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Illustration by Eva Vázquez

Celebrity Protection in the Spotlight

Among the various sectors of executive protection, providing security for celebrities is one of the most complex for a multitude of reasons—the most obvious being that the incredible spotlight on top entertainers’ every action makes them more noticeable than other businesspeople.

Much of creating an effective defense for a celebrity comes from understanding the unique threat landscape that an entertainer can face daily. From fans to stalkers, public events to tabloid hounds, general advance preparation to COVID-19 safeguards, and much more, successful professional protectors will be able to leverage experience with intelligence.

Celebrity protection is complex, but not entirely unmanageable. A good threat assessment—coupled with protective intelligence, strong operational plans, and diligent protection officers—can effectively guard most celebrities and keep them from harm’s way. While this type of work is not everyone’s cup of tea, it is an exciting environment for the right protectors to showcase their professional skills and training.

Paparazzi and Social Media

Celebrities thrive on attention, but it can be a double-edged sword. Ever-present paparazzi make protectors’ jobs extremely difficult. An entire industry of tabloids and television programs has thrived by focusing on capturing a celebrity’s every move, especially if someone is involved in or linked to any type of scandal or controversy, such as an affair or high-profile divorce.

Paparazzi can be ruthless in their pursuit of getting an exclusive photo. One photographer hid for three days within Skibo Castle, where Madonna and Guy Ritchie were married in 2000. The photographer was discovered inside a chimney closet during a sweep of the home the evening before the event. In 1997, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his then-wife, Maria Shriver, were run off the road by a paparazzo just so he could capture the incident on film.

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Few in the public know that most celebrities do not have full-time protection. While it is common to see celebrities with bodyguards at major events, many celebrities try their best to live their lives without dedicated protectors. Some manage quite well, but several high-profile celebrities have around-the-clock protection—including security that extends to their residences and their families—because for an A-list celebrity, even a coffee run can be an ordeal.

Along with the tabloids, many celebrity routines and encounters are streamed live or posted on social media, triggering the near-instant appearance of hundreds of fans to the entertainer’s location. Fans will often use apps to share celebrity sightings, alerting others to an entertainer’s present location. This means that a security team must be well prepared for paparazzi or throngs of fans to surface at any time.

Social media is also a favorite medium for many celebrities, who sometimes post personal details. Protectors must monitor social media and celebrity posts’ content to be aware of potential problems from the posts. Security leaders should advise that celebrities post about locations they were in the past instead of where they presently are.

Protectors must also monitor any negative posts about the celebrity in case they evolve into a security threat down the road. Some celebrities may have just one protector who must juggle all security duties while also being familiar with these aspects of social media.

Most protectors prefer to be nameless and faceless “grey men” who maintain a low profile, as becoming too well known can work against the protector by being overly recognizable themselves. However, social media has also increasingly placed protectors in the public lens. Ed Sheeran’s bodyguard, Kevin Myers, has even become famous due to Sheeran posing with and posting photos of Myers on Instagram and other social media outlets.

As the spotlight also falls on celebrities’ protectors, there will be additional scrutiny on how they handle thronging fans, paparazzi, and autograph hounds. This highlights another complexity in this sector and an interesting concept for entertainment protectors: celebrities require protection from both love and hate.

Obsessed Fans and Stalkers

While most fans admire and respect the entertainer, there are some who have turned their initial love for the performer into anger, hatred, and obsession. Mark Chapman, who murdered John Lennon in 1980 mere hours after getting his autograph, is one example of a dangerous, obsessive fan. Although claiming to be “angry and jealous” with Lennon because of his celebrity and lifestyle, Chapman also wanted glory for himself.

Obsessed fans can often cross lines, which poses serious concerns for the entertainer and his or her protection team. In dealing with a stalker, protectors do not initially know whether the person poses an honest threat or if this fan is so obsessed with the entertainer that he or she cannot suppress a desire to be around the artist.

Protectors must take serious precautions to do everything possible to monitor and control the actions of the stalker or a person of interest until intentions are known, and, if necessary, have the stalker arrested.

The author’s security team dealt with a stalker of singer Sheryl Crow while she prepared to perform at a benefit concert in New York City in 2003. Crow’s security team alerted protection professionals working for the venue about the stalker and provided information about him. The stalker, a former U.S. Navy diver who said he was just trying to “court” Crow, arrived at the venue and attempted to enter the facility. In this instance, the police were notified about the man and arrested him; however, he was later acquitted by a jury trial.

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Like many other celebrities, Crow has had multiple stalkers—some have even contacted her family members. Crow was granted a three-year restraining order against one stalker who threatened to kill her. Celebrities targeted by stalkers live in a constant awareness that this person may show up at any time, could enter private spaces, and initiate uncomfortable or even fatal encounters.

In 1989, 21-year-old model-turned-actress Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by Robert John Bardo, a deranged fan who had stalked Schaeffer for three years. Bardo had managed to track down her home address through the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ records. The murder sparked the first anti-stalking laws in the United States, including making it a felony to cause another person, or that person’s family, to be in reasonable fear for their safety.

Residential Security

Celebrities’ homes should be safe havens where they can feel both comfortable and secure. If it is warranted and within the budget, one of the best home security solutions is a continuously manned security command post. In some cases, this is accomplished with a front gate guard booth, which serves as a command post and as front entrance security—not only deterring potential intruders but also providing access control.

While it is important that the residence is well protected, it may not require continuously posted guards. For example, gated communities and urban apartments with gatehouses, doormen, and other forms of access control already offer residents some level of perimeter security. Many celebrities are content to live without an on-site security team, although others may provide a room for a protector, even if that protector works shifts instead of 24/7. Locations that are lesser known to the public, such as an isolated ranch or vacation home, can maintain a level of disassociation from the celebrity if the property is not listed in his or her name.

In general, homes should have and use a good alarm system that is easy to manage. It is always recommended that a residence maintain cameras that monitor the home’s exterior and entrances. The surveillance system should also be supported by a DVR with long-term storage to record and store all images—enabling later review if necessary.

Medical Concerns

Whether young or old, all principals face a greater risk from experiencing a medical emergency than from being kidnapped or assassinated. Celebrities are subjected to a greater amount of stress compared to non-celebrities due to constant public scrutiny and tremendous demands placed on entertainers. This makes celebrities especially prone to potential medical incidents. Additionally, the entertainment environment has increased access to alcohol and drugs, as well as increased reasons to abuse them.

In a medical emergency, protectors are not just first responders but immediate responders. Members of a personal protection team should have training in at least basic first aid, CPR, and familiarity with an AED device. It is also helpful to always know both the location of the nearest hospital and what level of services the facility provides. Protectors with advanced medical training, such as former emergency medical technicians (EMT) or paramedics, are often in higher demand and better paid for these added skills and how they may benefit a celebrity.

While it is stereotypical for celebrities to party hard to deal with stress, especially after a successful tour or performance, protectors must not only adapt to being on the job at all hours while with a celebrity on long tours, they must also protect themselves from potential stress and burnout. Protection managers should ensure that protectors are getting adequate breaks or days off—keeping a close eye on the team and monitoring individual stress levels to help protectors remain alert and capable.

Long or difficult work shifts and stress can also leave protectors susceptible to regular medical concerns, such as colds and the flu, which could in turn impact the security detail either by infecting other team members or causing the team to work shorthanded. Another recent source of stress that can impact both the principal and the protector is the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In today’s environment, everyone is taking selfies, and celebrities are no exception. It is common for fans to want selfies with a celebrity, and sometimes it is the celebrity who initiates a selfie. With the life-threatening COVID-19 pandemic still affecting nearly all parts of the world, however, protectors must go beyond everyday protection protocols and medical concerns, taking into consideration specialized pandemic protocols. Protectors should have established protocols for potential exposure to COVID-19. This is largely dependent on the celebrity and how close he or she wants a protector to be and how much interaction with fans he or she is comfortable with. Protectors can also make suggestions to the celebrity based on the type of environment and the threat level, considering both personal protection and potential viral exposure.

Protectors overseeing or reviewing advance preparation work must take additional precautions when a celebrity travels. Established protocols on sanitizing vehicles and aircrafts should be completed prior to travel. Spaces occupied by the entertainer for a length of time—from green rooms to hotel rooms—should also be prepared just before the principal’s arrival. Another component of protecting a celebrity from COVID-19 and other contagions is screening all personnel entering a sanitized area, which includes agents, hairdressers, support staff, and even entourages.

During the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, numerous U.S. Secret Service agents tested positive for COVID-19 and had to be relieved of duty and quarantined—which reduced the security detail’s available manpower by 10 percent, according to a Freedom of Information Act request from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, D.C.

Celebrities generally use far fewer protectors than presidential candidates, so protectors must be prepared with backup security professionals who can step in when needed. This is a new dynamic that celebrities and protectors must adjust to in the name of health, safety, and precaution.

State Licensing and Registrations

As complicated as the issues above can become, having a strong foundation in the basics of personal protection, plus a handful of specific skills, can best serve the principal.

To start off, in most U.S. jurisdictions, security professionals must be licensed or registered, and they are required to adhere to U.S. state training requirements. Security service providers generally must be licensed, insured, and bonded to provide personal protection services.

If a security service provider subcontracts part of the detail or a service, it must ensure that it hires a licensed company. Unless an independent contractor (IC) is licensed, the main provider of the security services could be liable for the IC’s actions if a problem arises. This happened in Denver, Colorado, when a major security provider subcontracted protection services for a news crew to a local company. That subcontractor hired an unlicensed IC who used his firearm to shoot a protester in October 2020.

Virginia maintains some of the strictest training requirements for executive protection in the United States, requiring more than 93 hours of training to become a personal protection specialist (PPS)—a title originally created by the Executive Protection Institute (EPI). The EPI is best-known for creating an intense and comprehensive seven-day, more than 100-hour training program. The Virginia Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) modelled much of its PPS requirements after studying EPI’s training program and consulting with Richard Kobetz, founder of EPI.

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Many executive protection professionals predict that other U.S. states will soon follow Virginia’s example, requiring executive protection professionals to adhere to this level of training. To be an armed PPS in Virginia demands an additional 40 hours of training and a shooting qualification exam score of at least 92 percent, plus annual training. The consideration for the additional training and achievement of a PPS title is because protectors have a higher degree of responsibility given that they provide armed protection, even in public areas, and therefore must prove a higher degree of competency over regular security officers.

Amateur versus Professional Behavior

Another advantage of rigorous training for professional celebrity protectors is the distinction from amateur bodyguards. Many people in this business claim to be a bodyguard, pointing to their size, muscles, fighting skills, or their relationship to the celebrity— essentially, making it all about themselves and their ability to fight attackers.

On the other hand, a professional protector does everything possible to avoid physical interaction through advance planning and problem avoidance, knowing all too well that there is no need to attract attention and it is generally better to blend in and keep a low profile. The exception is during highly publicized events, where standing out and being noticeable is a necessary deterrent to attackers.

Recently, there has been a significant increase of female protectors in the protective services industry. There are many advantages to utilizing female protectors, particularly with female celebrities; female protectors are better able to blend into the celebrity’s environment and go places where male protectors may be uncomfortable, unwelcome, or out of place, such as female dressing rooms and bathrooms, as well as events solely attended by women. If an entertainer uses a security team, having some female protectors can benefit both the team and the principal. A female celebrity walking through a hotel lobby next to another woman draws far less attention than a male protector walking in front or behind her.

Professional protectors’ behavior and demeanor reflects upon the person they are protecting. Some celebrities have been barred from a location solely based on the unprofessional behavior of untrained or unprofessional bodyguards. A celebrity does not have special rights, nor is he or she above the law—this is also true for celebrity protectors. For example, escorting a celebrity through a crowded hotel lobby must be done in a smooth, professional manner, and the protector should avoid placing his or her hands on any anyone except to protect themselves or the celebrity.

Physical and Verbal Skills

As noted before, professional protectors do not rely on their ability to fight, but rather their ability to avoid a fight. Professional protectors know that they win every fight they do not get drawn into.

To defuse potentially hostile situations, protectors must have specific non-physical tools that complement their overall skill sets. They must excel at tactical communications or verbal systems—such as protection communications tactics—to avoid aggressive behavior or challenges to fight, whether from an excited fan or a belligerent drunk. Protectors must also use their verbal skills to gain compliance and cooperation from potential threats to the celebrity without having to resort to physical means of control.

Celebrity protectors must learn to smile, converse with fans in a polite manner, and gain their cooperation while clearing a path for the celebrity to follow. Those trying to get an autograph or selfie must also contend with the fact that the celebrity may be tired or otherwise disinclined to engage with fans. Protectors must help defuse tensions with disappointed fans, who may grow impatient or angry before, during, and after the departure.

Celebrity protectors now face many in the public who train in mixed martial arts or other forms of combat training. All protectors must have a good foundation of physical defensive tactics for not only defending the principal, but also themselves.

One system designed specifically for protectors, and particularly useful for celebrity protectors, is protection response tactics (PRT). PRT takes into consideration that while a protector is around one or more celebrities, he or she is almost always recorded or even livestreamed. Every move by protectors will be scrutinized afterwards, especially if they place their hands on someone or use any kind of physical force.

How a protector uses his hands for his and the principal’s protection cannot appear to be aggressive—while being defensive, the protector’s actions must also gently gain control of an aggressive threat to the celebrity. This is especially true with excited fans or stubborn paparazzi, who regularly block a celebrity’s path to and from his or her car.

Advance Preparation for Transportation

Executive protection professionals truly understand the importance of advance preparations and scouting a location for the arrival and departure at a public event, but for those protecting celebrities, it is compounded tenfold.

For the celebrity protector, every arrival and departure from a performance facility, restaurant, event, and sometimes even a residence can be an ordeal. Fans may camp out in front of a hotel just for a chance to see a celebrity and perhaps take a selfie or collect an autograph. Careful planning is required to consider the placement of protectors so they can always shield the celebrity along the path between their vehicle and a facility.

A significant number of attacks on protected individuals happen in and around a vehicle, especially during arrivals and departures that are known to the public in advance. One of the most tragic and famous instances of paparazzi swarming a celebrity in a vehicle occurred on 31 August 1997. Princess Diana and her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, were chased by paparazzi on motorcycles in Paris, France. Their driver, Henri Paul, lost control of the car while they were being aggressively tailed by the photographers. The only survivor of the crash was Diana’s bodyguard, Trevor Rees-Jones.

Sometimes steel barriers must be set up to corral fans and paparazzi so the celebrity can freely and safely enter or exit a vehicle. More often than not, the people behind the barriers have not been screened, meaning that protectors must keep an eye on them and look for those who may stand out. Protectors must also keep a close eye on hands because what someone is holding or doing with his or her hands is the greatest concern.

Advance preparations also help familiarize the protector with all the walking routes he or she need to take to bring the celebrity into a facility, to the green room, and to the stage—plus knowledge of the locations of all bathrooms and fire exits.

Fire and life safety is important, so celebrities and protectors should know how to exit a facility in the event of an emergency. The acronym PACE—primary route, alternate route, contingency plans, and emergency plans—helps the protector keep all those concerns in mind at each location.

Overt and Covert Protection Models

For many years, those providing private sector executive protection adapted and modelled their service for a protected individual to resemble the U.S. Secret Service detail for the president. Protectors wearing earpieces and sometimes sunglasses—plus always standing within arm’s reach of the principal—were the traditional model and served as a deterrent for anyone who wanted to harm or assault the principal.

However, this overt protection model had some drawbacks. Namely, it highlighted the principal’s opulence, characterizing them as someone special and out of touch with normal folks—which clashes with many celebrities’ public images today. It also easily identified those assigned to the protection detail, which indicated the number of protectors being used and allowed adversaries to adjust their plans accordingly.

One way to mitigate negative impacts is to conceal countermeasures through covert protection. One concept used by many top-level protection specialists is to have the protector blend in with the principal’s environment, such as posing as a personal assistant or a junior executive. Using titles like logistics coordinator, assistant producer, or even vice president of corporate affairs lowers the security presence while still maintaining a protective posture. It also allows the protector into meetings that would otherwise exclude security personnel.

A second covert method is using surveillance detection agents—plainclothes officers placed in position ahead of time who can watch everyone around the celebrity and respond if necessary. This is a compromise between close protection and distance protection, but it does allow the celebrity to experience a bit more freedom, and it works well in known locations where the entertainer is surrounded by known or screened people. It is also excellent for celebrities’ children, who can experience a certain amount of freedom yet have someone watching over them from a distance rather than having a bodyguard with them in school and at all other times.

Threat and Risk Management

With the explosion of the Internet and the increasing use of smartphones and social media apps, all protectors, but especially celebrity protectors, must monitor and collect protective intelligence. Using open source and generally available sources of information, protectors must sift through a great deal of information to gather useful intelligence that will help the protector better prepare for each assignment. One of the current goals of protection is to be intelligence driven, so threats and risks are determined through collecting intelligence.

A basic risk model used by many is: Threats x Vulnerabilities x Impact = Risk. Although not an exact mathematical formula, it generally focuses on the essentials of risk management. Threats are things we cannot control, including terrorism, street crime, weather-related emergencies, stalkers, and known and unknown threats. Vulnerabilities are the reality of the protector’s resources hampered by the exposure to areas where potential harm to the entertainer is possible. Impact ranges from low impact, such as a potential trip and fall, to a serious impact, like kidnapping, assault, or assassination.

During the incident with Crow and her stalker, Crow’s protection team was aware of the threat, understood the limits of their resources, and knew that the stalker could inflict both bodily injury and emotional trauma if he gained access to Crow. To manage the risk, Crow’s team advised the venue’s security team to look out for the stalker, and together the security teams mitigated the risk from the stalker by applying the risk management formula.

Once protectors understand all the elements of this threat assessment, they are better prepared to manage the risks associated with protecting the celebrity. A protector cannot eliminate all risks, but with proper planning he or she can greatly mitigate them.

Jerry Heying, CPP, PPS (personal protection specialist), CST (certified security trainer), is the chair of the ASIS International Executive Protection Community Steering Committee. A 40-year veteran of the security industry, Heying has been an ASIS International member for more than 35 years, serving as a past council chair as well as a past chapter chair. He is currently the president and CEO of International Protection Group LLC and the Executive Protection Institute.

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