A former bodyguard for Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt shares what his job was like and the biggest misconceptions about protecting celebrities
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’s also an author of several thrillers and has copresented the TV show “SAS: Who Dares Wins” for the last seven years.
“The bodyguarding world is a tough one, 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, Florida, told Insider. “You do need to be fit and have some sort of martial-arts skill, but it’s also all about planning and organizing and building a good rapport with your clients. Remember what you’re there for — it’s not about being in the limelight yourself but about building a protective bubble around your celebrity.”
The job, he said, paid up to £700, or around $850, per day. It was a lucrative and exciting career for many years, but he admitted that it placed onerous strains on his personal and family lives. As a result, he reassessed his career goals and instead used that firsthand, hands-on experience in safeguarding VIPs to segue into his media-heavy job now.
Here’s a look inside his career following around celebrity clientele.
Billingham’s rough early start led him to the special forces
Billingham said he had a tough childhood, having grown up in a poor area of Britain surrounded by gangs. By age 13, he’d been expelled from school. “I wanted to be a tough guy,” he said. That changed when he was knifed at age 15 and nearly died. He said that was “a big turning point” for him. After spending a few years working in a factory, he joined the military and never looked back.
“I thought I was a bit of a tough guy, but then I met real tough people — real men who knew hand-to-hand combat. It was 1983, and everyone had just come back from the Falklands War,” he said. “I felt out of my depth, to be honest.” Even at six feet tall, he described himself at the time as “the smallest, the skinniest, with no chance.” But Billingham pressed on and soon proved his mettle, becoming a member of the SAS, the UK’s version of the Navy SEALs, and was deployed into conflicts across the world from Iraq to Afghanistan.
In 1998, he earned the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery, a rarefied honor, after helping catch an IRA sniper who had killed more than a dozen soldiers. “They needed a target to draw him out, and I volunteered. I was the bait,” he said. “I trusted my team in the nick of time to get him before he got me.”
He went from dodging bullets to protecting celebrities by chance
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 a client of his to Vietnam, where she was filming.
Billingham was intrigued, but red tape around visas prevented him from stepping into this new role. “But it planted the seed, and I started doing a few moonlighting jobs when I was home on summer break. And I had a good feel for it,” he said. Soon, he’d left the army and begun working full-time in protection, often on temporary gigs.
During this time, he guarded Kate Moss, Jude Law, Michael Caine, Tom Cruise, and Hulk Hogan, and served several stints safeguarding Russell Crowe. “He’s a man’s 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 position working full time for Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and their family. “I was literally working 18 hours a day, every day, and I stayed with them,” he said.
The best bodyguards rarely deal with danger, because they’ve anticipated it
VIP bodyguarding isn’t about hulking, 6’5″ steroid-pumped brawlers in black suits and dark sunglasses with earpieces dangling menacingly, as filmmakers often show in the movies. “Those big lumps rolling around on the floor? In 10 seconds, they’re more likely to have a heart attack.” he said. There are music-world celebrities, he said, who often surround themselves with such types, largely 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 you can’t end up treading on eggshells,” Billingham said. “Your job is to let them have a life that they couldn’t have without security being there.”
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 do you do — jiu jitsu? Karate?’ in that voice of his. And I said, ‘I think.’ He said, ‘What the fuck does that mean?’ and I replied, ‘I try to avoid problems. I might not be one of the biggest, but I’m one of the sharpest, so I foresee problems.’ And he said, ‘I like that,’ and walked off.”
Billingham follows the softly-softly approach: For him, celebrity protection is more about eagle-eyed surveillance rather than red-faced fisticuffs. Whenever he watched Jolie and her family as they attended premiers, surrounded by huge crowds, he said, the key was to look for faces in the crowd whose mood was off-kilter. “Soon as you spot someone not too happy, that’s suspicious,” Billingham said. “I’ve done it every single time, and never been wrong, thank God.”
It’s in cases like these that rapport and trust with a client is crucial. He built such intimacy by creating an effective forcefield around them, limiting access to their innermost circle. “They’re reluctant to have too many people knowing too much — their issues, their dislikes. It’s very difficult if there are too many people too close,” he said.
Decoys and detours are great ways to test new security details
In his role as the head of security, Billingham had to coordinate the entire security team, including what’s often a huge army of drivers. It was these staffers in particular, Billingham quickly learned, who were often the weakest links and prone to taking payments for tipping off paparazzi.
So he created a trick to weed out those whom he, and by extension his clients, couldn’t trust. The ruse for new chauffeurs began with telling them about the next day’s route for Pitt and Jolie in advance. Come the morning, Billingham would instead send them elsewhere — and dispatch a trusted, tested driver to the destination he’d initially mentioned the night before, perhaps a restaurant. “And there could be loads of paparazzi down there. No wonder it’s very difficult to have too many people too close,” he said.
Great bodyguards anticipate coffee stains as much as blood spatters. “It’s not all about wanting to jump in front of a bullet. You have to know what blood group they are, their allergies, and what size clothes they wear,” he said. “Let’s just say Meryl Streep is coming to a press conference and gets covered in coffee on the way. The day is ruined. But as a real bodyguard, you’ve got a change of clothing right there for them.”
18-hour days for 18 months led him to opt for a new career
The intensity of the experience means that many VIP bodyguards burn out. For Billingham, the live-in, 18-month stint with Brangelina proved his final full-time gig for that reason. “That was putting a massive strain on my relationship,” said the father of six, adding that he struggled to find time to see his own children.
He segued from that gig into TV presenting, speaking, and writing, notably coauthoring 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.” His latest book, “Survive to Fight,” was published earlier this month.
Writing relies on the same skill set he deployed when guarding A-listers. “It’s about planning and organizing and using your brain,” he said.