Deborah Shaw never seems to turn down an opportunity; one of the most significant was when a friend invited her on holiday to Los Angeles. “It was April, the weather in California was gorgeous and I didn’t want to leave,” she laughs. Then a new acquaintance said that if Deborah were to come back, they would employ her. Spurred into action, she sub-let her flat, got a visa and went over. “You can do really well out there if you make an effort,” she notes modestly.
Her efforts paid off – after working as an event co-ordinator she became PA to Charlton Heston. “He is one of the most charming men and a wonderful boss,” she says effusively. Once when her car broke down, he not only sent his chauffeur to collect her, but gave her the money to go and choose another second-hand vehicle.
As she was based so far from her family, he would also invite her to be part of his home during the holidays. She once went to a party with James Stewart, Gregory Peck and Christopher Lee. “There’s a lot of misunderstanding about Heston,” she comments. For instance, she feels that the Michael Moore interview with Charlton used in the film Bowling for Columbine is edited in a negatively biased way. “He wasn’t well at the time,” she explains.
Charlton was not her only client and she has faced the gamut of celebrity personalities making unusual demands of her. She has been asked to buy underwear and has also had to collect a stool sample from an unwell dog to deliver to the vet. She drily adds that the role means “your life is not your own”.
The most terrifying incident during her time in the US involved a 6ft boa constrictor that a client had lost. After several days it turned out to be in the client’s car, which Deborah discovered as she was driving down a highway, when it poked its head out between her feet. She had to call her client’s best friend to collect her and then had to bribe several mechanics to unbolt the front seat and free the very hungry reptile.
Circumstances forced her to return to the UK, at which point she set up a talent management company, Kismet Gold, and a consulting service, Shaws Solutions. However, her real pride and joy is the Association of Celebrity Assistants (ACA-UK), which will celebrate its 10th anniversary this December.
She had become friends with Joy Montgomery of the Association of Celebrity Personal Assistants in LA and was then invited to become a member of the board herself. ACA-UK helps its 75 current members to do their jobs more easily by introducing them to useful clients on a private website. They know they can go to the forum for help, whether they need to find motorboat lessons, a vegan chef to take to the Alps or just a good restaurant recommendation. As so many of the members work out of their clients’ houses and have to problem-solve on their own, it is a lifeline.
Deborah herself is now PA to an art historian who lives in South Kensington, a role that takes up about three days of her week. “Because of the nature of the art world she travels a lot,” Deborah explains. “I even have to liaise with her husband’s PA to ensure their diaries coincide.”
She says that the role of PA across the pond doesn’t differ, and many colleagues of hers in the UK are on call 24/7. There are a lot of celebrity careers that mean the PA has to work long hours – if your client has to be up at 4am then you’re up at 3am to be prepared. She smiles cannily: “I have been very blessed with low-maintenance clients.”
Having chosen a part-time role, Deborah is able to work with her talent agency, act as a lifestyle consultant and perform her duties as director of ACA-UK. She is even developing a sitcom. Her dynamism, drive and talent make her a superstar in her own right.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
10am I get to my client’s house in South Kensington where I’m greeted by the housekeeper and a lovely dog. I check my emails, then go to my employer’s desk to see if there are any messages. She often emails me a list of tasks. I also RSVP to any invitations she has had – she often gets about 20 a week.
12am I am usually dealing with her art collection, mainly organising shipments. On some days I prepare spreadsheets cataloguing the works for open houses and put together research on the individual pieces.
1pm I am lucky enough to get a delicious lunch prepared for me each day by the housekeeper.
2pm I will run any errands for my employer; this can be anything from delivering copies of her books to Savile Row to collecting a watch from Piaget.
3.30pm I am usually back at the house for any final tasks. It can be all sorts – for instance I once had to gift-wrap a suitcase – and I often have to get the cars filled up with petrol. Sometimes I deliver gifts to embassies or have to go out and purchase presents on my employer’s behalf – she is a big fan of hand-made chocolate.
5pm My day is finished and I can go around the corner to The Ampersand Hotel if I have any further meetings to hold. As I don’t work full time at the moment my days are varied.