In our celebrity-obsessed world, you have to admire the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Julia Roberts, and Brad Pitt for doing good with their influence. If DiCaprio is helping replant deforested mountains in southern California, chances are a teenage fan will get inspired to plant a sapling in her backyard. Roberts wants school buses to run on biodiesel? Fellow moms may consider purchasing a flex-fuel vehicle. And when Pitt works to replace houses lost during Hurricane Katrina with eco-friendly homes, architects have more ammunition for persuading that Hamptons or Aspen client to pay a tiny premium to go green.
Nobody understands this process more than celebrities’ assistants. As the decision-makers for travel, gift-giving, and day-to-day consumption, personal assistants (PAs) are making eco-friendlier choices, knowing that they wield an influence that ranges well beyond their immediate employers. So while many visible personalities are dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists, behind those green hearts you may just find even greener right hands.
The job of the celebrity assistant involves multi-tasking in a fast-paced, nerve-shattering daily boot camp. “We all have a large respect for what we do,” says Mary Lou Scott, an assistant to Barbara Tober, president of the venture-capital firm Acronym and the high-profile chair of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. “I don’t think you can do this kind of job without that: It makes you crazy, sometimes you don’t know how you’re going to get through the week, the expectations are high, and doing your job with a high degree of professionalism demands that respect.”
Besides working for Tober, Scott is also a board member of New York Celebrity Assistants (NYCA). The 105-member group was founded in 1996 as a way for PAs to share information with one another. The group also holds monthly meetings at which guest speakers discuss assistant-critical subjects, like proper etiquette and gift-giving. Most recently, the club took on a more earth-conscious discussion: How to make their employers’ lives a little greener.
Angelica Canales, a self-admitted “recycle queen,” programs the monthly guest lectures with fellow member Bonnie Low-Kramen (they’re the assistants to rock legends Frank and June Barsalona and Olympia Dukakis and Louis Zorich, respectively). The two decided to take the lectures in an eco direction after participating in e-mail discussions about green issues with other NYCA members. And the availability of so many sustainable products in the marketplace made it seem like the perfect time to make sure that vital information being swapped among colleagues was as earth friendly as possible. In September, 30 NYCA members convened to hear interior designer Danny Seo provide 10 easy tips for going green.
The event, “Green is the New Black,” culminated many individual eco efforts. Low-Kramen, for instance, who’s known Dukakis and Zorich for 21 years, describes how the couple has turned scripts into scratch paper and crumbs into compost. NYCA president Anthony Zelig is working on a sustainable renovation project for his employers, Julia and David Koch (of Koch Industries). And another member convinced a boss to choose a hybrid vehicle over an SUV.
Now, thanks to efforts like NYCA’s green summit, many PAs are working even harder to green the snap decisions required of the profession, too. When the Tobers are gone for the holidays, Scott plans to look at recycled paper samples provided by Rizco, in the hopes of using one of the company’s products for the hundreds of invitations and place cards she handles. Canales has converted the Barsalonas to biodegradable dog-poop bags and Method cleaning products, both of which were also part of the gift bags given to NYCA members after Seo’s presentation.
“Baby steps,” Canales says of these moves. But she also notes that one famous person’s small improvements can be, well, not so small. “Not only do [celebrities] talk with one another, but people always want to emulate them, too. Most of the celebrities that NYCA members work for are simply too busy to source out new products, or do anything to go green. We assistants have the power to make the world a better place—perhaps more than one household at a time—simply by sharing the information we learn.”
This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in November 2007.