Bodyguards have long been a Hollywood fixture, appearing alongside A-listers on red carpets, on nights out and occasionally onscreen (looking at you, Kevin Costner). But there’s more than meets the eye to these protection agents, who are being increasingly called upon in recent months as Los Angeles’ crime rate has ticked up.
The LAPD reported in March that robberies involving firearms were up 57 percent from 2020 and homicides were up 29 percent for the first six months of the year compared with the same period in 2020. As a result, says Kent Moyer, president and CEO of L.A.-based World Protection Group, “Our business revenues have doubled from January on, every month. And it’s due to the fact that people are scared.”
Security experts say that’s sparked a change in Hollywood. In the past, stars often relied on bodyguards only for daily outings and press tours. Many are now increasingly hiring 24/7 residential protection — particularly after crimes against some high-profile people in late 2021, such as the murder of philanthropist Jacqueline Avant and the armed burglary of Real Housewife Dorit Kemsley when she was at home with her children. (Police, however, did report that Avant had a security guard at home during the shooting.)
“Residential estate security has been on an uptick because everybody wants their own private security now so they can sleep well at night,” confirms Anton Kalaydjian, CEO and founder of Guardians Professional Security, based out of South Florida with an office in L.A. “Instead of being reactive, they’re becoming more proactive.”
Residential security details may include one or several armed guards around a home who are skilled in defensive tactics, surveillance detection and security driving (which includes precision driving, accident avoidance and other skills) and will monitor a property around the clock. There also might be electronic security systems, barriers, alarms and, in some cases, drones. Moyer, who got his start doing security at the Playboy Mansion and was formerly head of security at ICM, says his team uses drones with thermal imaging cameras on celebrity estates that can detect people hiding in bushes during the day or night. They have speaker systems, as well, so “we can communicate with the bad guy and tell him to leave and the police are coming,” he says.
The drones also can capture 3D maps of a space, flying zigzags of an entire area so “we can find very easily the weaknesses in their property and security systems that they need to put in,” says Moyer. World Protection Group’s security system is monitored via a tablet, and when a sensor is set off, all cameras automatically focus on the suspect area, followed by audio and visual alerts.
And just who are these guards working to keep so much of Hollywood safe? The majority are men, and many are former military or former police, though Kalaydjian has agents who include onetime NFL and NBA players, UFC fighters and, in one case, a high school principal who “on the weekends helps us out.” Though called bodyguards in pop culture, they are known professionally as close protection agents or executive protection.
High-end security firms require background checks, firearm permits, first aid and medical certifications (“We’re not just here to catch a bullet; we’re here to help them get out of a seizure or out of a heart attack,” says Kalaydjian), crowd management experience and formal training or a degree in protection work. Some companies also perform psychological assessments.
Though veterans and former law enforcement types often are drawn to the field, they typically have to be retrained because “it’s a different job that they have, a different mission,” says NYC and L.A.-based Global Threat Solutions CEO Kenneth Bombace, a former Army captain who has protected Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
“If somebody poses a threat and has a gun, police run to them and they want to meet that threat, subdue them and bring them to justice. In the protection business, that’s not our job,” says Bombace. “We just want to get our principal somewhere safe, as fast as we can.” Echoes DTeflon, a longtime bodyguard who has protected Morgan Freeman and Justin Timberlake: “It’s not about coming in there and kicking someone’s ass. If you’re whooping somebody’s ass or you’ve got to pull a gun, you pretty much have not done your job.”
This is where celebrities sometimes get themselves into trouble, security pros say, opting to hire friends and bouncer-type protectors — dubbed in the field as “buddy-guards” or “homeboy security” — who are large and intimidating but don’t have the proper training. “These are the people that make bad tactical decisions, and they’re the ones shoving the cameras into the paparazzi’s face, trying to [take] the SIM cards,” says Moyer of such tactics, which can end in a headache-inducing lawsuit for the celebrity.
Bodyguards in Hollywood can be traced all the way back to the 1950s, when Frank Sinatra had several guards (including football player Ed Pucci) and Richard Burton’s brother was employed as the star’s protection detail. They can be intimately involved in a client’s life, with Justin Bieber noting his bodyguard would check his pulse while he was sleeping to make sure he was still alive during the height of his drug use. Some — like Peter Van Der Veen, who has guarded Adele and Lady Gaga, and Greg Lenz, Jennifer Lawrence’s former bodyguard — attract thirsty headlines and social media accounts in their honor. And much like the story portrayed by Costner and Whitney Houston, some stars have dated their bodyguards, like Heidi Klum and Kim Kardashian.
Men make up the majority of bodyguards, though there are the occasional women who enter the industry. Moyer says in his experience, “If I needed protection in my life, I would probably go with an all-female team because you don’t have to be dealing with egos and A-type personalities and personality clashes.” Kalaydjian — whose company has protected Alicia Keys, Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber — points to stereotypes in clients feeling less safe around women than towering men, admitting, “I’m 6-foot-4, 265. They might feel safer with me around rather than Ronda Rousey; meanwhile, Ronda Rousey would beat the hell out of me in a fight in a second, but they don’t see that.”
Kalaydjian says there’s a lot of space for women in the industry, though, especially as he notes two-thirds of his celebrity client base is female, and in places like restrooms and tour buses, male guards are sometimes not an option.
When it comes to training, Kalaydjian starts his agents on ride-alongs with veteran bodyguards and requires two years of experience before they’re able to do a detail on their own. After guards learn “Bodyguard 101” at an executive protection school (including protection driving, protection firearms and defensive tactics), Kalaydjian has his team weight lift and learn MMA practices to “handle threats physically without hurting anybody but at the same time mitigating the threat.”
When clients are out and about, agents sometimes book multiple hotel rooms to throw off anyone from knowing where a celebrity is staying and, in rare cases, DTeflon — who also serves as president of APA Protection Group — says he’s even used look-alikes of his celebrity clients as decoys to trick fans and paparazzi. He also opts for attire outside of the classic bodyguard black suit and earpiece to try to blend in: “If you’re a person that’s out there wanting to cause harm, do some damage or be in the crowd, you’re going to try to avoid me at all costs. You’re going to wait until I’m not there because you know exactly who I am. But if I’m blending in, in different attire that you’re not used to seeing a bodyguard in, you’re not going to know if I’m the publicist, the manager, a friend, another actor; you have no idea.” And while a large portion of guards are armed, some are not, and it’s up to the client’s discretion. For international travel, guns are highly restricted. British bodyguard Simon Newton, who has worked for Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner, notes agents in most of Europe are not allowed to carry firearms.
Social media has thrown another challenge at the executive protection industry as stars are sharing more of their lives online and sometimes revealing their locations. Newton says he asks his clients to refrain from live posting, particularly after one celebrity shared a photo while boarding a flight from New York to London, and fans looked up every flight from every carrier on that route, resulting in “separate fans all around the different terminals waiting to catch these people coming in.”
Bombace says his company has databases and search tools to scan social media for any threats to their clients, and Moyer goes as far as to remove all of his clients’ personal information from the internet — which involves never getting mail sent to the home and changing P.O. boxes multiple times to remove a physical address — and setting them up with anonymous phones that use fake names and encrypted apps.
All of this isn’t cheap. Moyer says celebrities can spend $100,000 to $1 million a year on security depending on the services, with the average between $250,000 and $500,000. Bombace says with residential 24/7 security, clients are looking at “many millions.”
“It’s a very costly affair,” says Newton, who notes that the trend of having at-home guards has risen in the U.K. as well. “Some of the houses we’ve got now, they probably wouldn’t have had it five years ago. People are finding the money to justify paying for it now because it’s just peace of mind.”
DIY Security: Advice From the Pros
For those who aren’t able to spend six figures on security services, the professionals have some tips for staying safe at home. Kalaydjian recommends basic cameras, alarm systems, fences and making sure all doors are locked as well as paying close attention to one’s keys for push-to-start cars. “Once you walk in your door, you put your key fob on the desk next to your door — well, guess what, that’s close enough where if a thief comes in, they could press start and take your car away,” he says. “And that’s what happens when you have a guard gate or not, because a lot of these gates are triggered automatically [by the fob].”
Bombace says he always recommends both dogs and security cameras because “if someone has a dog and cameras, you’re going to go to the next house that doesn’t. You’re going to go to the weakest, the softest target on the block.”
Business manager John McIlwee says he’s seen that “clients have doubled or even tripled spending on in-home security systems — cameras, locks, the works” due to L.A.’s current crime situation. He continues, “People are choosing to get the highest-quality, best version of a security system.”
Moyer adds that for cybersecurity, he often turns to Faraday Bags (faradaybag.com), which shield computers, phones and iPads from hackers and prevent digital signals from being sent and received: “When [devices] are turned off and they’re put in the Faraday Bag, you can’t track them.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.