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Pain and gain: serving the super-rich

Billionaire blog photo
 Palm Beach boasts 24 multi-millionaires in a 22-kilometre stretch of mega-yachts and mansions.  Susan Pigg photo, Toronto Star.

Yes Virginia, the super-rich really are different from you and me.

Not just richer, but way more sensitive. And – how do I put this discreetly – more demanding.

In a lengthy Guardian article, Who Wants to Serve a Billionaire, Amanda Gentleman outlined the exacting requirements for would-be staffers.

Like hiding the zippers on yacht cushions so as not to offend esthetic sensibilities, and making sure that the towels are rolled correctly, so ostentatiously-embossed monograms are always in view. Polishing the TV remote to a fine sheen is de rigeur, as is snipping stray threads from the towels.

Billionaire owners of “superyachts” – more than 50 metres long – want staff skills that include “discretion, servility and good ironing.” But not sniveling servility: they must be ready to take pain, and lots of it.

Like the two “yacht stewardesses,” who gamely jumped into jellyfish-infested waters to shield a mega-mogul’s guest with a yen for swimming, while taking dozens of agonizing stings themselves.

Crew are also prepared to stand at attention, sans sunglasses, in blistering sun, for as long as bosses please because the effort of pushing a buzzer for assistance is beneath them.

Personal hygiene is, of course, mandatory for staff, with frequent teeth-brushing, no fashionable stubble for men, or offensively hairy legs for women. “It’s all about the look and the image,” an unnamed yacht association coach told Gentleman. “You can get fired because you’re not blonde or pretty.” Unsurprisingly, manhandling by an employer must be taken stoically, though it might later be reported to a superior.

But the most telling section of the story is the rising demand for butlers. In spite of the 2008 meltdown and Britain’s painful austerity, there are now “more servants in Mayfair than there were 200 years ago,” with demands for skilled high-tech employees who can deal with advanced security systems, entertainment centres and temperature-controlled orangeries.

Unlike Downton Abbey’s beleagured, penny-pinching landed gentry, today’s super-rich have ever-expanding wants, possessions and sense of entitlement. They include exiled Russian oligarchs who have made their money picking the bones of the old Soviet system and Gulf sheikhs sucking up the profits of Big Oil, as well as hedge funders who’ve created their own parallel universe of endless profits. Not the 1 per cent, but the .01 per cent of plutocrats who control a king's ransom in global wealth.

Downton Abbey’s faded aristocrats may be long gone. But Upstairs Downstairs lives.

Olivia Ward has covered conflict, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East, Europe and the U.S., winning national and international awards.





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