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Are You Being

Are You Being


For some gay men, the best part of being a personal assistant to the rich and fabulous is the drama.

Anthony*, a 33-year-old personal assistant in New York City, works for a delightful family these days. But he once worked for a witch -- that is, a 60-year-old socialite with merciless green eyes, who lived alone and kept her figure petite and her hair bleached. Each morning at 7 a.m. he would awaken his employer with a single knock on her bedroom door. Exactly 25 minutes later a train of four uniformed domestics would enter, passing a Monet in the hall on the way. Two would simultaneously draw the drapes open; another would present the woman's dog to her as the butler dropped a tray with granola, tea, and the kitchen's five or six best raspberries, blueberries, or blackberries only -- the rest must be trashed. Fresh berries would have to be purchased for tomorrow.

One of Anthony's primary responsibilities was to guarantee that this orchestrated morning ritual was pulled off smoothly each day -- despite the frequent staff turnover. One morning, "the Madame," as she insisted the staff call her, arrived at Anthony's in-house office, still in her bathrobe, clutching a pair of black Prada pants. She asked him to follow her to the laundry room, where two women were ironing.

"Will you please tell them that no article of clothing is ever to be placed in my closet with wrinkles!" she barked, dropping the pants on the floor. The laundresses gaped. Neither they nor Anthony could see any wrinkles.

Attention to detail and formality was the Madame's raison d'etre. And while the fussiness made her a difficult boss, it also created an extremely successful socialite.

"My job was to ensure that she could uphold [her] image to the world and New York society," Anthony explains. "I would be in awe of the presence that she carried. Socially, she was one of the most gracious and elegant women."

Anthony's is just one of the stories I've heard in my time working at a recruitment agency for personal assistants and other domestic staff who serve wealthy individuals and families. It's an industry that attracts many gay men -- especially for the assistant positions. Why? That's the stuff of Ph.D. dissertations, if not therapy sessions. But some of it is definitely rooted in stereotypes: gay men are fashionable, image-conscious, good at interior design and throwing parties. Less tangibly, some gay men simply love the monster goddess, whether she's Anna Wintour, Leona Helmsley, or Cruella De Vil. She's the type of woman who bangs open the door, puts a cigarette out on your foot, and couldn't survive a day without you. A certain kind of gay man sees a diva fit in progress and feels horror, jealousy, and admiration all at once. Pretty heady stuff. Of course, there are perks: a six-figure salary, charity galas with the rich and fabulous, yachting trips to Capri. And lastly, while it didn't happen in the case of Anthony and the Madame, the job eventually can become something more than employment.

John*, a seasoned personal assistant, was instrumental in helping his boss find herself. During a shopping trip she confided in him that she suspected her husband was having an affair. (It turned out he was having several.) John realized that although his employer had everything she could want materially, including art masterpieces, a private jet, and the season's must-have handbag, she felt like an accessory herself.

"She had a lot tied up in the lifestyle," John says. "It was a loss of identity for her to divorce. But I told her, 'You know, it's OK not to be an A-list socialite.' " On his recommendation she began studying meditation and yoga, and over the following year John watched her values change. By the terms of her prenuptial agreement, she would lose most of her wealth if she divorced, but that no longer seemed like a bad price to pay for a better chance at happiness.

When the divorce finally came she had no more money to employ John, but the two stayed close. At her second, more humble wedding, he drank champagne with her again -- but this time as her guest. D

*Names have been changed.

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