- Mark “Billy” Billingham was a bodyguard for stars like Angelina Jolie and Russell Crowe for years.
- He says work is less about looking intimidating and more about reading the client.
- He often used decoys to weed out security personnel who would give paparazzi away.
Mark “Billy” Billingham has been a bodyguard for some of the world’s biggest stars, from Russell Crowe to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. He is also the author of several thrillers and has co-hosted the TV show SAS: Who Dares Wins for the past seven years.
“The bodyguard world is tough, but it’s all about knowledge and experience,” the 57-year-old former special forces soldier, who splits his time between Herefordshire in rural England and Lake Worth in Florida, told Insider. “You have to be fit and have some martial arts skill, but it’s also about planning and organizing and building a good relationship with your clients. Remember what you’re here for – it’s not about being in the spotlight yourself, it’s about building a protective bubble around your celebrity.”
The job, he said, paid up to £700, or about $850 a day. It was a lucrative and exciting career for many years, but he admitted it took a toll on his personal and family life. As a result, he reassessed his career goals and instead used this first-hand experience protecting VIPs to transition into his media-heavy job now.
Here’s a glimpse into his career surrounding celebrity clientele.
Billingham’s rough early start led him to Special Forces
Billingham said he had a rough childhood growing up in a poor area of Britain surrounded by gangs. At the age of 13 he was expelled from school. “I wanted to be a tough guy,” he said. That changed when he was stabbed and nearly died at the age of 15. He said it was “a big turning point” for him. After working in a factory for a few years, he joined the military and never looked back.
“I thought I was a bit of a tough guy, but then I met really tough people — real men who knew hand-to-hand combat. It was 1983 and everyone had just returned from the Falklands War,” he said. “I felt overwhelmed to be honest.” Even at 1.80 meters tall, he described himself as “the smallest, the thinnest, without a chance”. But Billingham pressed on and soon proved his mettle, becoming a member of the SAS, the British version of the Navy SEALs, and serving in conflicts around the world from Iraq to Afghanistan.
In 1998 he received the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, a rare honor after helping to capture an IRA sniper that killed more than a dozen soldiers. “They needed a target to lure him out and I volunteered. I was the bait,” he said. “I trusted my team to catch him in time before he caught me.”
He accidentally transitioned from bullet dodging to celebrity protection
Billingham served in the British military for almost three decades before a chance request changed the course of his career. He was in Brunei training young recruits, he said, when a friend asked Billingham if he could take a few weeks’ leave to accompany one of his clients to Vietnam, where she was filming.
Billingham was intrigued, but visa bureaucracy prevented him from taking on this new role. “But it planted the seed, and I started doing a few moonlighting jobs while I was home for the summer holidays. And I had a good feeling about it,” he said. He had soon left the army and taken up full-time security work, often on temporary assignments.
During this time, he guarded Kate Moss, Jude Law, Michael Caine, Tom Cruise, and Hulk Hogan, and served several stints as Russell Crowe’s protector. “He’s a man,” Billingham said of Crowe. “He doesn’t mind a laugh, a joke or a drink, so you have to be prepared.”
Billingham’s biggest job, he said, was an 18-month, full-time job for Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and their family. “I literally worked 18 hours a day every day and stayed with them,” he said.
The best bodyguards rarely deal with danger because they have foreseen it
VIP bodyguarding isn’t about the hulking, six-foot-tall, steroid-fueled thugs in black suits and dark sunglasses with their ears dangling menacingly, as filmmakers often portray in movies. “Those big lumps rolling around on the floor? They’re more likely to have a heart attack in 10 seconds,” he said. There are celebrities in the music world, he said, who often surround themselves with guys like this, mostly as security theater — their true protection team will be far more discreet.
“You have to know their mood swings, strengths and weaknesses, but you can’t tiptoe around anything and end up not stepping on eggshells,” Billingham said. “Your job is to give them a life they couldn’t have without security forces.”
Once, he said, he was on set with Jolie when she was filming with director Clint Eastwood, who came over to Billingham and looked him up and down. “He said, ‘What are you doing – Jiu Jitsu? Karate?’ with his voice. And I said, ‘I think.’ He said, “What the hell does that mean?” and I replied, “I’m trying to avoid problems. I may not be one of the greatest, but I’m one of the smartest, so I anticipate problems.” And he said, ‘I like that’ and walked away.”
Billingham takes the softly-soft approach: For him, celebrity protection is more about eagle-eyed surveillance than red-faced punches. Whenever he observed Jolie and her family attending premieres surrounded by huge crowds, he said it’s important to look in the crowd for faces whose moods are out of whack. “As soon as you spot someone who isn’t too happy, that’s suspicious,” Billingham said. “I’ve done it every time and I’ve never been wrong, thank goodness.”
In such cases, the relationship and trust with a customer is crucial. He built such intimacy by creating an effective force field around her and restricting access to her innermost circle. “They don’t want too many people to know too much – their problems, their dislikes. It’s very difficult when there are too many people too close together,” he said.
Decoys and detours are great ways to test new safety details
In his role as chief of security, Billingham had to coordinate the entire security team, including what was often a huge army of drivers. Billingham quickly learned that these employees in particular were often the weakest links and tended to take payment for tips on paparazzi.
So he invented a trick to weed out those he, and therefore his clients, could not trust. The ruse for new chauffeurs began by giving them advance notice of the route for Pitt and Jolie the next day. In the morning, Billingham would send them somewhere else instead — sending a trusted, vetted driver to the destination he originally mentioned the night before, maybe a restaurant. “And there could be a lot of paparazzi down there. No wonder it’s very difficult to have too many people too close,” he said.
Big bodyguards expect coffee stains as well as blood splatters. “It’s not just about wanting to jump in front of a ball. You have to know what blood type they have, what allergies they have and what size clothes they wear,” he said. “Let’s just say Meryl Streep comes to a press conference and gets stuffed with coffee on the way. The day is ruined.
18-hour days for 18 months made him decide on a new career
The intensity of the experience causes many VIP bodyguards to burn out. For this reason, the 18-month stint with Brangelina was Billingham’s last full-time appearance. “It put a massive strain on my relationship,” the father of six said, adding that he has a hard time finding time to see his own children.
He transitioned from that gig to television, speaking and writing, most notably co-writing a series of semi-autobiographical thrillers starring Matt “Mace Mason,” a hero Billingham described as a cross between “James Bond, Jack Reacher, Jason Bourne, and me.” called .” His latest book, Survive to Fight, was released earlier this month.
The writing draws on the same skills he used in A-list guarding. “It’s about planning, organizing and using your brain,” he said.