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Born To Serve – Butlers Are Back In Style

Though the market for butlers is centered in the UK and Arab countries, the super-rich everywhere are hiring. It is a job that requires very special training.

Always there, always discreet (Butler For You)
Always there, always discreet (Butler For You)
Katlen Trautmann

James is one of the best-known of all butlers. The manservant in the sketch "Dinner for One," a cult TV classic in Europe, South Africa, Australia and elsewhere, serves a meal of several courses to his elderly employer, Miss Sophie, and her four invisible (long dead) male guests. He pours glasses of sherry, wine, champagne and port for the guests, then drinks it all as he impersonates them toasting Miss Sophie.

That may be what butlering looks like in comedy sketches, but it's a long way from the reality of these highly qualified servants who, despite job opportunities elsewhere, are still mostly to be found in the UK and Arab world.

Sebastian Hirsch worked as a butler before opening his own agency for household staff, Butler For You, in 2006. "If you don't enjoy providing service, then you're not suited to this work," he says. The job of the butler is to run his employer's household, and help achieve optimal comfort in their daily life. "Butlers have to be excellent planners, or they lose oversight," says Mark Di Frangia, an American who has been working as a butler in Germany for 20 years. In his job, he not only travels with his employer, but often acts as private secretary.

A butler must be able to master social situations perfectly. He addresses his superiors in the correct manner, and escorts unwanted visitors out so courteously they think they're being paid a compliment. Being a man of the world, and speaking several languages, are crucial to the role says Di Frangia. A butler is like a kindly spirit – barely visible, but always present.

Thick skin required

"Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people today have old-school manners," says Karsten Lachmann, a 45-year-old veteran of the hotel industry who has been working as a butler for several years.

Accepting that his professional life is tied irrevocably to the way his employer lives is a must for a butler, although "a butler is not an underling" Hirsch stresses. Being able to overlook certain things is a plus, however. "You should keep an open mind, and your feelings shouldn't get hurt too easily," says Di Frangia. A butler also has to be able carry out unpleasant tasks without questioning the whys and wherefores.

Because butlers are so deeply involved in the lives of their employers, their bosses have to be able to count on their discretion. "Paul Burrell, Lady Diana's butler, is widely despised for spilling the beans," says Hirsch. Every butler should have job experience either in the hotel business or as cabin crew, in addition to attending butler school to get that extra polish.

Aside from institutions in the UK, the International Butler Academy in Valkenburg, Holland; the International Institute of Modern Butlers in Clearwater, Florida; the South African Butler Academy, and the Private Hotel School, also in South Africa, have excellent reputations. Programs last a few months and include both theory and practice. Karsten Lachmann, who graduated from the Dutch school, says: "I learned to stay balanced and empowered even under stressful conditions, or when I'd had little sleep."

Aristocrats, industrialists, and CEOs hire butlers. There's also demand in luxury hotels and on private yachts. "The job market for serious, highly qualified servants is expanding," says Hirsch. "Right now, London is the Eldorado for butlers." But Arab countries run a close second. And while butlering is essentially a male preserve, Hirsch says he also regularly gets requests for females butlers.

Building a butlering business requires patience. Candidates are thoroughly vetted. Hirsch follows up references and whether or not there is a police record. Job interviews can take place over the space of days -- applicants are placed for a kind of trial run with potential employers. "It's difficult to place beginners," says Hirsch.

At the same time, no one should expect a life-long position: the situations of the employers tend to fluctuate rapidly. Moreover, having a family of one's own is pretty much out of the question for a butler.

The job is certainly not everyone's cup of tea. But Sebastian Hirsch says he can't imagine more interesting work. "I truly enjoy spoiling my clients. I can't think of anything better," he says.

Read the original article in German

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