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The strange life of a celebrity bodyguard
Plus this week's cultural recommendations
The golden world of celebrity can be a lonely existence: circles naturally get tinier the wiser – and more famous – someone becomes, as they learn the hard way that there are few people who have their best interests at heart, who are there when they need them, whom they can trust. You only have to read a handful of famous autobiographies to understand just how parasitic and exploitative the majority of celebrity entourages can be.
A bodyguard however, is actually paid to protect them, and so – for a time – occupies a surreal and intimate role in their famous client’s lives, in which they guard even their most private moments. It seems natural, then, that a bodyguard can become a client’s confidante and close friend – or sometimes more than that.
Ed Sheeran is so close with his protection officer, Kevin Myers, that ( as Ed’s manager Stuart Camp told me) he made him a parody Instagram, posting pictures of the two of them together with ironic captions, while countless female celebrities have dated theirs: from Kim Kardashian to J-Lo and Madonna. Pamela Anderson and her bodyguard were even briefly married.
The client relationship can also become toxic. Several A-List stars have been accused by their bodyguards of physical and sexual harassment, with lawsuits being settled out of court. And one juicy rumour flying around is that one very famous artist tried to get his bodyguard to become his own personal hitman.
Some bodyguards go bad too, with Kanye West’s former close protection officer Steve Stanulis claiming to be working on a damning documentary about their torrid time together, having successfully countered two of West’s multi-million dollar lawsuits.
And many bodyguards end up knowing more about their celebrity client than anyone else in the world. When Tupac died, his bodyguard Frank Alexander wrote a book about the rapper’s final year, Got Your Back, which has been praised by fans as an eye-opening personal account of a man shrouded in conspiracy.
So how do you become a bodyguard? What is the job actually like? And how much have the needs and parameters of close protection changed over the last decade, as celebrity culture has ballooned and mutated alongside social media, in a world where anyone can be famous, if they want to be?
I had a little chat with Simon Newton all about it. Simon, 43, is an ex-close protection officer and now runs a private security firm, Askari Secure Ltd, as well as acting in action films such as upcoming thriller Crossfire. He began his career as a mechanical engineer age 16 – a plan B, because he “wasn’t fit enough” to get into the military despite having been an army cadet at school. But a few years later Simon – whose dad was a firefighter for 45 years – tried again and joined the Royal Corps of Signals, serving in Canada and Iraq.
In 2006, a fellow soldier recommended the lucrative world of private security, and he has since protected members of the Japanese government, middle eastern royals, as well as Michael Jackson, Bella Hadid, Kendall Jenner, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss and Cheryl Cole.
A careful man of few words, Simon was perhaps more… discreet…than I might have hoped, but I guess that’s why he’s pretty good at his job.
Have you noticed the increase in robberies in LA and London has increased demand in private security? The Beckhams have even recently asked for planning permission to build a private security cabin to deter stalkers and break-ins.
It always goes up and down, but the problem is, we’re not cheap, and when nothing happens, they stop using us. And that’s when they get their watch stolen a month later. Even for the biggest players, who really should be having two or three bodyguards with them at all times, it all comes down to cost, and they won’t pay it. [According to Vanity Fair, home security can cost over $1m a year, while day security can cost over $1000].
Do you find individuals with a higher net worth are more high-risk than those with high status, such as royals? And if so, what are the threats?
Yes, they are, and the threats are almost always extortion and kidnapping.
Have you noticed a new crop of famous people needing protection are emerging because of the democratisation of fame through social media?
Yes I’m noticing young YouTubers in particular, because they’re the ones who actually make a lot of money.
Are the young, rich clients the worst?
Yep, because they all want to go clubbing every night and I hate it. Twenty-year-old YouTubers are the worst kind of client.
Who has been your youngest client?
Probably Bella Hadid, when she was 18.
Do you get people who want a bodyguard for the status, but don’t actually need one?
Yes, and we wouldn’t do it. You can always catch people out because they say, “I’d like a bodyguard for Saturday night”. And you say, “Ok, what’s the problem?”
They say, “there's not really any problem I just don't feel very safe”, and that’s fine, you’re allowed to say that, OK. Where do you want to go? “A Mayfair nightclub.” And which club is it? “Not sure yet”. Ok no problem, I’ll be there. “Ok but the one thing is he needs to be six-foot-five and he needs to have blue eyes and blonde hair and he’s got to be wearing x or y”.
How important is what you wear?
Very important – it’s part of the training. If you’re going to a black tie event, you’ve got to be in black tie. If you’re going swimming, you’ll need your trunks. Because you don’t want to stand out. Particularly if you’re protecting a high net worth individual who isn’t recognisable, then you can accidentally draw attention to them. So when I’m with less famous people I’ll often put my hands in my pockets because that’s one thing bodyguards usually don’t do and I’ll just look like a friend.
How much do you look at things like your client’s social media? Did reading about the Kim Kardashian jewellery heist frustrate you, because it could so easily have been avoided had she not posted her jewels on Instagram from a specific location?
That Instagram post should have been checked – I always check my client’s social media when they post things, and if it’s a live location, I get them to remove it. But with Kim K I argue that it was a setup because I know the guy who used to look after her, and he got told to go out and do another job that night that it was posted on social media that she was in the apartment on her own. None of it was his fault.
At what point do you stop protecting someone, if they refuse to follow your advice and do something stupid?
It’s never happened to me. Most people listen to me, because I'm not very strict. So if I tell you that that's not happening, you'll know that that's not happening. Often with celebrities they want to go to a busy area like Portobello Road Market, and if I’m on my own with a famous person, in the middle of that market, where we’re surrounded by pickpockets and thieves, and I can’t get a car down there because it’s all pedestrianised, then that’s a bad idea. I always need a car as close as possible. But then again, if you leave your bag behind and you keep your hood up and we’re going at nine in the morning, then I’ll let you do it.
Celebrities can be quite lonely, as there are so few people they can trust. I can imagine as someone they have to trust implicitly, and who is always around, you can become quite close?
Yeah, Bella [Hadid] I used to know quite well since I did a number of years with her on and off. But you always draw a line, even if they want to be more friendly.
There must be quite a false sense of intimacy created by the work that you do. Have celebrities ever tried to take advantage of that?
It can be strange. Because, if you’re pleasing to look at, you’re always there to make sure their car is ready, you hold their bags, you pop out and get anything they want, you protect them… you can essentially end up in the role of the perfect boyfriend.
Do they ever ask you to do things beyond your job description?
I used to do anything, it didn’t bother me. If it helped that person, I would do it, no matter what it was.
What about cooking them a meal or having a glass of wine and a chat?
I would cook if someone was brave enough to let me. I wouldn’t drink alcohol on the job, but, yes, I’d sit down and have a chat if they wanted.
Have you ever had an uncomfortable situation?
I've had situations, like with Bella [Hadid] or Kendall [Jenner], where I've been in women's toilets and stood outside the cubicle, and just said [to the other women in there] you can leave if you like but I have to stay. Otherwise, she’s going to be surrounded by 30 girls, and she’s stuck and can’t leave.
Sometimes I might walk in on someone, and they might be naked, but with models, they’re so used to getting changed in front of people they don’t really care. It’s the last thing on their mind.
I was reading that Justin Bieber's bodyguard had to check his pulse when he was asleep, at the height of his drug misuse, to check he was alive. Have you ever had to look after someone in that way?
I've had a guy who used to be on medication for his heart, and I would bag up the four or five different drugs he would need to take every morning so he always knew what to take and to make sure he took it.
Do you feel a bit like a dad to all these celebrities?
Excuse my French but yes I’ve spent 17 years wiping arses.
Stalkers are a big issue with celebrities. What’s the most stressful stalking experience you’ve had to deal with?
Michael Jackson – he had loads of them. He would have people flying in from all over the world to stay at the same hotel as him, just so they could sit in the same lobby as him when he would come down from his room. But he would have five bodyguards on him at all times, plus another 12 internal security guards for the hotel. He was plastered with security.
Would any celebrity need the same kind of security again? Now that so many people are famous, is anyone THAT famous anymore?
I can’t think of anyone right now who would need that level, unless perhaps the US President. To be honest, most celebrities don’t have their own security, they only have it when someone else is paying for it, such as a modelling agency or a label that’s hired them. If they have to pay, they won’t have it. Even the biggest stars won’t pay for it, because it costs a fortune.
Much of the time, you’re not just protecting someone’s safety, you're protecting their image. You want to stop certain people from being around them. Or certain things. Such as when we were at a hotel one day and leaving to fly to Paris from London and on one of the hotel trolleys the bellboy has put the celebrity’s luggage on has a bag with the Pornhub logo. And that trolley is about to be wheeled outside the front where 30 paparazzi are waiting. So I managed to stop it and put it inside another bag – turns out it was one of the girl’s makeup bags.
And now you’re moving into Hollywood as an actor, starring in an action film called Crossfire. I guess when you’re on set, you can advertise your private security firm to all the right people!
Ha, yes, when I’m on set most people know me as a celebrity bodyguard, so if anyone wants security I’m the first person they’ll come to. But business is going well, because to make money I need two things: celebrities, and crime. And at the moment, there’s a lot more celebrities, and a lot more crime.
This week in links
I’ve been watching Bad Sisters, one of the few shows I haven’t wanted to give up on, unlike the second season of Industry (the characters are too awful) Rings of Power (yawn) and House of Dragon (so dark I can’t bloody see anything). But Bad Sisters, by the brilliant creator and actor Sharon Horgan, has the most excellent, funny and heart-warming script, a family so real I want to go round to theirs for Sunday lunch, and it actually keeps getting better as it goes along. Claes Bang as the comically conniving but also darkly controlling husband John Paul makes for addictive viewing. In this interview with Horgan by my colleague Robbie Collin, she talked about the delicate balancing act of casting an attractive man in the role of a villain.
I’ve been reading Ted Kessler’s brilliant memoir, Paper Cuts: a wild ride through the glory days of the UK music press. Ted worked at Q and NME and it’s incredible to read about how much the artists cared about these magazines, knowing the writers by name and asking Ted about his colleagues and what they were like. Nowadays you’re lucky if an artist remembers your name after you just told it to them mid interview. I couldn’t believe that Paul Heaton actually gave Ted £35k of his own money to dole out to Q staff made redundant.
And there’s a particularly funny chapter in which Ted goes to Cuba with the Happy Mondays – a car-crash from start to finish – and which Shaun Ryder then has no recollection of a few months later, insisting he has never been to Cuba and that Ted has him confused with somebody else.
I’ve been listening to this fascinating episode of Diary of a CEO, with former lead negotiator of the FBI, Chris Voss. Many people I speak to find this podcast jarring – and having been to Stephen’s show at the Palladium I admit there can be something a little cult-like about the whole production – but I have to say I can’t fault his interviewing technique. And Chris Voss’s experiences – from watching his father dispose of human bodies operated on by medic students as a young child, to working at a suicide prevention hotline – are darkly eye-opening.
I’ve been reading Anne Helen Peterson’s interview with musicologist Lily E. Hirsch on how music can be used as torture, from anti-semitic composer Wagner being played in concentration camps to music by women being played to religious men who have certain prescriptions around music made by women. Or how an earworm, once played enough times, “can interrupt a person’s connection with the self, which is already under threat when you’re under someone else’s control.”
I’ve been commissioning an interview with Israeli-Persian musician Liraz Charhi, by Cat Woods. For her new album, Charhi – whose music videos have often been used by Iranian women in their protests for freedom – organised a dangerous and secretive recording meeting between Israeli and Iranian musicians. The result is beautiful.
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