When Merryl Futerman fell pregnant with her second daughter, she decided not to return to her job in publishing. Instead she launched a new career as a freelance celebrity personal assistant (PA). Now she’s teamed up with fellow celebrity PA Josephine Green to launch a business (PA Access All Areas) training other experienced and would-be PAs. We speak to them about being a celebrity PA, their business, and how Merryl balances her work and family.
How did you become a celebrity PA?
Merryl: When I had my first daughter, I could only take 12 weeks’ maternity leave and had to return to work quite quickly after the birth. I couldn’t face doing that again when I had my second daughter so I decided to go freelance.
I had worked in film PR and publishing. Part of my job was helping high profile people, and I wondered if I could make that a career. So I hired a graphic designer to create flyers for me and sent a few out to a select number of celebrities living in north London. I didn’t get any replies to the flyers, but the graphic designer asked if I’d be interested in working for his friend, Julian Clary – and that was how I got my first client!
Josephine: I worked in film and fashion PR, doing things like arranging for stars to sit in the front row of Versace fashion shows. Then I met Joseph Fiennes. He needed a personal assistant and while I loved the organising part of my job, I didn’t really enjoy PR. So I became his PA and the work just grew from there.
What’s it like working freelance?
Josephine: I’ve been a freelance virtual PA for over 10 years now. My office is my home, car or anywhere I am at that moment. Deciding to leave my full time job and go freelance was a massive leap of faith, but it was the right thing to do. Being my own boss is brilliant for me. I’m close to my family and friends and choose when I want to spend time with them – I love having the flexibility to shape my day.
Merryl: Being a freelance PA can be quite isolating as you have no colleagues or office back up. So it’s been really great starting our business (PA Access All Areas) with Jospehine. While we keep our own clients very separate, we can divide labour up and pass work onto each other. She’s a friend but also a great business woman.
What are your tips for freelancing?
Josephine: There are three rules I have about freelance: to make time to get out and see people in the week; to create a separate working space and close it off at the end of the day; and to get dressed every morning.
The third rule is particularly important for me. One morning Joseph Fiennes Skyped me at home when I was dressed in really old, scruffy clothes, with unbrushed hair and no make up. I was trying to appear calm and collected while scrabbling frantically to switch the video off my end!
Do you enjoy your job?
Merryl: I like finding practical solutions to problems – it’s my personality and I’m like that with my friends, too. I’m also a good organiser and don’t like to leave things to chance. I love the challenge of my work, how every day is so different. I get a buzz from researching and solving something difficult, and live on my contacts.
Being a freelance PA has also worked perfectly for my family. I never worked full time, but as the kids have got older and need me less, I have been free to take on more work if I want it.
Josephine: Yes I loved it from day one. You need certain characteristics to do this job well. I love organising things for other people (though I wish I was that organised in my own life!), I like helping people and I’m good at solving problems. My default answer to everything is ‘yes’, it’s just the way I am. I also enjoy the personal side of my work (there’s a good reason we’re called ‘personal’ assistants). You go through such big stages of your clients’ professional and personal lives, and see so many changes, it’s like a partnership in so many ways. I love what I do and am very lucky to have great clients that I respect and get on with.
Being a PA used to be seen as a stopgap, but now it’s a career people aspire to. It’s really fun and varied, and you can move easily around industries depending on your interests.
What’s it like working for celebrities?
Josephine: You have to be realistic about the job. While there are indeed perks, it’s not all film premieres and first class flights. It’s much more about picking up dry cleaning and letting in plumbers. And in many ways, working for a celebrity is no different to working for a CEO or MD; they’re all the most important people in their world and just need you to make life easier for them. That’s why it’s so easy to transfer your skills – you can easily move from a blue chip company to working for TV personalities (like us) or sports or film stars, writers or artists.
What have you learned from working with your clients?
Jospehine: Sometimes clients expect you to achieve the impossible, so you need to know how to get people to help you with your problems. Simply demanding, expecting or shouting loudly won’t get you anywhere. Instead, you need to explain the situation to the person you need help from, and make it their problem too. They’ll be much more willing to help if you draw them in. It’s also really important to thank people afterwards.
Merryl: I’m always really clear with clients that they’re not the only one I work with, but I make sure they always feel as if they’ve been put first. My job is to make their problems go away. They don’t want to know how hard it has been, or long it has taken to sort something out for them – they just need to know it’s been done.
And while it’s great to work with people you respect, it’s important to maintain a professional distance. While you may go through real highs and lows together, you need to remember that you’re their PA on a payroll, not their friend.
How did your business come about?
Merryl: We met through a networking group and just really hit it off – we even found out that we went to the same school! I really respect Josephine. We’re also at different stages of our lives, which works well.
Josephine: We’ve become even better friends since setting up our business together. We’ve known each other for 10 years, and in the beginning I was worried it would affect our friendship but actually we work well together and complement each other perfectly. Merryl is better with money so she’s our CFO and I have named myself CEO – though I don’t know if she’s thrilled with that! We work hard, but it’s also fun – I think it’s important to enjoy yourself.
What does you your business, PA Access All Areas do?
Merryl: We run boutique training courses for PAs in a private members club in the daytime or evening. We also hold tailored, in-house courses for companies and organisations like the MoD.
Josephine: Our courses are ideal for anyone who wants to become, or learn more about, being a PA – whether you’ve got 20 years’ experience or want to get your first PA job. We share our experiences and explain how to network and create a support network, how to build professional boundaries, how to handle big personalities, how to cope with unusual or extreme circumstances, and what to do when things go wrong – because they will!
Merryl: One of the great things about our courses is that we are utterly realistic about the job. We’re not simply professional trainers giving you an opinion of the work, we’re out there doing it! Our courses are not just for celebrity PAs either – they’re just as applicable for any PA working for someone high up in an organisation, or someone who wants to become a freelance virtual PA. We give a realistic view of the job and practical, problem-solving techniques. At the end of each section you’ll walk away with a tool that you can use the next day in your job.
Josephine: We also all share anecdotal stories about our work. The great thing about being a PA is that, whatever industry we work in, we’ve all got common experiences we can relate to and laugh about. We all discover how normal the things we’re asked to do are!
Merryl: At the end of our courses we give a handout with useful resources, and details of our LinkedIn group where we post details of jobs we hear about, and Facebook page. They’re great places to keep in touch and share information and advice, such as house moving charts. If we hear of a PA vacancy and we think someone’s perfect for the role, we’ll also recommend them.
Where do you see your business going?
Merryl: Our first year has been such a huge learning curve for us, and our confidence has grown hugely. We’ve come a long way already. I’d like to see how far we can go. It’s a good time for me as I’ve cut my clients back to just Julian Clary, and my children are also heading off to university.
Josephine: We want to grow the business, and are also keen to stay working as PAs, as I think it’s what makes us really unique and it helps us to keep our courses current and fresh. We’re always changing the course and adding in new things. I’d also like to run more in-house courses with organisations as they get so much out of it.
You can find out more about Merryl and Josephine’s boutique PA courses on their website PA Access All Areas (their next course is on 22 October in London). You can also follow them on Twitter @PAAccessAllArea.