She wants to make it in showbiz. But not by temping for the powers-that-be. 3,386 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
I sit at a desk in a poolside cabana at a fairytale Spanish style estate in Bel Air. Platinum record plaques litter the walls, bragging. This cabana is the home office of the assistant to veteran record producer Matthew Vaughn. I am an undercover rock star (like Hannah Montana, only a little longer in the tooth) or so I’d like to believe, but I’m dripping with passionate stage fright. If only I could get on that stage. I could be somebody. Meanwhile, I’m a temporary assistant to the powers-that-be in the entertainment industry, while I “develop my writing and artistry.” That’s my pitch, but it’s getting old. My life is a dichotomy. A nightmarish fantasy. A fantastic nightmare.
This is the second consecutive Monday I am on this particular assignment — a two-day gig that terminates at 6:30 pm. It’s 11:23 am. I wonder what will come out if I write all day as a way to pass the hours. Oh, the hours. Springtime sun rays filter through lush tree foliage over the Spanish tile pool, through French doors, across the desk and glare off my laptop screen. It’s pretty. This place would be heaven if only it were mine. If only I were more than a temporary assistant living a temporary life.
I have been assisting entertainment types for twelve years now. I’ve also written a novel, multiple TV pilots, a feature, endless songs. I’ve come close to success. I’ve tasted it. But it’s never more than a taste on the tip of my tongue. None of my dreams have come true and the only bankable skill I have developed since college is the skill of assisting the powers-that-be in Hollywood. I know how to get them exactly what they want, no matter how ridiculous or seemingly impossible, on the triple. It’s a skill I’ve honed to near perfection, one many people around the world might think they would kill for. But it isn’t feeding my soul anymore.
My very first gig was full-time, a few miles from here — behind the Beverly Hills Hotel in the mansion of an iconic talent agent and his beautiful young wife. I was twenty-two and fresh out of college. I reflect back to my first day on that first job. The more things stay the same, the more they change.
Back then I was a wannabe movie star with stars in my eyes — as green as a leaf but of course I was clueless to it. I was born in Hollywood and raised in the San Fernando Valley (although I don’t readily advertise that last part). My mother comes from a golden age entertainment family. My father’s parents met at Hollywood High in the late thirties. My parents met at Le Conte Junior High just up the street from Paramount Pictures. We go back generations here. Still the industry has always been just outside my reach. I’ve yearned to be part of it as long as I can remember, but kept secret my deep-seated conviction that I am destined for Hollywood greatness as my birthright until recently. A few months back I enrolled in professional acting classes on the down low. My teacher sees something in me. He knows. He coaches a flock of A-list actors. I’m on course, although it’s not happening fast enough for my taste.
I can’t wait to meet the legendary Jack Seitz. I’ve been hired as the personal assistant to his wife Ava, but he’s the one who matters to me. He’s the power agent who will surely catch his first glimpse of me and know on impact I am his next ingenue. Ava has instructed me to call them Mr. and Mrs. Seitz at all times, never mind that she isn’t much older than I.
I’ve been on the job about an hour perched properly at the desk in my new office. I’m nervous. In my smart plum-colored dress and low-heeled sling-backs, my blonde hair tucked neatly behind my ears, I want to make my best first impression. I hope my intelligence shines through my star power.
I hear a shuffling behind me and turn eagerly to relish my first moment in the presence of a real life Hollywood agent. I eyeball him. He’s perfect. Modest but poised. Just as he should be. The one who will discover me.
“Mr. Seitz,” I rise from the chair to literally present myself like I’m an Academy Award, “I’m Natalie Savoy, Mrs. Seitz’s new assistant.” My excitement drives an overzealous smile. Glowing like the star I’m certain I am, I step forward and extend my hand. “It’s an honor to meet you.”
Mr. Seitz sneers at me from the doorway like I’m an alien whose UFO just landed on his roof. “Do you know where she is?”
I draw back my hand lamely. “She’s in her bedroom. Having a manicure.”
Mr. Seitz spins on his heel. He can’t get away from me fast enough. I sink into my chair and ponder my first audition. It didn’t go as I had imagined it would. At all. Doesn’t he know who I am? My aunt is a friend of theirs. She’s rich and influential. She got me this job. Doesn’t nepotism count for anything? Can’t he see I’m a star!
Today, in Matthew Vaughn’s Bel Air cabana, behind my newly-necessary reading glasses, I raise my thirty-six year old eyes from my laptop screen to see my newest temporary boss stride across his fantastic backyard with the confidence of someone who has earned his own estate and fulfilled his own dreams. My guesthouse in Santa Monica (a converted garage) is half the size of his pool house. My inherited partnership in my family’s mobile home park business pays my rent and my horrific eating-out habit, but not much more. After all these years, I’m still an assistant.
I flash back to last Monday. It was 9:05 am when the maid first showed me to Matthew Vaughn’s cabana. I was settling in for the morning when he walked in. I smiled widely and rose in order to offer him my hand.
“Hi, Matt,” I started off openly then caught the unenthused look on his face and sat back down. Mr. Seitz flashed through my mind. Funny how history repeats itself. Again. And again.
As a temp I am always the new girl. I feel tense and unsure from the beginning of the gig, onward. It reminds me of carrying a tray of filled-to-the-brim martinis across the bar my first day on the job as a cocktail waitress in college. Only this task never gets easy. I don’t feel like an expert, no matter how many years I’ve got under my belt. Why? Because I’m dealing with showbiz personalities. There is no way to master them like you might an all-in-one fax, scanner, copy machine. Each is unique. Most defy logic. It is my job to read their delusional minds.
“I need you to deal with my Bentley,” Matt said as he tossed a key fob that probably cost a couple thousand dollars onto the desk.
I reached for the key. My hand threatened to shake. “Okay, I’ll—
He cut me off like he didn’t want me to use up extra oxygen by speaking.
“The maintenance guy comes to the house.” I swear to God he looked annoyed I was alive.
“So I’ll make an appointment?” I slid open the desk drawer and dropped the key in as a means of burning off awkward energy.
“Figure it out,” he added generously. “There’s a manual somewhere.” Then he exited the cabana.
“Okay! A pleasure to meet you as well,” I waved to his back as he made his way across his fabulous backyard.
I found the Bentley maintenance appointment in the calendar but the guy showed up an hour late. I tiptoed into the mansion and had to interrupt Matt’s personally trained workout session over an intercom that echoed throughout the cavernous place. It was somehow my fault that the Bentley guy was late, or at least that’s how I was made to feel. I’d met Matt face-to-face once for less than two minutes. The maid encouraged me to go upstairs to his private quarters, right after his workout, to get him to sign his credit card receipt for the Bentley maintenance. What if he’s f-ckin’ naked up there? I chose instead to linger at the bottom of the stairs until Matt came down. The Bentley guy could wait. Later I read in the temp manual in bold italicized text: never go upstairs uninvited!
For the rest of the day Matt barked orders at me. He demanded I hand him a pen that was inches from his fingers. Then threw the letter he had just signed at me. Pages fluttered down to the floor. I ducked under the desk to pick them up. He seemed angry with me for doing my job, “Now fax this back to John!”
Matthew hovered over me as I punched numbers into the fax machine. My mind flashed back to last Friday when I was temping on the Manifest Movies lot and I called Matt’s regular assistant to get the skinny on this latest gig my temp agent had booked for me.
“Matthew’s cool,” the regular assistant assured me, “cool,” He paused. “But very straight-forward.”
“I get it. Speak when spoken to, but not more.” I let him know I understand.
“Right,” the assistant joked, “he’s not Anna Wintour or anything, but this is the entertainment business.”
I hung up the phone and briefly wondered: why does the entertainment industry have to be this way?
I was on my lunch break trying to relax on a bench outside the Producers Building. I had just wolfed down an oversized carton of Mexican comfort food from the commissary taqueria in order to pad myself for the battle of the rest of the day. It’s a ritual. Plus I was a little hung-over. Which has also become part of the ritual. Grease helps cut the hangover. I stared into the space of A picturesque place I have come to know like home. Dare I say a dysfunctional home where domestic abuse occurs? It’s not just the Manifest lot. It’s the whole damn industry. I didn’t know if I was sad, mad, fed-up or excited about my unknown future. I looked down at the greasy Styrofoam container in my lap. I felt the nausea of knowing I need to make a change. The novelty has officially worn off. I felt empty. I felt greasy. Like the Styrofoam box. So I made myself a promise: Matthew Vaughn will be my last gig as an assistant in the entertainment industry. I will find something else. Something outside of entertainment, even though it’s all I know. I will stop chasing the dangling carrot. Take a risk on something new.
Now I take in Matthew Vaughn without longing, angst or fear, although all those emotions could be present if I would allow them. As he approaches the cabana, I lean back in my (well, his) chair instead of sitting up like an abused dog at attention. He walks through the door. I’m at a metaphoric crossroads. This time I’m choosing the other direction, if it’s the last thing I do. I will not react. I will not jump. I am comfortable in my skin. I will just be. I breathe deeply in order to slow my heart rate. I’m so sick of feeling less than around these entertainment people.
He smiles at me and I smile back reservedly. He picks up a stack of neatly arranged already-opened mail from the corner of the desk and flips through it, then drops the stack of mail back on the desk where he found it. “That’s a very red Mac,” he gestures to my laptop.
I’m confused by his pleasant small talk tone. My favorite scene in The Devil Wears Prada flashes through my mind: Meryl Streep’s character is vulnerable and opens up to Anne Hathaway’s character for a split second, only to slam the intimacy door in her face as soon as the assistant tries to comfort her. I don’t take the bait anymore.
“It’s a cover,” I tap on the red plastic. My fingers don’t shake.
“Ahh, very cool. I should get one of those. My Mac is silver and very scratched. Well, I’m off to get my teeth cleaned, then lunch. Please email me with my calls.”
“Will do. Have a good one,” I add because, after all, he is being nice this time. And, after all, I am an abused dog.
I let my eyes linger on Matthew’s face and detect a slight smile as he turns to leave the pool house.
I watch him walk across his stunning backyard. He is tall, dark, successful and sexy in his own quirky introverted way. I allow a little longing to slip in – but just a little – that I could one day be the girl (woman, now) who lands herself inside the life of the movers and shakers instead of on the fringe, taking their calls, bringing them coffee, ordering their lunch and making their Botox, dentist, manicure, lunch, travel appointments.
Later, it’s 12:30 pm. I’m still tapping away on my red Mac. The phone rings. I answer as I’ve been instructed. “Matthew Vaughn’s office.”
“Is Matt there?”
I slip into my throaty secretary tone for the fun of it, “He’s unavailable. May I ask who’s calling?”
“This is Sam Gold. Who’s this?”
My stomach zooms to the floor. Still I don’t hesitate. My pitch raises an octave and takes on a dripping-with-saccharine sarcasm. “This is Natalie, the temp.”
“Do you know who I am?” asks Sam Gold.
“Oh, I know exactly who you are,” I assure him with my saccharine. “There’s a picture of you staring at me as we speak,” I glance down at Sam’s smiling face.
“Well, imagine that,” Sam snickers arrogantly. “I was just making sure. Tell Matt I called.”
“You bet!” I sing. “Have a nice–
Sam hangs up on me and I follow suit. Adrenaline grabs me out of my chair and sends me pacing around the pool house. I stop in front of the framed photo of Sam that leans up against the French door from the floor. I think back to last Monday when I first walked into the pool house and saw Sam’s face for the first time in six years.
It was five to nine. The maid had just shown me into the pool house. I looked around at my new surroundings with a smirk on my face. This is as Hollywood as it gets. Could any set-up be more uniquely cliché? My eyes scanned the platinum records on the wall. My heart flip-flopped at the sight of Pink Floyd’s The Wall album personally autographed for Matthew Vaughn. It didn’t shock me. I already knew that Matt rubs elbows with anyone and everyone of note in the music industry. I worked for his Reverent Records business partner, Sam Gold, for six weeks back in 2005. I shivered at the thought of it. My eyes fell to a framed picture that leaned against the French door from the floor. It was a mock magazine cover that read: Sam Gold To The Rescue – Five Ways Sam Will Save Music. Sam’s grinning face had been superimposed on the torso of a flexing SUperman. My hand floated to my mouth and stifled a gasp. I hadn’t seen his face since the day I walked out of his office six years ago. In all my years before and since, Sam Gold is the only executive I have walked out on in the middle of a shift. Many have warranted a walk out, but none like Sam. His psychological abuse was special.
I looked around the cabana and dreaded my upcoming day. Everyone knows that Sam is the heavy. Matt is the softy of the pair. At least there was that. Still. I’ve seen too much. Even soft in this sick world is too hard. That same fearful, queasy feeling took over my gut.
Now, looking down at Sam’s silly smiling face on the framed mock magazine cover, I laugh loudly. I don’t feel queasy at all. I don’t feel afraid. I don’t feel tiny. Sam seems tiny. Insignificant. I feel free. I can take it or leave it. Very soon — I am going to leave it.
Meanwhile it’s 2:00 p.m. The day is going smoothly. Matt’s been out of the house and leaving me alone. I am deep into my writing. I may as well be in another world. Suddenly a young waif with a surprisingly intelligent air, about twenty-five years younger than Matt, pokes her head into the pool house.
“Hi, I’m Gardenia.”
I take off my reading glasses. “I’m Natalie.” I feel old.
“Has Matt called?” she glances at her flashy watch. I project that the watch was a gift from Matt. I want a flashy watch.
“No, he hasn’t,” I pause. “HE left about an hour and a half ago.”
“Yes, he went to have his teeth cleaned.”
“That’s right!” I say too enthusiastically, proud of myself for remembering even one detail about the menial work I am supposed to be doing here in the pool house. “Then he was going to lunch.”
“Okay, thanks,” she offers an almost-smile then flits across the gorgeous backyard with her flimsy sundress swaying in the breeze and her flip-flops slapping the stone tiles.
Reading glasses in hand, I watch Gardenia enter Matt’s mansion as my ego yanks me down a tube of self-defeating torture. I am a loser. Nothing works out for me. Even this writing I’m doing is worthless. My ship sailed and I never got on. I am never doing this again. I’m going to email my temp agency right now and tell them to take me off their roster. I’m done. Fuck this industry. Fuck it all.
I put my glasses back on and click into my Gmail account all set to compose a perfect “Dear John” letter to my temp agent. I find an unread email waiting in my inbox. It came in two minutes ago from my agent. Subject line: Are you available starting Thursday at Manifest?
My face gets hot like it does when I’m at a bar but trying not to drink and I see a dirty martini with a few olives served to another patron. I swallow hard. My throat feels furry. I click on the email and read:
Hi Natalie: How’s it going at Matthew Vaughn’s? I emailed briefly with his regular assistant and it sounds like they love you over there! What do you do to them? Whatever it is, can we bottle it up and share it with the other temps? ;-)
We’ve had a request come in for you from Manifest. This one’s in the story department, which we know is right up your alley. It’s working for Jacob Jacobson, head of the department. Do you know him? I figure you do since the request came in for you. They will probably need you for a week or longer starting Thursday. His regular guy had a family emergency and had to fly home. Let me know as soon as possible. We don’t like to keep Manifest waiting.
Talk soon, Gloria.
By the time I finish reading Gloria’s email my throat feels like sand paper. I reach for the bottle of Fiji water I selected from the mini bar. The maid and Matt’s assistant both told me to help myself. I know exactly who Jacob Jacobson is. I’ve wanted to work for him for years. I worked for one of his junior creative executives several weeks back. I must have gotten good remarks, even though I felt like she hated me. I always feel like they hate me. Maybe this time will be different. Maybe Jacob will ask about my life. Maybe he will read my novel and other work. But I’ve been hanging on the hope that the next assignment will be different for years. It never is. It’s always the same. I need to get out.
I hit reply and type:
Hi Gloria: Wonderful to hear from you! All is splendid over here in the cabana at Matthew Vaughn’s…