4 Lessons for Hollywood Helpers from the Novel 'The Assistants' (Guest Review)

Gatekeepers founder Michael Torbiak compares Camille Perri's 'Office Space' meets 'The Devil Wears Prada' novel with what it's really like to work your way up in the entertainment industry.
Courtesy of G.P. Putnam's Sons

The Assistants, Camille Perri’s new novel, imagines what would happen if the assistants to a few corporate moguls siphoned off a little money from their bosses’ expense accounts to pay off their student loans. Think Office Space meets The Devil Wears Prada. The Hollywood Reporter asked Michael Torbiak — a founder of Gatekeepers, a private club for assistants, and a former Hollywood assistant himself — to explore what Perri’s novel reveals about the cutthroat world of Hollywood assistants.

Camille Perri's debut novel, The Assistants, tells the story of Tina Fontana’s attempts to make working for a high-powered, ego-driven and unethical executive into a play to cement her own success. When Tina makes a mistake in processing Robert’s (her boss') expense report, she finds herself with a mound of cash that could change her life. Soon, other mistreated and disrespected minions at Titan Corporation find out and suddenly Tina’s life spirals out of control. She is forced into an embezzlement scheme that could take her down along with those she was trying to help. The story is a great exploration of the idea of right versus wrong in a world where those being taken advantage of cannot be expected to stay quiet forever. It's also a fun, clever read that manages to convincingly illustrate the relationship between boss and assistant — though it’s not set in Hollywood, it reveals some core truths about the boss-assistant dynamic in the entertainment industry.

There's nobility — and a certain element of romance — in every boss-assistant relationship. You are as close to your boss as a colleague can be. You are there when they are most vulnerable and this "sacred relationship" should be taken very seriously. It's probably why, as Tina describes in the book, she is still an assistant "six years later." If you've developed that special bond, a lot of bosses in Hollywood try everything to keep you on their desk. I've seen plenty of folks "stuck" on their boss' desk for years for this very reason. On the other hand, I once saw an executive go through four assistants in six months; it's as serious as finding a boyfriend or girlfriend.

I think we can all relate to how Tina feels when Robert interrupts her lunch with Kevin because he needs her. It's easy to see how an exec can forget their assistant needs a lunch break, or may not be physically at their desk or checking email 24/7. Sometimes being uber-responsive makes it difficult to set boundaries and schedules. I can't count the number of times I'd worry about leaving my desk for fear of missing my boss' call or email — solely because I prided myself on always being able to deliver, which in a way, is not always the best attribute when trying to strike a work-life balance. 

The hardest part of the job is making it look easy. Tina takes care of Robert in every way possible, supporting him both mentally and physically. And that is essentially the role(s) you play as an assistant. She fetches him Tums when his stomach hurts, buys last-minute birthday gifts for his friends and family when he forgets and manages to get him on "the next flight to L.A." And this is all done with such ease — at least it appears so on the surface, because it has to be. In Hollywood especially, assistants are there to make their bosses' lives run seamlessly and to make sure no request ever seems too big or too difficult. We are trained to make booking a last-minute charter flight look as easy as brewing a cup of coffee. When your boss' flight from France to Italy is canceled because of an airport labor union strike, it's your job to figure out how to get them there. Even if that means finding a car service to drive overnight, across two countries (true story).

As Tina says, she is in "close proximity to power" as Robert's assistant. She is an "assistant to the one percent" and "there is power in that." She is also flattered and touched by how much Robert trusts her. Personally, I feel like being an assistant was a great experience in that I learned more than I ever thought I would just by being in close proximity to power. That knowledge is worth more than any paycheck and there are lessons, good and bad, that you take with you and apply in all aspects of your life.

Even power by proxy can be addictive. The way Tina describes herself as an extension of her boss is also very relatable. In the assistant world you really are defined largely by whom it is you work for. A promotion for an assistant is often to become an assistant to someone more senior, someone with a fancier title than your previous boss. It's great when you work for the top-level executives, believe me; you have so much more leeway in deciding meeting times, locations, even requesting they get special parking at off-campus events. Your boss sets the tone for how their office is run. I've seen plenty of executives with big egos and seen how that can trickle down to their assistant. I worked for someone who once said they were "in the nice business" and that meant they expected that I treat everyone with dignity. 

In Hollywood there is an overwhelming feeling that "you are lucky to work here." It's part of the industry. It's so hard to break in and even when you do, only a relatively small group ever become rich and powerful or even close to that. I think the consolation for that is power by proxy or status by proxy. The same way maitre d's are nice to Tina because of who she works for, people in Hollywood accept this type of treatment as a form of payment. You are who you work for, or work with, or represent, or by what show you produce, or talent you manage. 

Trickle-down perks are allowed; flaunting them is not. The way Tina accepts how Robert is showered with free stuff and access that he can easily afford, stuff that would take her forever to save up to purchase, is all part of the job. I personally don't think there's anything wrong with that. For the most part being an assistant is a job you sign up for, and are usually aware of what it will entail when you go into it. Most bosses, even in Hollywood, have paid their dues and earned their status but that doesn't always make it easier to swallow. When you are responsible for paying your boss' bills, filing their expense reports, helping to plan company events, it's all just a constant reminder of how one's sense of money is really all relative. The T&E check Tina "accidentally" gets issued could indeed change her life, and Titan would never feel it, and examples like that are felt every day when you work as an assistant. You'd be surprised at how many college tuitions could be funded by what it costs to pay for a day of just one talent's "glam squad." 

My experience was mostly positive in that a lot of the special perks and gifts for my boss often trickled down to me. I’d get invited to premieres, awards show pre- and afterparties, all because people wanted to maintain a relationship with me because of whom I worked for. Your boss can only use so many gifted iPads before he offers one to you. Traveling is another perk that when you work for the right person can really pay off. Limo service, stays at five-star hotels and welcome baskets are all par for the course when accompanying your boss on the road. Discretion is always important; you’re not supposed to advertise any of it, primarily because it’s in bad taste, but you’re also the assistant and the last thing you are supposed to do is draw attention to yourself. You are always there to staff your boss, they are always the principal. I remember an assistant getting fired once for taking a picture sitting in their boss’ chair in their office and then posting it on social media. That is exactly the kind of thing that will make sure you’ll never work in this town again.

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