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Servicing the stars; home help.


When Elizabeth Salguero was growing up in Guatemala, she dreamt of being a movie star. So far, she hasn't fulfilled that ambition, but she's not complaining. The petite 49-year-old now cleans the houses of Hollywood celebrities. Elizabeth chats as she mops the tiled kitchen floor in movie legend Rod Steiger's Malibu mansion. 'I love my job because I meet big, big stars every day.' Dressed in jeans, trainers and a sleeveless blue top, she moves around like lightning, silently scrubbing and polishing, occasionally pausing for a sip of water. She makes $600 a week (about pounds 400), and earns every penny in efficiency and elbow grease.

'My friends want to work for stars,' she says, 'but you have to go to an agency first and go for interviews.' She opens the French windows and steps outside to sweep the patio around the pool, with its breathtaking views of the Pacific. 'You have to be very responsible because actors go out of town to film for months. Don't be lazy and don't leave early just because they're not there. Mr Steiger trusts me.'

'But other stars are not nice like Mr Steiger,' says Elizabeth, who used to work for actress Sally Field. 'She's not friendly. She just left me notes - even when she was in the house. If they said, "Do you want to work for her again?" I would say, "No way."

Elizabeth turned down offers of employment from many stars, such as Goldie Hawn, after her reputation spread. She has more than enough work. 'James Cameron, he's a nice person,' Elizabeth says of the director of Titanic. 'But if he's reading the newspaper, he doesn't want nobody cleaning around him.' Rod Steiger is quite the opposite. The actor and his partner, Joan Benedict, treat their staff as part of the family. 'I love Mr Steiger,' says Elizabeth, 'and Joanie. They treat me well. Mr Steiger never says what I have to do, he lets me get on with it.'

Not today, apparently. 'Elizabeth, I'm coming over for the inspection,' he roars. Barefoot, in beige shorts and a baggy black shirt, he marches over. 'After you've finished this I want you to wash the car, hang the pictures in the dining room, and we're having 12 people for dinner tonight. And when you're done, paint the kitchen.'

'You always tell me to paint the kitchen Mr Steiger,' giggles Elizabeth. 'What colour do you want this time?' Rod Steiger's stony face breaks into a smile. 'We love Elizabeth,' he says. 'She keeps this place immaculate and she has a sense of humour.'

As a girl, Elizabeth saw Steiger in Dr Zhivago. 'It was my favourite movie, but I never dreamt I would meet him. I met Elizabeth Taylor here too,' she says in a whisper, her eyes darting about to make sure nobody can hear. (Elizabeth Taylor and Rod Steiger had a well-publicised friendship before the actor started dating Joan two years ago.)

'It's a big house and I have to keep it in shape,' says Elizabeth, folding towels. 'But the kitchen is easy because Joanie don't like to cook and Mr Steiger loves to eat out. But they have a lot of pans, I don't know why, and he buys more and more.'

The house is full of priceless antiques and art, including a Picasso, a Van Gogh and a Rodin sculpture - not to mention the Oscar Steiger won for In the Heat of the Night. Elizabeth gently lifts the Oscar from the sideboard and carries it to the table. 'I clean it with a soft cloth,' she says in serious, rather hushed tones. 'I don't rub it, just dust it gently. I don't use polish; Sally doesn't polish hers either.'


A Mercedes station wagon pulls up outside a huge house overlooking the sea in Santa Monica. The number plate reads PLANTER, and the woman who bounces out carries an enormous bouquet of sunflowers and a watering can. Shelley Kramer is 5ft 2in with bright red hair, wearing purple dungarees, a sun visor and a tiny gold watering can on a chain round her neck. She is a celebrity plant waterer - as essential to the stars as a personal trainer. 'I go to my clients' homes twice a week to water, prune, feed, dust and spray for bugs,' says Shelley. 'They trust me and I have full access to their homes.' Although she is self-taught, Shelley claims she's naturally green-fingered, and charges $200 a month. 'I feel like a celebrity myself, going into stars' homes, seeing how they live. I'm their plant lady and I feel good about that.

'Joni Mitchell loves staghorn ferns. I come into her kitchen and she says, "Shelley, sit down and have a coffee with me." She'll be composing and ask my opinion. Of course I say everything's great because I love her music anyway. Sometimes she'll say "pick up a guitar", and I've sat there strumming with her.'

'Oh dear, someone's not been looking after this one,' she says sternly, trimming a giant palm in the hall. 'Stars are not good about looking after their own plants. They're too involved with their own lives and work. But they like to fill their houses with greenery. Most stars, such as Barbra Streisand, have 100 to 200 plants, in bathrooms, bedrooms - everywhere.'

Shelley, who's been weeding and pruning for 25 years, names Priscilla Presley as one of her favourite clients. 'Her house in Beverly Hills is sprawling, with greenery everywhere, and she says I'm the best plant woman she's ever had. She's a sweetheart. I remember when Lisa was three years old she had pictures of her dad all over her room, it was just covered with Elvis.'

Shelley puts down her watering can and pokes a plastic tube into a plant pot. 'It's a plant meter, to register moisture levels in the soil - everyone should have them,' she explains, crouching beside a wilting fern. She puts her hand in the plant pot and starts whispering. 'I talk to them when they're not doing well,' she says. 'I tell them they better behave or they're leaving and getting replaced.'


Javier Valler loves his job. 'It's exciting, well paid and I get to meet my favourite stars,' he says. He's a dustman, or in Hollywood-speak, a 'solid-waste superintendent'. But Javier has the celebrity round, and claims that doing the dirty work for Madonna, Tom Hanks and Raquel Welch puts a completely different spin on emptying rubbish bins.

It's 7am and Javier is driving an enormous green lorry along a quiet street in Santa Monica, where residents include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Meg Ryan and Courteney Cox Arquette. He pulls up outside a large house that looks more like a castle, where the dustbins are hidden discreetly in the alley. 'You know the old saying,' he says, 'one man's trash is another man's treasure. Over the years I've found furniture, a stereo, Barbie dolls for my daughter, bicycles and skates, everything in perfect condition. Stars always remodel their houses and just throw the old stuff in the alley.'

One man in Beverly Hills has even started his own antiques business from collecting things people throw away. He pays the bin men five dollars for every article they bring in. But the most thrilling part of the job for Javier is the chance to meet his screen idols, although these star encounters can be disappointing. 'I used to see Madonna but she never waved, just kept her head down. I think she's scared of stalkers.'

On one occasion Javier was working in Beverly Hills, where Raquel Welch lives. 'She was in her Lexus and had to stop because we were in the way. We could see her getting angry. As she drove by, she mouthed, "You assholes." It's frustrating that she takes that attitude for a slight inconvenience. We were only doing our jobs.'

However, not all celebrities are so dismissive. 'Danny DeVito picks up the paper in his robe and stops for a chat. Kirk Douglas comes out to throw tennis balls for his dog and always gives a friendly wave. And Jay Leno, the talk show host, will ask, "How you doing? Are we staying cool? Would we like a drink?"'

Dressed in a neatly pressed blue shirt and chinos, Javier, 34, looks more like an actor himself than a dustman. 'It's not a dirty job any more. We have automated hydraulic trucks,' he says, pressing a button inside the cab. A huge metal arm grabs the bin, lifts it and dumps the rubbish into the back of the lorry. 'It's all picked up automatically.'

Javier earns $60,000 a year and most of his family is in the business. 'My uncle started in solid waste 32 years ago. Now lots of people want to do this work because it's less hazardous and there are good benefits - at Christmas, if you're doing a route like this you can make a thousand dollars in tips.'

Chars to the Stars screens on Sky One at 9pm on Sunday 8 October
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2000 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Lipworth, Elaine
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 3, 2000
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