by Barrie Jean Borich
Tom Hanks was calling from on location. The connection was fuzzy—I’d heard he was doing some deserted-island film—but the voice was unmistakable. Any housewife in Idaho would have been able to place it. I, however, was the one talking to him.
“It’s Tom Hanks calling for Phyllis Brown,” he said.
“One moment, please,” I responded.
Okay, so it wasn’t an in-depth heart-to-heart, but still.
Phyllis, the grande dame of celebrity public relations and the head of our company’s New York office, was in the back attending the weekly meeting, a meeting I was not allowed to go to since somebody had to watch the phones, and for some reason that job inevitably fell to the receptionist. I hated disrupting those meetings. I swore I could hear a room-wide exasperated sigh when I paged in, as though it were my fault that a client had called at an inconvenient time. I prayed during every meeting that no one important would call. But this was Tom Hanks, so what could I do? Phyllis’s disembodied voice said she’d take the call immediately, in her office. This was not the time to hit the wrong button, multiple Oscar winner and all. Once I was certain the call had gone through, I could exhale.
The office was unusually quiet with everyone in the back room. Up at reception, I usually only saw my coworkers when they were coming and going, but I could hear the buzz of their conversations on the other side of the wall behind me. Not only did I feel left out of the weekly meetings, I also suspected I was missing out on the good celebrity gossip. There were a few tidbits I’d overheard or picked up from quick interactions in the copy room: How Gwyneth literally stole the Shakespeare in Love script off the coffee table of her alleged best friend Winona. How Jennifer Lopez was hell to work for. How Drew Barrymore proved she still knew how to party at the SNL anniversary celebration.
Logically, I figured that the meetings were held to discuss client business and company issues. But I had the feeling my colleagues spent most of their time back there replaying tapes of their brief appearances on the previous night’s Access Hollywood. I was forever saying to my roommate, as we lounged on the couch at night watching TV, “I work with her.”
“Who? Sharon Stone?”
“No, the chick in the back, behind her, with the headset.”
For a celebrity publicist, the entertainment news show appearances must have been second only to getting thanked during an Oscar acceptance speech. Before I wound up sitting behind this desk, I’d hoped to win an Oscar of my own someday. Unfortunately, as my friend Joram once said, the motto of NYU film school should have been “Your dreams will not be realized.”
Trivia time: Tom Hanks never made it through college. He dropped out because acting was taking up too much of his time, because he was already so successful he didn’t need a degree. I bet Tom Hanks is the type of person who always knew what he wanted to be when he grew up, who never had to wonder if he was on the right path, who never had to bide his time in a meaningless job. I hate those people.
What does an art degree get you, anyway? At my graduation from NYU in the spring, my film school classmates started chanting, “Stern sucks” in the direction of the business school graduates of said name; the kids who would be millionaires before age thirty called back, “We have jobs.”
Still, I was happy to think of myself as better than the number crunchers. Those Yuppies took the easy way out while I set myself up to pursue the more nebulous career of “artist.” My smugness carried me through the summer, until I did some number crunching of my own and realized I needed to pay rent. I checked the NYU job listings weekly, figuring I could get an entry-level position at one of the many media companies in the city. I wanted something reliable, something nine to five, a steady paycheck even though I had a degree that didn’t guarantee it. I wanted a clear path, with promotions and offices and meetings. The reality was, the romantic ideal of a starving artist terrified me.
But I didn’t feel qualified to do much of anything. No jobs were looking for someone with a background in watching silent films. Then I saw the listing for a receptionist at the PR firm. I had enjoyed taking a marketing and publicity course in the spring, but that was the highest level of experience I had to offer. During the class, we’d each been assigned a film—I’d gotten a Morgan Freeman/Ashley Judd thriller—and had to create a marketing plan for it. When I went into the interview at the PR firm, I talked about how I had even designed a poster—I mean, a “promotional one-sheet.”
Jillian, a down-to-earth woman who would be my rock while I worked there, nodded appreciatively. “That’s exactly what we do here,” she said. “Also, just to give you another example of what we do, this afternoon I have to go over to Conan because Brad’s doing the show.”
The listing had described the company as performing “public relations duties for a number of personalities,” but I had no idea of the level of fame I was dealing with until that moment. Suddenly, the fact that I’d aced the fake poster assignment in my publicity class didn’t seem adequate. I resisted my first instinct to ask why Brad Pitt needed to pay Jillian to follow him around on a talk-show set. I also knew I shouldn’t ask, “Brad who?”
“I went to a Letterman taping a few years ago,” I said lamely. “We sat in the balcony.”
Jillian was kind enough not to laugh at me.
The office contained nine publicists, nine assistants, and me. All of the assistants were beautiful young girls; the publicists were gay men and heavily made-up older women. The New York office was the partner of one in Los Angeles, so each of our clients had two publicists, one for each coast.
The work of the publicists consists of two official jobs: everyday chaperoning—escorting Tom Cruise to an experience on David Letterman or overseeing a Rosie O’Donnell photo shoot—and crisis work, for example, when one publicist had to deliver a barrage of “no comments” after Matthew McConaughey was arrested for naked bongo playing. (Only later would doing everyday PR for Tom Cruise constitute crisis work.) Both roles serve the same purpose, though: to make the star distant and unreachable, which means to make them stars. In chaperoning, the publicists make sure the celebrities don’t have to do anything—handle arrangements, make clothing choices, talk to other human beings—that might reveal their humanity. Crisis work, on the other hand, seals up any cracks in this constructed image as swiftly and secretly as possible.
Then there is the unofficial work, the acts of orchestrated magic which the public likes to think happen all the time. One publicist in my office was spoken of in awe after arranging to have a hugely famous and closeted gay actress attend a major event on the arm of an up-and-coming and very straight actor who wasn’t yet in the position to refuse a bit of free publicity. For weeks, the gossip magazines wondered if they were a new couple, and their publicists coyly refused to confirm or deny. Part of what made the feat so impressive for those in the industry was that the actor was represented by a different PR firm.
While all those machinations were going on in the back, I was stuck at my empty desk in the entry room of the office. I didn’t have drawers, folders, or calendars; I didn’t even get a computer, just a twenty-line phone that never, ever stopped ringing.
It’s amazing how long you can do without folders when there’s a chance that the person on the other side of that phone line is famous. Here’s the secret that I learned: Movie stars are the nicest, most polite people in the world. It’s everyone else in the industry who thinks they have to yell to get things done. They didn’t want to hear that the person they called for wasn’t in, or be put on hold, or be told after having been put on hold that the person they’d called for wasn’t going to take their call. But movie stars never yelled, simply because they didn’t have to. As soon as they said their names, people jumped to serve them. The real celebrities knew this. The only celebrity client who ever yelled at me was Chevy Chase—he said I kept him on hold too long and asked if I knew who he was—but Mr. Vegas Vacation was really the exception that proved the rule.
I loved Tony Hopkins. “Sir Anthony,” fava beans and eating livers and all. He made me smile with the robust and cheerful way he would exclaim the exact same phrase every time: “Hello! How are you? It’s Tony Hopkins telephoning for Glenn.” Most callers didn’t care how I was.
I also loved Portia de Rossi. She called once to leave a message that her dog’s name was “Peanut.” I guess some magazine was asking. I couldn’t help giggling, but then she joined me. “I know, right?” she said, as though I was her friend, or at least a peer.
But this was the reality: Curt Foulin, who had done business with the firm for years, was easily one of the most successful film producers of the past twenty-five years. A major motion picture had once been based on how notoriously horrible he was to work for. At NYU, it was known that if you accepted an internship in his office, you would, at some point during the semester, get something thrown at you.
Curt Foulin’s relationship with the PR firm was straightforward: every week, he threatened to fire them from every project he’d hired them for, and occasionally he did, yet he also kept rehiring them for every new film he produced. Every single morning there was a call from Foulin’s office between 8:12 and 8:19. Never an actual message, though, just notification that he’d called, to let the publicists know that he was always watching, always expecting them to be working.
On the rare occasions when Foulin himself called, the publicist he wanted to speak to never wanted to speak to him, because they had half a brain. One time, Foulin started screaming at me for keeping him on hold too long. As he went on and on, the other lines were blinking, and I had no idea how many important clients were trying to get through. And I was tired of taking abuse from everyone who called just because I was the receptionist.
“Is this the way you treat your best clients?” Foulin asked.
“Yes,” I said.
Foulin was caught off guard by that one; I could tell from the theatrical huffing coming from his end of the line. After telling me that I had “the personality of a drowned rat,” Curt Foulin asked me my name, and I gave it to him.
“Well, Christen, you will be gone by the end of the day. Good bye.”
An hour later, Jillian approached me with a fax signed by Foulin detailing why I should be fired. She crumpled it up and tossed it in the trash, telling me, “Don’t worry. It’s just Curt.” But I’d seen what happened when I stepped out of line. It was the moment I learned that I learned that the rest of the world didn’t think I was as important as I did. I was a receptionist.
In theory, I was supposed to arrive every morning at 9:00, a full half-hour before the rest of the staff had to show their faces. In practice, I somehow managed to underestimate how long it would take me to commute from Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan every single day. For whatever reason, I always assumed that the next subway train would be pulling up as soon as I reached the station, not that I would just miss it and have to wait fifteen minutes for the next one.
My perpetual tardiness gave me twenty (occasionally ten) minutes to do thirty minutes worth of work. I had to turn on the lights, start the copier, make the coffee, and, when necessary, order fresh milk from the local deli for the kitchen. Finally, I assumed my position behind the front desk, put on my headset, and called for the messages from the overnight answering service.
“You’re late, and you’ve got a lot of messages,” the woman at the service greeted me. I never learned her name, although I talked to her five days a week. I imagined short brown hair and a gray uniform; there was something about her businesslike tone that reminded me of a lunch lady: Take what I give you and move on.
“Heather from Miramax called five minutes ago. Sounded surprised, said she thought the office opened at 9:30.” It was 9:33, but thanks for the passive-aggressiveness.
The handle on the front door of the office was slowly turning. My eyes broke away from the message pad for a second to see who was going to catch me getting the messages so late.
“No, I told them if they are going to have Latifah on, she’s going to have to be the first guest.” It was Hillary, one of the publicists, gusting through the reception area with her mouth pressed to the detachable speaker on her cell-phone headset. Hillary was permanently affixed to her cell phone, and she was always holding the voice piece, pressing it to her lips so her yelling was clearer, which negated the need for a hands-free attachment. I resumed my message-taking; Hillary didn’t notice me, my lateness, or anything in the outside world that didn’t concern her clients. This job was important to her.
But the problem with Latifah must have been resolved quickly because a moment later Hillary was screeching from the office kitchen, “This milk is bad! It’s completely sour!” I tried to ignore the hysterics, hoping the problem would magically disappear. The milk had arrived five minutes before. How could it be my fault if the unopened milk the deli delivered was sour?
That morning, though, Hillary wasn’t in the mood to let the matter drop. She walked all the way up to reception, hands on hips, to glare at me.
“The milk’s bad,” she fumed. “How am I supposed to make coffee if the milk’s bad?” Hillary was a woman who needed her coffee.
“Tracy at Paramount called at 7:30 last night,” the lunch lady was saying in my headset.
“Aren’t you supposed to take care of the milk?” asked Hillary.
“I did—“ I began.
“Are you there?” the lunch lady asked. “You still have a lot of messages.”
“How can it be so difficult to handle something so easy?” Hillary asked.
I had no idea.
I’d assumed that the receptionist job would be an effortless stop on the way to greater things—maybe even a little bit beneath me—but the truth was I was struggling. I’d always considered myself an intelligent person, but I couldn’t handle a job as basic as answering phones.
Once I even managed to lose a $1,000 Gucci outfit that Neve Campbell was supposed to wear on Letterman that night. The phones were ringing, delivery men were running in and out, and I couldn’t get a hold of anybody in the office to transfer the calls. When a delivery man came, saw the dress draped across the chair, and assured me it was what he came for, I let him take it, not even bothering to interrupt the call I was on. A few hours later, we got a call from Miramax. The dress had somehow shown up there; luckily, someone recognized our logo on the garment bag and called us.
I was ashamed to be so bad at a job that supposedly anyone could do, but I was also shocked to find that the job I couldn’t get a handle on bored me.
But what was the truth and what was the fantasy?
Perhaps I was bad at it because it bored me. After almost a year sitting behind the desk, what did I have to show for myself? Of course, I was just biding my time until I moved on to more lucrative pastures, but I didn’t even know if I wanted to move up this ladder. I’d started to see that publicity was a field where people never generated anything on their own but rather built their careers and measured their successes on the reflected glory of others. I now knew why Brad Pitt needed someone to follow him around the Letterman set but not the value of making following Brad Pitt around my life’s work.
Or perhaps I just couldn’t handle it. Perhaps my judgment was a cover for the fact that it was increasingly unlikely that I’d be promoted at all.
In any event, I’d thought that getting Dustin Hoffman a cup of coffee (short, in sandals, and way too smiley) or being sniped at by Ralph Fiennes for dropping his call (limey bastard) would be a thrill, but it wasn’t. I’d thought that being close to celebrities would up my stature, at least in my eyes, and that I had a place alongside these people with high currency. The celebrity factor had allowed me to convince myself that this was a better McJob than it was. But I didn’t want to be thanked during an Oscar speech; I was supposed to win one of my own.
Less than a year after starting, I quit my job working for the celebrity PR firm, even though I didn’t know what I was going to do next.
Every summer, Phyllis Brown invited the entire office to an afternoon at her house in Westchester County. That year, the event fell on my last week of work at the firm. Situated among more trees than there are in country clubs, hers was a modest home, albeit one decorated with pictures of Phyllis with Al Pacino and autographed posters of Robert Altman films. The afternoon was filled with swimming, eating, and of course, gossip.
One of the assistants begged Phyllis to tell us the story about our first client. “Oh yes!” the rest of them chimed in. I’d never heard the story before, but it seemed to be a favorite. The girls swimming in the pool, wearing their skimpy bikinis, pulled themselves out and sat on the deck at the feet of this gray-haired matron. The rest of us, in sundresses and bare feet, scooted our chairs closer.
“Well, in 1960 I went to this play in New York,” Phyllis began. “It was one of those things where the cast interacts with the audience. Anyway, I’m in my seat, and this blond boy dressed as a Nazi pops up in the front row, and I think, ‘Oh! Cute!’” Phyllis pointed her finger for emphasis, and everybody laughed familiarly.
“So I called him the next day, said I wanted to represent him. He said he wasn’t interested in publicity, that it was pointless and a sham, that sort of thing.” Heads shook in disbelief. “But I kept after him. I explained to him how important it was, that for an actor image may be a pain, but it’s a necessity. Well, when a movie role came up that he was interested in, but the studio had no idea who he was, he saw things my way.”
Phyllis would work with this cute blond for more than forty years. While he was out making his art, pursuing his causes, and reaping the glory bestowed upon movie stars, she was always silently behind him, doing the ugly stuff so he could focus on his craft.
I’d thought that I was destined for greater, more tangible work, but the truth was I couldn’t bring myself to do the ugly stuff that made other people’s art possible. Clearly, I wasn’t half the woman Phyllis was. At the very least, I should’ve been able to tell that the ugly stuff was necessary for making a life possible as well.
Oh, and the name of that cute blond? Robert Redford.
CHRISTEN ENOS lives and teaches in Boston. Raised in Massachusetts, she studied film as an undergraduate at NYU, and received her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Her work has also appeared in or is forthcoming from The New Orleans Review, Quick Fiction, The Portland Review, and Natural Bridge.