What I learned Working For Elizabeth Taylor

Joseph Panetta and Elizabeth Taylor

What I learned Working For Elizabeth Taylor

In the early 90’s I had a unique and rare opportunity to work with Elizabeth Taylor.  I was 25-years-old and her “Director of Public Relations.”  My job was overseeing her fragrance tours, licensing agreements and AIDS work.

What I learned Working For Elizabeth Taylor

In the early 90’s I had a unique and rare opportunity to work with Elizabeth Taylor.  I was 25-years-old and her “Director of Public Relations.”  My job was overseeing her fragrance tours, licensing agreements and AIDS work.

I was too naïve to be star-struck (besides, it was Raquel Welch who got me the job – but that’s another story).

Perhaps the biggest lesson I gathered in those couple of years was how Elizabeth re-focused the mega-watt spotlight from her and her life to the growing crisis of HIV/AIDS.  Lest anyone think it was easy for her – not only was the work difficult but even the White House did not take her calls (likely because they did not believe it was really her!).  To paint a fuller picture of her tirelessness, here’s how an average fragrance store tour would go:

The store would prepare (as instructed) for 2 days in advance.

Roughly 5,000 people or more would line up

Elizabeth was on time once, early once and late every other time – such was her way

After answering endless and often intrusive questions for about an hour, she would depart the store – usually through a pre-arranged egress.

Her car would take her to a nearby AIDS Hospice we’d scouted beforehand.  She would walk up to the front door un-escorted by her former Moussad security detail, ring the bell and ask to visit with the patients.

No one knew in advance.  There were explicitly no cameras and no media.  Most residents were not sure what there were seeing was real.

She sat on beds, read aloud to patients who asked for it – signed anything and everything given to her.

After a while, she would leave – always smiling and tearful.  And usually remained quiet for a bit.

Weeks later, at the office, we would receive faxes (yes, it was THAT long ago) from the Hospice staff telling us that the residents required less pain medication after her visit. The euphoria they felt remained as a kind of halo from her visit.  They felt recognized; understood; not blamed.  Ultimately that they mattered if to no one else, at least to her.

Such was the power of celebrity.  Her celebrity.

As much respect as I have for celebrities authentically attached to causes – Angleina Jolie, Halle Berry, Prince Harry – all of them are following in the footsteps of Elizabeth Taylor to some degree.

Watching her I learned the difference between person and persona; between actor and star; between icon and celebrity.  She may have been a great actor, but her humanitarian efforts still echo today.