Breaking in or breaking down

The 10 Worst Things About Being an Industry Assistant

Low wages. Military hours. Abusive bosses. What’s not to like? In our conversations with a range of industry assistants and former assistants, many speak of their breaking-in days with a mix of nostalgia and appreciation for their crash course in Showbiz 101. But despite some fond memories, certain parts of the experience continue to create aftershocks.

Here then, are the 10 Worst Things About Being an Industry Assistant:

1. The Interview. Many compare these first face-to-faces with being broken in by a drill instructor. “They want to make sure that you’re willing to put up with anything,” remembers one former assistant. Another recalls an interview in the early 1990s that instantly confirmed his worst Hollywood stereotypes. Entering the office of a prominent manager-producer, the would-be assistant found his prospective employer gabbing with an agent friend. The agent immediately jumped in asking, “Are you Jewish?” The interviewee replied that he was. The agent then asked “Are you gay?” He answered in the negative. “Hire this man!” the agent shouted. And they did.

2. Invisibility. One of the biggest motivational challenges is the knowledge that assistants exist as extensions of their bosses, noticed only when they fail. “Everything you do is for someone else,” says one. “Every lunch you set up, every phone call you connect. At the end of the day, you don’t feel like you’ve accomplished anything.” Another recalls, “It’s about giving up your own life, and being constantly reminded that if you don’t want to be here, there are a hundred others waiting to take your place.”

3. Public humiliation. Hazing new employees is a hallowed tradition in much of the industry. One cringes, “I wanted to say all day, ‘I’m not your pledge!’ ” A woman who worked as an assistant to a television star was frequently ordered by her boss to interrupt his meetings, bringing him coffee while doing a Cabbage Patch dance. “He wanted to be able to make fun of his crazy assistant to whomever he was meeting with,” she remembers.

4. The personal is often the professional. The industry’s always tenuous wall between public and private generally crumbles completely when it comes to questions of what are assistant-appropriate tasks; picking up laundry is the tip of the iceberg. One assistant describes driving to San Juan Capistrano to meet her boss’s parents in a Marie Callender’s parking lot and get the leftover casserole from their previous night’s dinner. Another describes regularly procuring marijuana for his boss, an agent at one of the industry’s top firms, from another agent. “I’d call up and just say, ‘Can you provide?’ If he said ‘Yes’ I ran down the hall and was given a sealed interoffice communication envelope.” Another assistant describes handling all her boss’s divorce papers.

5. Scouting locations … to sell cookies. The most dreaded period on many assistants’ calendars is Girl Scout cookie season. “It’s Hollywood’s greatest secret that the Girl Scout cookies are sold by assistants,” a veteran reports. It is an industry ritual for Scout parents to promise their daughters enormous sales and then pass off the shoe-leather work to their assistants, who corner colleagues in the break room knowing that if it gets back to their bosses that they’ve been outsold by the assistant down the hall, it could be curtains.

6. At least you have your health — not. With weekly starting salaries in the $300-$500 range and no benefits, keeping yourself healthy without a doctor’s help is a high priority. One assistant badly chipped her tooth at dinner one night and, not being able to afford a dentist, patched it with a $9.99 emergency filling kit from the drugstore. The salve kept her going well enough that she continued to forgo the dentist and self-patched every night for an entire year, at which point the pain became so unbearable that she splurged on dental insurance.

7. Dogtown. In Hollywood, the expression “Love me, love my pets” might be more aptly translated as “Fear me, fear my mutt.” Dog feeding and walking are frequent assistant chores, but one incident demonstrated clearly to an assistant her relative place on the food chain. “When I walked the dog,” she tells, “I would tie the plastic bag with its poop to the leash until I got to a trash can. But one day, my boss took me aside and said, ‘Arthur (the dog) gets very embarrassed when you do that. You need to hide the bag in your pocket.’ ”

8. The Talent. As hard as it is to make one’s boss happy, pleasing the client can involve some death-defying stunts. Common are the stories of assistants being burned to cinders when they didn’t recognize a star’s voice, or worse, first name, on the phone. An assistant in the music business remembers asking a rock musician who came into the office for a 9 a.m. meeting whether he would like anything to drink. When she giggled at his answer, “Scotch,” thinking he was joking, she was bawled out with the ferocity only a morning boozer possesses. A week later, that same assistant asked another visiting British rock star what he would like. When she returned bearing a nice cold lager, the musician erupted, “I said a ‘latte,’ you twit!”

9. Beat-downs. Dodging flying pencils, notepads and coffee cups hurled by one’s boss is a well-known occupational hazard and almost all assistants interviewed for this piece have either participated in this tradition or witnessed it. One assistant at a major agency recalls one day at lunchtime a friend and fellow assistant pulling up his shirt to reveal a rectangular black and blue mark. His boss, the friend reported, asked him to sit down across from his desk and then threw a hardcover book directly at his chest. The same assistant reports office legend at his agency that many current high-ranking agents first were put on desks after their bosses assaulted them.

10. Work your way up to the middle. The ambitious don’t want to be too good at their jobs. Noting that people in the industry who become assistants usually do it as a way up the corporate ladder, one says, “It’s not necessarily a compliment to be called a really good assistant.” Many say that if you excel too much, your boss might wish to keep you as an assistant forever, blocking your advancement. In the end, although one needs to make a good impression, the only way to progress might be to screw up just right.

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