The butler does it

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July 7, 2003 // UPDATED 10:57 am - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

A Downtown woman establishes herself in a classic, if unusual, profession

Natalie Asper Carnes does not wear a waistcoat or an ascot on a regular basis. She is not British. And she is not a 50-year-old man. So how is it possible that this 30-something Downtown resident, native Minnesotan female calls herself a butler?

In a time when social hierarchy and household servants seem almost pass, Asper Carnes aspires to what she describes as one of the most important roles in a household. She is an honors graduate of the prestigious International Butler Academy in the Netherlands. And she is not what you thought a butler was.

"When I first got to butler school, I thought, 'I'll never call myself a butler.' But the more I got into it, the more I loved the basics of being a butler and the staunch foundation it gave me," Asper Carnes said. "Helping people is my passion, and by being a butler I make people's lives better, easier and more comfortable."

In modern times a butler is actually a household manager, or, as one of Asper Carnes' employers put it, "the CEO of the property." Today's butler does everything from stocking the refrigerator to booking a private jet for her employers' vacation.

The path

Asper Carnes did not wake up one day with a yen to speak with a British accent and polish silver. Being a butler is actually the culmination of her skills and experiences.

After earning a photography degree, Asper Carnes tried her hand at restaurant management and data entry, but ultimately wanted to be a nanny.

Still in her 20s, she found a job in New York making $200 a week under the table. She worked her way up the nanny chain until she was hired by what she describes as a "high-profile family of five" in Illinois.

There, Asper Carnes' duties grew to include household management and personal assistance.

"I managed five or six staff members. I helped the mistress of the house with her wishes and dreams," Asper Carnes said. "I loved the versatility. I loved the challenge. With being a nanny, it gets pretty repetitive."

After seven months with that family, Asper Carnes' employers divorced, so her services were no longer needed.

"That was a transitional time. I sat for three months and thought about what I wanted to do. I wanted to get out of nannying, but I needed further credentials," Asper Carnes said.

Since she enjoyed the duties of household management, Asper Carnes was lead to the International Butler Academy.

In the beginning, Asper Carnes worried about what a butler indicates about social hierarchy and class prejudice, but one of her teachers at the Butler Academy helped dispel these feelings.

"Our 75-year-old teacher told us there are simply people who have a service nature. There is a difference between being a servant and being servile," she said. "This work is not star-struck or demeaning."

An $800,000 vacation

On the first day of class at the eight-week, $13,000 butler school, each of the 10 students was handed a leather briefcase containing an assignment. Asper Carnes' assignment simply said, "Plan a 50th birthday party for your employer's wife."

Asper Carnes hatched the idea to send her fictitious employers and their friends to the private Turtle Island in Fiji.

"I gathered all this information on the island. I made the invitations with an itinerary and additional information on the island. I made a plan of how we'd get my employer's wife all the way to the dining room of the hotel without her knowing. I got actual bids on the cost of hiring two jets," she said.

So while Asper Carnes' daily classes included learning how to arrange flowers from a master florist, how to select and care for diamonds and how to pair different wines with foods, she was also planning an $800,000 vacation.

"We learned from museum curators how to do things like polish antique silver and take care of old textiles -- or how to call in an expert when you realize you're in over your head," Asper Carnes said.

During her studies, Asper Carnes also learned how to put together a "pantry book." She said butlers of old used to record fastidious notes about their employers in leather-bound volumes.

"These books contained information about every member of the family as well as their guests. It included things like favorite foods and how a certain guest likes his pillow fluffed," Asper Carnes said. "The butler also recorded what the lady of the house wore to each event, so that she would not be seen in the same dress twice."

Today, butlers create pantry books on their computers. For an assignment, Asper Carnes created a "pantry book" on her laptop for a fictitious divorce with two children. The details of her book included everything from the square footage of her employer's property to the way he takes he breakfast (small curd cottage cheese eaten on the ride to work).

Nebraska butler?

Six months after graduating from the butler academy in 2001, Asper Carnes found a job managing the household of wealthy Omaha entrepreneurs.

She started most days by doing her "daily graces," which she explains are simply the rounds of her employer's property. "I'd check the security, walk around the grounds making mental notes. Like I'd notice that a tree needs pruning and make a mental note to tell the gardener. Then I'd do the same walk through the inside of the house, fluffing pillows and making sure the remotes were all there. It's generally a visual check," she said.

Asper Carnes was constantly busy. If she wasn't holding a staff meeting with the rest of the household employees, doing all of the household shopping, or balancing the household checkbook, she might pick up her employer's car at work to fuel it, have its oil changed and detail it before her employer needed it again.

On Wednesdays, Asper Carnes received flower shipments from a wholesaler. Because she'd been trained in floral arrangement from a master florist, Asper Carnes could clean and arrange bouquets for rooms throughout the house. "It's those nice little touches," she said.

And in the midst of her daily chores, Asper Carnes oversaw the construction of an addition to her employer's home. "I was asked to be at work by 9, but my day started long before that because I would be talking to contractors about the addition," she said.

Telling tales

After spending so much time and in such close contact with various families, Asper Carnes is bound to have a few horror stories -- but if she does, like any good butler she's keeping her mouth shut.

However, she will divulge a few funny stories from some of the various families she's worked for over the years. For one family she was asked to videotape a three-year-old child's first shower; maybe not so weird, except that the child's mother was also in the shower -- naked -- at the time.

Asper Carnes said that family was very laid back and that the father thought nothing of walking around the house in his boxer shorts. "Since I did some of the shopping for the house, I'd always buy him the kind of boxers that have buttons," she said.

Another time, Asper Carnes' employer called her from his vacation asking her to refill his prescription of Viagra. "I got requests like that all the time," she said.

Personal time?

With so much work required for one family, it seems a wonder that Asper Carnes ever had any time to herself. However, she said her job had set hours; outside of that, her employers called her an average of two times per week.

"Sometimes it would be a Sunday in church, and the mister calls and says that he is in Napa Valley without a car and needs to get to the airport. So during church, I beg the church secretary to get on her Internet and book the top limo service in Napa Valley to bring him to his plane," she said. "Another time I got a call from him at 5 a.m. His plane had been delayed and he was going to miss his connecting plane for a business trip. I called a private jet service and got my employer on the jet in 25 minutes with breakfast waiting for him."

As far as running her own personal errands, Asper Carnes said that was one of the perks of being a butler. "When I have to take my employer's animal to the vet, I also make an appointment for my cat. If I have to go to the bank for my employer, I'll get my banking done when I'm there, too," she said.

Asper Carnes' employment with the Omaha family ended when the business they owned began declining and they could not afford a household manager anymore. So she moved back to Minnesota and took some time off to plan her wedding. Asper Carnes and her husband were married in 2002 and moved to a new condominium development in Downtown on Washington Avenue, where her husband is the caretaker of their building. Asper Carnes is currently looking for butler work in Minnesota.

She has an agent -- Erin Hammell of Above and Beyond Nannies -- who is helping her to find work. "I'm kind of the 'above' part of Above and Beyond Nannies," Asper Carnes said.

However, although nanny jobs are abundant, butler work in Minnesota is scarce.

"It's difficult to find a butler position in Minnesota. There's an attitude in Minnesota that if I can't do it myself, it doesn't need to be done," she said. "I also don't think people realize these kind of lifestyle services are available."