After re-entering the dating scene following her divorce, Kiersten Mikelas was considering her future. The man she was dating was also recently out of a relationship and not particularly keen to settle down.
“Maybe he’s going to figure his stuff out,” Mikelas said one day when discussing it with her boss.
Looking up from her newspaper, the boss said, “Screw him!” And then, without missing a beat, added, “But don’t screw him!”
“That was the impeccable timing that was Miss Betty White,” says Mikelas. “And it was a good piece of advice!”
Mikelas, now 49, was, in fact, the beloved television icon’s personal assistant in the last decade of her famously long life. Ahead of her appearance to talk about White in Chicago this weekend at GoldenCon: Thank You for Being a Fan — the second-annual celebration of all things Golden Girls — Mikelas reminisced about her unique relationship with the television pioneer.
“It’s never a bad time to hang out with people who love Betty, love The Golden Girls, see the best of it and get what the show and the ladies were trying to do,” Mikelas says of the upcoming gathering. “I feel very honoured they even want me there because I was not part of her Golden Girls years — I was at home watching them with my own grandma back then — but hopefully people are happy anyway!”
Mikelas was invited into Betty White’s world in 2012 when The Golden Girls and The Mary Tyler Moore Show alumna was promoting her final television hit, Hot in Cleveland. It was a time that saw a significant resurgence in White’s popularity — two years earlier a viral social media campaign by fan David Matthews, who will be interviewing Mikelas on stage this weekend, led to her hosting Saturday Night Live — and, after initially being brought on to help with errands and fan mail, the job became so much more, both personally and professionally.
“As it is with everyone when you confront an icon, I was very nervous,” Mikelas says, recalling their first one-on-one experience. Going into her hotel room to give the run down for the day ahead, the nervous Mikelas was instantly put at ease when White offered a kind word — and a sausage from her breakfast plate. “She was so not pretentious at all, she made everybody feel at ease, so it was very easy. It was just Betty being Betty.”
And, to Mikelas, “being Betty” is all about kindness and gratitude.
She remembers her boss as a “fun seeker” who wanted to be around fun, upbeat people.
“She never lost the sparkle and enthusiasm for life that little kids have, and she used to say it didn’t take much to make us laugh because it would be the littlest thing — singing a song in the car, telling a joke that wasn’t even that funny. But she knew how to find the joy in the moment. If we could bottle that, right?”
We might not be able to bottle it, but, thanks to DVDs and streaming services, we can pour it out any time we want with the press of a button. Such is the legacy of laughter Betty White left behind. And while she was here, it was evident everywhere they went.
Mikelas recalls arriving with White ahead of a gig and finding crew members hanging out in the hallway. As the actress passed one of them, she gently touched their arm with a, “Hi, honey. How are you doing?”
“As I was walking behind her, all of a sudden this big, macho guy said, ‘Betty White just touched my arm, man! Betty White just touched my arm!’ [And another] was like, ‘No way! Dude, she touched your arm?!’ And they were just giddy. It was one of those moments where you think, ‘Everybody loves Betty.’”
The Betty White Secret to Longevity
White’s world was a hectic one with no two days alike. But, as she moved through her 90s brimming over with energy, things naturally had to slow down.
She was a “fiercely independent woman,” says Mikelas, but was at a point in her life where she began taking stock.
“I was working with her at a time where I had to sort of rethink my life and what was meaningful and what wasn’t. Betty was older, but at a point in her career where there was a lot of taking stock and figuring out what was worth it these days. What did she want to do? Where did she want to have an impact? In that sense, we were kind of on parallel journeys. It was kind of having to rediscover yourself [and] at a base level, we just understood each other — the difficulties, the challenges, the things that people don’t think about. She … still wanted to work, but she was coming to terms with what she should do, what can she do, and what did she really want to do?”
White didn’t think about age for a long time, she adds, and was focused on staying active and keeping her mind engaged. She had a passion for space and space travel and, had the opportunity come along a few years earlier, Mikelas predicts she wouldn’t have had any hesitation joining her Boston Legal co-star William Shatner on his trip on Blue Origin’s second space flight.
“Keeping her mind engaged was the secret to her longevity — because it certainly wasn’t her diet! She was famous for her hot dogs, Diet Coke, and vodka, and I used to joke the vodka was probably preserving her! A lot of people, as they age, get so wrapped up in looking back, but she was not one to look back. She was very present, in the moment and [looking] to what’s next.
“It’s not that she didn’t lament certain things about aging that we all do and, as she got older, sometimes she would say, ‘I’m feeling a bit 96 today.’ She had those ailments, but … she chose to take a deep breath and say, “What are we going to do?’ I think there’s something to that, I really do.”
White’s love of word games — a touching nod to her late husband, Password host Allen Ludden — and regular visits from the other loves of her life, animals, kept her engaged in mind, body and soul through the challenging times of the pandemic. And they sustained her until the end finally came on Dec. 31, 2021, just a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday.
But the legacy of Betty White endures — as does Mikelas’ relationship with her.
Following her passing, she was given the keys to White’s social media accounts. She saw it as a way to “promote the person Betty was and her uniqueness in this world where there’s a lot of negativity.
“She really made a concerted effort to look at every day and find something positive and move towards it as opposed to dwelling on the negative. It was an active thing in her life and I think that is so important.”
Mikelas adds that, “She really showed up, did the best she could, and was who she was — truly authentic. Those are the things that are so special that I don’t want people to forget. I look at the people whose legacies carry on — the Elvises and Marilyn Monroes — and Betty is one of those. Maybe in a different light, but no less important in terms of what she was to our culture, to the history of television and kind of globally, not just here in the United States, people are still discovering her today, which I feel is an awesome thing.”
Mikelas notes that White “hoped to be remembered for making people laugh. She hoped to be remembered for the good that she tried to do for animals and the environment.
“What else could I give to her? Even when she was alive, for the lady who had everything or didn’t need anything? What else can I give her for all that she gave to me [other] than trying to maintain that and preserve her legacy in a way that is positive and impactful?”