Integrity, modesty and discretion: Hazel Davis finds out what it takes to work for a celebrity

George Clooney supposedly bought a house for his and Oprah Winfrey famously offered hers £1m to stay in the job. Parties with pop stars, free clothes and the chance to ride around in swanky cars. Being a celebrity PA sounds like the best job in the world, right?

The reality of being a celebrity PA (or CPAs, as they're known in the industry), however, can be very different: on call 24 hours a day, fielding the most ridiculous requests – ranging from importing a job-lot of Marks & Spencers knickers to cutting out pictures from newspapers – and being constantly hounded by the press.

Deborah Shaw knows first-hand. She used to work as Charlton Heston's PA in Los Angeles after moving there to try to break into the movie industry. "Through friends I was introduced to Charlton Heston's son and daughter-in-law," she explains. When Heston's assistant went on holiday she covered for her, eventually being offered a full-time role.

"Luckily," she says, "he was one of the nicest, sweetest people ever and I was very happy there, though I did hear some horror stories from other assistants."

Through Heston, Shaw – a film obsessive – got to meet the likes of Gregory Peck and Christopher Lee. "Sitting there next to him watching the remastered version of Ben-Hur was quite surreal," she says, laughing.

But it's not the celebrity themselves that can cause the problems, says Shaw, but their situation. "One time I was in a restaurant talking about my job and one of Charlton Heston's friends had been sitting at a table nearby. Charlton wasn't angry but he let it be known that I couldn't do that in public. I had to learn not to give out phone numbers, that sort of thing."

In the end, says Shaw, celebrities are just humans. "It's the extra care and attention you need to give with regard to privacy that makes it different."

To become a celebrity PA, says Shaw, you need to know your stuff and develop your contacts. "You need to know about the person you're working for and what their needs are going to be," she says. "If you want to work for someone in the film industry, learn about the film industry.

"You have to be able to be ahead of the game all the time, and you really have to be prepared to put yourself on hold for a while, because your boss is your focus."

Donna Craven from Greenwich, south London, started a career in retail, eventually becoming a buyer for a chain of stores. She changed career to become a PA after her mother was diagnosed with cancer, getting her first job at a local NHS trust. She has been PA to Laurence Llewelyn Bowen and his wife Jackie for four years.

"Coming from an NHS background it's certainly more glamorous!" says Craven. "The celebrity world does not start at 9am and finish at 5pm. It is 24/7, and whether you work those hours physically or not, you always have to be mentally prepared for the unexpected."

A typical day for Craven? There's no such thing, she says. "That is what's so great about it. My day can be spent at the office, at a trade show, sourcing props for a shoot, taking kids to school, taking dogs to the vets, chasing dry cleaning. No two days in the job have ever been the same."

But, says Craven, being a PA can mean having a lot on your plate. "My employers rely upon me 100 per cent and I take great pride in what I do, which is why I hate letting them down."

But, she says, she is pretty fortunate that she works for two very intelligent, generous and exciting people who make her job enjoyable. Craven loves her work so much that she took the difficult decision to move to a small cottage next door when the Llewelyn Bowens chose to leave London and renovate their Gloucestershire mansion. She and her husband have become good friends with the pair and they frequently take family holidays together.

Craven's role now even extends to taking part in a Living TV reality TV show about the Llewelyn-Bowens' move to the country.

"There are many fantastic experiences and rewards to be had being a celebrity PA, but in return you must be loyal, hard-working, extremely flexible, thick-skinned and discreet," she says. "If you have all these qualities and gain the trust of your employers you will have a fabulous career."

'To The Manor Bowen' airs on Living TV on Wednesday 31 October at 8pm

How to get it right

Contact the ACA UK (Association of Celebrity Assistants), a not-for-profit support organisation created by and for celebrity personal assistants. Jobs are posted here and there is also a forum to share information and receive advice –

Many celebrity PA jobs come from word of mouth so try to be in the right place at the right time and develop your high-profile contacts for all they're worth.

Make sure that you know the industry of the person you are working for, inside out.

Be aware that being a PA is not about going to parties and having famous friends; it's about doing a job.

Be aware of the security issues surrounding celebrities but also be aware that they are just ordinary people with a job to do. HD