Harvey Weinstein

OPINION

High-level personal assistants are often enablers. After Weinstein, where do we draw the line?

Harvey Weinstein (Photo: Getty Images)

Assisting the powerful often means making a horrible Faustian pact to do so, says Helen Walmsley-Johnson

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By Helen Walmsley-Johnson on

For the most part, I’ve allowed the various accounts of Harvey Weinstein’s disgusting behaviour to wash over me, partly because the way blame is being flung about was tipping me into repeated rages and partly because I’ve just completed the third draft of a book about women and abuse, which did the same. I’m only small and there’s only so much anger I can take. Then, on Wednesday morning, I heard Zoe Brock, one of the women Harvey Weinstein (allegedly) assaulted, attribute the following remark to his assistant: ‘"Of all the women he’s done this to, you’re the one that makes me feel the worst" and that provoked a different reaction: shock. I was shocked because, some years ago, I also worked in the entertainment industry and I knew that assistant – he was funny, charming and great to do business with, and now, apparently, complicit… an enabler.

I don’t know why I was shocked because we high-level personal assistants are all enablers. That’s the whole point of us. If we’re good at what we do, we slip seamlessly into someone else’s life, living it vicariously while being globally expert on the best of everything: where to go and be seen; where to go and not be seen; we grease palms, social and business wheels; and we are adept at catering for, and accommodating, the sometime peculiar tastes of the rich and famous. Our address books are legendary. We can get open any door because of the power we wield as gatekeepers and because almost everyone we meet confuses access with influence. It’s simple sleight of hand – you mention a "name" and they fall at your feet. That’s what wealth and power do, even by association.

So, imagine if you will, sitting in what used to be my private office, behind a very expensive antique desk, beneath a chandelier I destroyed with a birthday champagne cork (since repaired) and opposite a sofa with seat cushions hollowed out by more A-list backsides than I’ve had lifts in private helicopters. The huge arrangements of fresh flowers are replaced every Monday. Throughout the day, I will be two steps behind my boss at all times, right through to a premiere party that evening and beyond (involving a quick change into a cocktail frock at around 7pm – it’s hanging in my office wardrobe together with a pair of Prada heels). The man I worked for was entitled to call me at 4am from Los Angeles and hurl abuse across time zones because he’d just got off the plane and now he said he wasn’t sure where to go, but we both knew that really he was calling me because that’s what I was paid for and he was lonely. I ran his life. I had access to everything. I knew everything.

One day, after I’d been working with him for several months, he might have said something like, "You know that thing last night…" and, with a wink, put his finger to his lips, making a "Ssh…" sound. And I might have said, "Sure, no problem," because that’s what I always said. It’s what I was paid to say. Now I was complicit too and I didn’t feel a thing.

I ran his life. I had access to everything. I knew everything

Working for an UHNWI (Ultra High Net Worth Individual) sounds like the pinnacle of your career for a personal assistant, but the shine can wear off quite quickly, depending on who that individual is. I tried it twice and each time I found there was a horrible Faustian pact. The question is: where do you draw the line?

When most days included some kind of trade-off against my personal beliefs, the line I drew began to shift, initially for fairly piffling things – some mild bullying perhaps, a capricious request (but nonetheless an order) to make it cruelly clear to someone that they will not be welcome at some event or other… I was paid to be rude and I was, when the occasion or my boss demanded it. Very slowly, I became inured to it – the sense of entitlement. I found that, increasingly, I was able to set my moral compass aside. The fact that my colleagues all laughed about what I thought was my boss’s appalling behaviour made it seem less bad, unless you were on the receiving end. And the more loyal I proved myself to be, the greater were the remuneration and perks. The more I took what was offered, the more I was expected to give and the more the lines blurred.

Underneath this was the unspoken threat of what might happen if I dared to refuse something or say, "No, I won’t do that thing you’re asking me to do." It would be, as another Weinstein "witness" said, career suicide. Someone I knew who worked for someone else I knew would put the word out and that would be it – I’d never work in this town again. I think I said that to someone when they asked me why I put up with being called a c*nt on a regular basis, or carried on working while someone stood in the corner of the room screaming "Fuck" at the ceiling.

The morning I got a call from my new assistant to say they were resigning with immediate effect was the morning I decided I had to leave. They refused to give a reason, but I had my suspicions. I did know everything, after all. When I finally left, there was an understanding that nothing would ever be said and I’ve kept to that. It doesn’t make me feel good, but there is some comfort in knowing I’m not alone.

@TheVintageYear

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Harvey Weinstein (Photo: Getty Images)
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Sexual assault
Sexual abuse
women at work

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