of the assistant is to protect, assuage and, when feasible, to deftly steal. “Stars need a full-time presence at their side,” writes Charlie, the fictional assistant. “My role is about ‘being’, not ‘doing.’” Lane once worked for Carrie Fisher, the mercurial actress-writer-comedian, who called him “Cockring” and sustained his mood of constant terror.
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His tales resonate with me because, in my various gigs, I’ve collided with the personal hand-holders of Sinatra, Streisand, Penny Marshall, DiCaprio and other celestial presences whose missions were either to implore me or threaten me. Their scenarios always were intensely personal, often occurring in the middle of the night.
But talk with them off-duty (and off-camera), and you understand the neuroses of young Charlie in A Star Is Bored — who, in his youth, obsessively fantasized about one day inhabiting the aura of stardom. Kristi Kannon, his idol, is needy, vulgar and clumsy in her personal relationships. She greets Ewan McGregor at a party by telling him, “I just Googled your penis.” She asks Bradley Cooper, “What’s a guy like you doing in a gal like me?” Her birthday present to Tom Cruise is a dildo.
Charlie alternately venerates Kristi and pities her. “Being with her is like raising a child, or a puppy,” he reflects. Traveling with Kristi means waking and clothing her, then confiscating her drugs. It also means surrendering his personal life — which works for him because, when alone, he exhibits “passively suicidal behavior.”
Given these issues, Charlie appreciates belonging to the secretive club of assistants who jointly keep a “bible” on their employers’ foibles. Job exchanges thus become smoother when relationships implode. Most, like Charlie, are given nicknames by their bosses: One celebrity who has hand-holders on each coast tabs them “East” and “West,” never mastering their true names.
In his initial year, Charlie himself is obsessed by his own failures — “I’m Alice in Blunderland”– until he learns the rules of the game. When Kristi meets a friend for lunch, he foolishly makes the reservation for three, forgetting that his role is to wait by the car.
The demands on Charlie are consistent with those experienced by the “real life” assistants I’ve encountered over the years. One of Barbra Streisand’s assistants wrote a play called Buyer and Cellar, detailing how he’d created a shopping mall in the basement of the singer’s Malibu home, working amid the debris of her compulsive purchases. Streisand’s assistants also had to ward off intrusions from the fervent dog lovers demanding details of how and why she’d cloned her two pets.
Frank Sinatra’s assistants, by contrast, were specialists in covering up his temper tantrums, often by arranging convenient disappearances. When he threw a phone at a stranger at the Beverly Hills Hotel, hospitalizing the man, the singer instantly vanished. One of his aides once approached me at a restaurant to give me the news that my health would improve if I sided with Sinatra on a studio dispute. “As a friend, the boss wanted you to know about this,” he confided. I replied that I wasn’t a friend.
Charlie’s missions in A Star is Bored are tamer, yet often more intimate. Ultimately he becomes at once emotionally connected to his boss yet profoundly bored. The dilemma facing the denizens in the celebrity universe, he realizes, is that they are both enriched and trapped by their appetites and egos.
“If you leave them, you’ve left them,” Charlie concludes. “But, if you stay, you’ve become them.” He gratefully opts to take his leave.