Ever wonder what it would be like to be the personal assistant to a wealthy celebrity? Well don’t let images of Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes tugging at Mr. Pitt’s socks dissuade you. Yes there are some unpleasant tasks, but if you don’t mind doing the kinds of things secretaries do every day — like fielding phone calls from angry clients, ordering computer software, or calling a cab for your boss’ wife — then perhaps the semi-glamorous job of being a celeb’s personal assistant, which may include typing up term papers for the famous-one’s rug rats or calling the local precinct to arrange for a police escort because your famous employer is stuck in traffic, may be right up your alley.
But, of course, not all secretaries can trade in their mundane job for the glitzy life of catering to the illustrious rich. But there is certainly something to be learned from those who do, starting with self-respect. “Secretaries have an image problem, there’s no doubt about that,” says Sue Sohmer, president of the Hunterdon County chapter of the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP). “We are all professionals, but we aren’t often taken that way.”
Her chapter is one of the sponsors of “How to be the Ultimate Assistant” on Tuesday, April 11, at 6 p.m. at the Doubletree Hotel in Somerset. The speaker is Bonnie Low-Kamen, personal assistant to celebrity couple Olympia Dukakis (“Moonstruck”) and Louis Zorich (“Mad About You”). Cost: $25. Call 908-947-1100 or E-mail to Lpsak@lifecell.com to register or for more information.
“The point is that administrative assistants all have a lot in common,” says Sohmer. “It is the kind of profession in which you have to be a jack-of-all-trades. Whether our employers are famous or not, we all deal with similar issues like salary, benefits, working conditions, and thinking on our feet.”
Born and raised in Maplewood, Sohmer has been an administrative assistant for nearly 40 years. She has worked at such high-profile companies as Chanel, where she has been for the past 15 years, and RCA. She has two daughters, one a former IT worker and the other a beautician, as well as four grandchildren.
“Secretaries are commonly the go-to people in a company because we know all about everything, including the software,” says Sohmer. “Everyone asks our opinion before doing almost anything in the office.”
Despite the fact that they are crucial to a business’ success and usually the first face a potential client sees when dealing with the company, secretaries are notoriously under-paid and under-appreciated. “Our organization is there to let administrative assistants know that they are not alone,” says Sohmer. Each chapter holds regular meetings that offer the members the opportunity for networking. There are also frequent seminars to help improve skills like planning, public speaking, teamwork, and organizational development. The organization also has a certification program that offers tests that can result in earning 40 college credits.
Headquartered in Kansas City, the IAAP was originally founded over 60 years ago as the National Secretaries Association. It currently has over 40,000 members and 600 chapters worldwide. In addition to monthly meetings, there are also quarterly division meetings and an annual international convention that attracts over 2,000 attendees. This year’s convention will be held in August in Lake Tahoe. (For information on membership, visit www.IAAP-HQ.org.)
A celebrity assistant for nearly 20 years, Low-Kamen was born and raised in New Jersey and has a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers. In 1994 she self-published a how-to book entitled “Be the Ultimate Assistant: A Celebrity Assistant’s Secrets to Sucess.” Chock full of true stories, the book presents the sometimes confounding life of a celebrity assistant along with practical lessons on how all administrative assistants can strive for excellence every day.
Low-Kamen is also a co-founder of New York Celebrity Assistants (NYCA), a members-only organization that provides its associates the opportunity for networking as well as support group. It also offers message boards that can answer a panicky celebrity assistant’s queries about how to get a Labrador retriever into Egypt in eight hours or insights into how to find a good nursing home for the famous boss’ mother.
Apart from the ability to be versatile and smart, celebrity assistants have another trait in common with their less glamorous brethren: They are usually underpaid. It is common knowledge that many of those big-names stepping from their limousines onto the red carpet are infamously tight-fisted employers, acting as if mere proximity to greatness is more than enough compensation.
But the celebrity assistant, as well as for Sohmer and the armies of her fellows who work for less high profile bosses in the not-so-swanky world of work-a-day America, both compensation and recognition often seem inadequate.
“We don’t get the respect we deserve,” says Sohmer. “We are smart people. We all have brains. We have the ability to think outside the box and get things done. We have a big impact on how things operate and our bosses are starting to realize now that this is an advantage.”