https://www.bonnielowkramen.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/OlyLouisBonnie.jpg.jpeg 381 520 Bonnie Low-Kramen /wp-content/uploads/2020/08/bonnie-low-logo.png Bonnie Low-Kramen2023-01-11 14:14:112023-02-07 15:22:34Business Insider Feature Story on Former Celebrity Assistant Bonnie Low-Kramen
A former personal assistant to an Oscar-winning actress says the job comes with plenty of perks — but you have to set boundaries
- Bonnie Low-Kramen was the personal assistant to the actor Olympia Dukakis for 25 years.
- She helped the “Moonstruck” star get out of traffic, review contracts, and take care of her family.
- The work came with a lot of perks — like attending awards shows — and burnout.
In January 1986, Bonnie Low-Kramen, who was 27 at the time and temping in Broadway box offices as she tried to carve out a career as an actor, was tipped off to a gig as the public-relations director for the Whole Theatre, a small theater in northern New Jersey.
The place was run by a respected stage veteran, and the job paid $18,000 a year, Low-Kramen told Insider — a reasonable amount at the time. Crucially, it gave her the chance to fulfill her dreams in a different way.
“I needed to be in show business, but I’d be totally fine behind the scenes,” she said.
Her boss was the 56-year-old actor Olympia Dukakis, who was just about to score a career-changing role. Upon the release of “Moonstruck” in 1987, for which she’d win an Oscar, Dukakis went from a beloved Broadway performer to a movie headliner for the first time — and Low-Kramen came along for the ride, working as her personal assistant for more than 25 years.
“My title was ‘personal assistant,’ but she just called me Bons. Everybody in her orbit knew that in order to get Olympia to do anything, you needed to go through me,” she said. “We worked well together — she was happy, and I was having a ball.”
Low-Kramen left that role in 2011 to create her own company, which specializes in training would-be celebrity personal assistants, as well as write books and give speeches on what VIP life was like IRL.
She shared with Insider how she made the leap into personal-assistant work, what it’s like to work for a celebrity day-to-day, and how she pivoted into entrepreneurship.
Good timing got her a role working alongside a star
Low-Kramen said her role as a PR director morphed into a personal-assistant job by circumstance: Dukakis was heading to Canada for the “Moonstruck” shoot, she said, and asked Low-Kramen to come along to act as a point person for the New Jersey theater.
“I didn’t know there was a name for what I was doing, but I realized I was really good at it,” Low-Kramen said.
When questions came in, for example, she would note them down, then sit with Dukakis at a set time to secure answers.
Quickly, Low-Kramen realized that prioritizing was a vital movie-set skill.
“You had to start with the most important things because you’d inevitably hear a knock in the background, and the production assistant would say, ‘We need you on the set.'”
When Dukakis catapulted into Hollywood’s top tier and began landing parts in movies like “Working Girl” and “Steel Magnolias,” Low-Kramen was offered a more-permanent role as Dukakis’ assistant, and she immediately accepted.
An assistant splits their time between supporting a celebrity personally and professionally
Low-Kramen said working for a celebrity didn’t come with a job description but the work was typically split evenly between personal and professional support.
“You give them the freedom to do only what they can do — costume fittings, memorizing lines — and you do everything else.”
Low-Kramen supported Dukakis’ family, including her husband, the actor Louis Zorich (“She was a neat freak, and he loved his piles of stuff,” Low-Kramen said), and their three children, with everyday tasks. A request to write a term paper for one of the actor’s sons made her uneasy.
“I said I’d do it, but she needed to be sitting next to me, so we did it together,” she said.
She also was often tasked with booking restaurant reservations, a duty much more nuanced than it sounds. She had to consider whether her boss was planning a lunch to be seen — by paparazzi, perhaps, to help bolster her profile and clinch a role — or to have a discreet discussion, then request the appropriate table.
When the actor was away for months from home, it was up to the personal assistant to make a rented apartment or suite feel less sterile. Dukakis, Low-Kramen said, insisted on rooms with working windows, rather than piped-in AC.
One perk of working for a star is the clothes, she said: “One assistant I knew was the same shoe size as her celebrity, so she got all her hand-me-down designer shoes.”
Prescription and dry-cleaning pickups are a constant request, Low-Kramen said, and it can cause unexpected issues. One evening, just as Dukakis was about to go onstage before taking flight the next day to London for the premier of “Steel Magnolias,” Low-Kramen said she called in a panic, wondering where the dress she planned to wear for the red carpet was. Low-Kramen realized she hadn’t picked it up from the cleaners, but unflustered, she called the local police to contact the store owner, who happily reopened for the local Oscar winner.
Local cops also came to the rescue when Dukakis was due to appear at an event in Princeton, New Jersey, having flown into New York City from a film set. The schedule was typically tight, Low-Kramen said, but construction on the New Jersey Turnpike left Dukakis in the back of a limo with traffic at a standstill. The driver said a police escort would be the only way to get to the event on time. Thankfully, the local trooper was a “Moonstruck” fan and leaped into action.
“We call these save-the-day stories,” Low-Kramen said, adding that often the only request in response was a signed headshot.
While the name was always the same on those keepsakes, she said, the penmanship varied, as is typical.
“We did half and half of those because the requests came in so frequently,” she said. “To keep up, she signed as many as she possibly could, but I did a great forgery.”
Celebrity assistants need to set boundaries
A celebrity personal assistant’s work extends beyond the client’s personal life, Low-Kramen said.
“One of our purposes is to just keep it real with them,” she said.
For example, Low-Kramen would often read scripts or film contracts and offer feedback. She was also Dukakis’ date to the People’s Choice Awards when the actor was nominated for “Steel Magnolias” and sat at her table with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton.
“People would come up to talk to her, but she was most comfortable speaking about things happening back in New Jersey,” she said. “She was never comfortable with the whole ‘movie star’ thing because it didn’t happen until she was in her 50s.”
Technology skills became increasingly vital as the years passed — today, Low-Kramen said, acting as on-call IT support is a major part of the personal-assistant role, especially when it comes to keeping data safe, including bank-account and passport information.
There were low times, too. Her role had no set hours, and because she was a solo assistant, taking vacation meant she had to work harder before and after a trip to make up for the time out.
“I remember one vacation where we arrived at our destination, and I had a fever that turned out to be double pneumonia,” she said. “That was a hard lesson — burnout is a big risk factor in this work.”
From her starting $18,000 salary, Low-Kramen would negotiate each year with Dukakis directly, since there’s no human-resources department for such roles. She said Dukakis, always canny about money and keen to earn more herself, understood such asks and was generous.
Today, Low-Kramen said, a starting salary for a celebrity personal assistant on call 24/7 can typically hit the low six figures. Beware, though, that a salary that’s unexpectedly high is a red flag that suggests the celebrity is unreasonable or inappropriate, or both. Low-Kramen has heard from clients about celebrities who greet their assistants at the door every morning stark naked or request their assistants be on call 18 hours a day, six days a week.
“Word goes round that you need combat pay for anyone to take that kind of job,” she said.
Using her network and experience to go off on her own
When Dukakis turned 80, Low-Kramen gave her four months’ notice, promising to help interview and train her replacement. At the time, she’d been increasingly involved in the organization she helped found in 1996, the New York Celebrity Assistants network, which brought others in her role together — its first president was Morgan Freeman’s personal assistant. Dukakis benefited from this network, too, Low-Kramen said.
“I’ll never forget she read a script one time and said, ‘You know, Kevin Bacon would be great to be in this with me — do you have a way of getting hold of him?’ and I had his assistant’s name right there,” Low-Kramen said.
Low-Kramen published a book about her life and career in 2004 and quickly gained attention from it, giving talks about her experience and teaching others (she hadn’t signed a nondisclosure agreement with Dukakis, she said). From that, she built her current business. She worked with the Wharton School earlier in the pandemic, for example, to help keep its admin team coordinated when working remotely for the first time and hosts regular public workshops for people aspiring to her career.
“The biggest challenge when I started years ago in this role was that there was no training,” she said. “There’s no way to succeed at the highest level without training — in 2022, assistants are like high-level athletes, and they need training.”
A three-day in-person event with Low-Kramen costs $2,800 a person. She doesn’t promise placement for her graduates but said that many had gone on to senior careers working in both the corporate world and Hollywood.
“It is a profession that might be fun and glamorous some of the time,” she said, “but it’s a lot of hard work, too, and requires really diligent training to get it right.”
Read the original article from Business Insider here.
I am Bonnie Low-Kramen, TEDx speaker, author of “Be the Ultimate Assistant” and trainer of Executive Assistants all over the world. As part of my work to build ultimate business partnerships, I was published in Harvard Business Review and featured in a Forbes online cover story. In the research for my second book about the workplace to be published in 2023, I have had over 1,500 conversations with assistants, leaders, HR professionals, recruiters, and business school professors in 14 countries and 38 states. I am excited to work with you towards building your ultimate workplace. Click here to set up a time to speak with me about your training needs which can be delivered virtually or in person.