Chefs, Nannies and Housekeepers: How Hollywood's Elite Staffs Up at Home
Multiskilled nannies are in and strict British nannies are out, as agencies staffing the town's top households meet special challenges: "If an unhappy housekeeper works for an A-lister, I can't present her to a new employer who is in business with her old one."
This story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
It can seem incongruous for butlers to operate in a town where yoga pants are worn to meetings, but industry players do have their version of Downton Abbey. Among the L.A. entertainment set, there are hundreds of high net worth households that employ multiple members of staff. "People live large here," says Christopher Baker of Christopher Baker Staffing, whose clients possess "Forbes 400-level wealth." A staff can cost $200,000 to $300,000 or more a year. "The $5 million to $10 million [earners] can do that," says a business manager of megaclients. NDAs are standard, staff size and titles vary, but in general, Hollywood's domestic help falls in a hierarchy.
The estate manager (or house manager if there's just one home) is "like a GM of a luxury hotel — they run the show: staff, events, renovations," says Baker. Estate managers report to the "principal," or homeowner, and from a fiscal standpoint, to a business manager or family office. Hollywood business managers rely on staffing agencies to fill this critical position (and many others). Among those most mentioned are The Help Co. and The Elizabeth Rose Agency. "In L.A., the agencies are more relaxed," says Mario Seiler, an estate management specialist at luxury lifestyle consultancy Majordomo. "Europe is more focused on requiring five to 10 years experience, whereas in L.A., [a flexible] attitude is key." Agency fees can start at about 15 percent of an employee's income (estate managers take home a salary of $100,000 or more). Estate Managers Coalition president Bryan Peele says they can also receive "a 10 percent cash bonus." (Other full-time staff can get a week's salary for every year in service. "Cars, trips, college tuition, gym memberships are also given," says The Help Co.'s Claudia Kahn.)
Not that estate managers don't earn their keep. The requests can range from obsessive (ensuring that a different scent wafts in each room) to obnoxious. "My favorite," says an employee, "is the principal who had her male estate manager — who was her shoe size — wear her new Manolo Blahniks in the house to break them in."
Private-chef services range from drop-off meals to on-call and 24/7 availability with salaries varying widely ($70,000 to $120,000 or higher), depending on experience and requested services. "A typical client wants snacks stocked in the fridge and a two- to three-course hot, healthy meal prepared," says Kahn, noting farm-to-table, gluten-free and vegan meals are popular. "For the supermodel trophy wives and boyfriends, everything has to be measured," adds Baker. "They obsess about every molecule that goes into their bodies." One chef got sacked because his pancakes weren't perfect. Another was fired for cutting carrots the wrong way. Road testing a chef at a day rate ($250 to $500) is a good idea, Kahn suggests. "Most chefs have their own wish lists. They don't want to cook a chicken breast every day."
"If you're providing excellent service, it's your job to know the best nontoxic cleaning supplies," says Peele of top full-time housekeepers (who, if experienced, legal, English-speaking and car-owning, can start at $20 an hour). The rule for staff size is "one housekeeper for every 4,000 square feet," says The Grapevine's Rachel Sheer, who founded the agency after working on Kevin Huvane's desk at CAA. Kahn says that she's seen an increased formalization due to the rise of McMansions and yachts. "It is more common for clients to have their staff trained by a butler," she says. Uniforms are often called for, but "old-fashioned black and whites are passe," says Kahn. "Everyone may wear khaki shorts, polo shirts and espadrilles as a household look," adds Peele.
The most frequent request is for staff to be available around the clock. But, says a staffer who has worked for multiple industry clients: "The word 'flexibility' in a job description means they want you overtime 24/7, but for a flat salary." This year, however, California laws are tightening surrounding domestic employees who are supposed to be earning by the hour and receive overtime, making live-in housekeepers a scarcity.
Unsurprisingly, in a town where the predominant business is show business, principals with bad reps create challenges, says Baker. "If an unhappy housekeeper works for an A-lister, I can't present her to a new employer who may be in business with her old one. I need to be savvy of who's doing what and where."
Need a nanny? You're in the right place. "If you're looking for a college-educated, athletic and well-traveled nanny, the choices are greater in L.A. than almost anywhere else," says Baker, who notes that the New York elite often dip into the L.A. nanny pool. The norm of having a full-time nanny five days a week and an on-call babysitter on weekends is morphing into two rotating full-time nannies seven days a week, says Elizabeth Rose Agency's Julie Swales, whose clients include working CAA and UTA moms. After placing a nanny (some of whom fetch $30 an hour, plus health benefits and an SUV for safe kid transport), Swales often stays involved as an adviser: "Imagine the dynamics of a mom who's dealing with postpartum blues, has to get back to work and doesn't want a nanny, but needs her."
Agents all note an increase in requests for nannies knowledgeable in attachment parenting and RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers). Adds Westside Nannies' Katie Provinziano: "Clients ask me if I could find a nanny who may have been a pro-level tennis player. You'll have parents asking for a ballerina if their daughter is into ballet." Nannies who eschew the use of gender pronouns are also in demand. "There's a gender conversation going on now," says Swales. "They look for nannies who will let a little boy wear a sister's tutu to school." But the trend toward younger nannies has slowed: "The [alleged] Ben Affleck nanny affair scandal didn't help," says an agent. "I got calls from clients saying they don't want anyone under 35." And the strict British nanny is no longer in vogue: Only "a Chinese bazillionaire or the Saudis might love that," says Baker. The invisible nanny, however, is still going strong, as celeb moms feel pressure to appear as if they're doing it all, with personal assistants also doing nanny duties (as Gwyneth Paltrow's are said to do) or staying out of lens range when traipsing with the brood through LAX (Angelina Jolie). As Provinziano puts it: "You need to give up your life a bit, do anything necessary to make this family's life happen."