You’re scratching my back: De Niro’s legal battle lifts the veil on his celebrity assistants | Robert De Niro

It’s a truism for corporate America that the simplest way to get rid of an unwanted employee is to dig into their expenses – and why many employees don’t claim expenses at all.

What’s less clear is why a battle over expenses and working conditions between one of the biggest movie stars in movie history and his former assistant landed in a Manhattan court last week in one of the strangest, longest and most bitter legal battles. Unprecedented quarrels in the world of A-list celebrities in the United States.

On the face of it, the claims and counterclaims seem simple: Taxi star and acting legend Robert De Niro, 80, has sued his former assistant Graham Chase Robinson to recover $6 million and 5 million Delta frequent flyer miles, claiming that Instead by tending to the day-to-day affairs of the De Niro family, Robinson voraciously monitored friends and dinner expenses at Paolo’s, an uptown Italian restaurant, at her $300,000-a-year job.

Robinson, 41, a former fashion assistant at Vanity Fair magazine for the late British fashion designer Michael Roberts, came out soon after, in 2019, alleging a toxic workplace culture for women. It seeks $12 million in damages for emotional and reputational damages.

The details that emerged from the inappropriate fight were brutal as the celebrity’s private actions – and those of his partner Tiffany Chen – were revealed to the public.

Robert De Niro.
Robert De Niro. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

Jurors in court last week heard claims that the actor sometimes urinated while on the phone with Robinson, called her a “bitch to her face,” and asked her to scratch his back — an allegation he did not deny on the stand. He may have asked Robinson to scratch his back once or twice, but not “disrespectfully or immorally.”

Finally, De Niro exploded, saying: “Shame on you, Chase Robinson!”

A day later, the court heard from Chen, a martial arts instructor who met the actor while filming The Intern in 2015. De Niro has been married twice, practices tai chi, and now has a months-old daughter, Jia Virginia Chen De Niro, his seventh child, with Chen .

Chen told the court she never got along with Robinson, who by 2019 had worked for De Niro for 11 years. Chen described Robinson as “psychotic” and a “very bad prostitute” who formed a “fantasy intimate relationship” with the actress who was a “very single white female” — a reference to the 1992 psychological thriller starring Bridget Fonda and Jennifer Jason. for me.

Chen confirmed that she pressured De Niro to fire Robinson, describing her in a text message to him as an “insecure, territorial girl” who was “only nice to the puppies” the couple shared. On the stand, Robinson vehemently denied that she had any romantic interest in the actor.

In Robinson’s face, Chen was very complimentary. “You truly are an angel,” she texted Robinson after an assistant went to the couple’s Upper West Side home to take some pots off the stove that Chen had left boiling, setting off alarms. Chen said on the stand that her praise of Robinson was “sarcastic.” De Niro’s longtime accountant confirmed that he called Chen a “psychopath” in a secretly recorded phone call with Robinson.

In one reading, the tale is told directly from Rebecca – the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who refuses to accept the new wife and does everything in her power to undermine the intruder.

On the other hand, he is an executive assistant tasked with, as Robinson said on the stand, answering the family’s extremely difficult needs 24/7 on a dedicated cell phone — the “Batphone.” She testified that she was “attached to me,” had “no personal space” and the job was “difficult and stressful.”

The hiatus came in early 2019 when Chen testified that a private plane was ordered to return from Antigua to New York without catering — an omission that Chen considered likely intentional on Robinson’s part. “It was related to the control she thought she had in that dynamic,” Chen testified.

De Niro, who the court heard had a license to carry a firearm in the city and employed at least one assistant to stage props and costumes acquired from his long film career, agreed in a stipulation that this was “unacceptable and debilitating”. Robinson found herself stripped of responsibilities in the townhouse.

In this courtroom sketch, Robert De Niro, seated in background right, is being questioned by his attorney Laurent Drogen, in foreground, presided over by Judge Louis G. Lehman.
In this courtroom sketch, Robert De Niro, seated in background right, is being questioned by his attorney Laurent Drogen, presided over by Judge Louis J. Lehman. Photography: Elizabeth Williams/AP

The case, which has been running through the courts up to the federal level for four years, also contains an opportunity for legal precedent. De Niro admitted that there were no written rules for the people who worked with him at his company, Canal Productions, because, he said, he relied on “common sense rules.”

This is a serious legal situation for both employer and employee, says Brian Daniel of the Celebrity Personal Assistants Network, which finds and places assistants in the homes of wealthy people.

Daniel says the job description of working in such environments is the most confusing issue he faces. “This is the biggest problem ever in the celebrity assistant industry,” Daniels says. “Nothing else comes close.”

Daniels says the debate over the job description of a celebrity assistant has been going on for three decades, and while celebrities and billionaires have a right to privacy, assistants have a right to work in non-toxic situations. Recent legal disputes involving local employees or others have included Jeff Bezos, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Sharon Stone, and Kim Kardashian. It’s just the tip of the iceberg because most cases are never made public.

What usually happens, says Daniels, is that things that weren’t discussed in the job interview process start to come up: “I tell employers, ‘Look, tell me everything now,’ because I don’t want to get a call a week after work.” Now, from you or them, saying, “We have a problem.”

He says that celebrities and billionaires usually come to his agency only after they have exhausted relatives, childhood friends, friends of friends and a neighbor’s niece who couldn’t hack their demands.

“Some people who contact me are honest, some aren’t, so one of the things I do is bring up unusual duties or ‘combat pay.'” Daniels adds, “There are situations that can make a person feel anxious, and I don’t mean anything unethical.” Or illegal.” “What combat situations will they be in? Like a back scratch or being away for three months at a time? We have to know that.”

He remembers one assistant quit because their boss was naked at home.

Daniels estimates that a celebrity assistant earns an average of about $60,000 a year. That’s barely enough, in total, to rent an apartment in Los Angeles or New York. “The reason you can get away with it is to have access to a luxury lifestyle,” says Daniels.

Vogue’s Anna Wintour recently advertised an assistant position with a salary of $60,000 to $80,000. Applicants were asked to demonstrate experience in administrative support, strong writing and proofreading skills, and “impeccable attention to detail.”

“If you can do these jobs for a year or two or break through, it will open doors for you,” Daniels points out.

This does not appear to have happened with Robinson.

She eventually got paid well but never made the career leap. This suggests that, all things being equal, something must have changed in the De Niro family dynamic, Daniels says. “It’s a delicate task, but it can be difficult,” Daniels says. The decision jurors make can be of importance to jurors everywhere.

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