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Everything I Learned Guarding A-List Celebs

"Sean Penn. He's a lovely bloke. But I tell you what, he can look after himself."
Mark 'Billy' Billingham. Photo courtesy of Channel 4.

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Who do you think are the hardest bastards in the world? There are, let's face it, a lot of them out there: MMA fighters, bare-knuckle boxers, football players, Navy Seals, and Russian Spetsnaz. But without a doubt, the hardest people in the world are the UK's very own Special Air Service, or SAS. So it's little wonder so many of them go into guarding the rich and famous.


Mark "Billy" Billingham spent 27 years in the SAS. He fought in Iraq and won the Queen's Commendation for Bravery after capturing an IRA sniper by using himself as bait. He's also an MBE [Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire]. You'll see him on Channel 4 at the moment, in the survival show SAS: Who Dares Wins. But before that he was bodyguard to Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Kate Moss, Russell Crowe, and Clint Eastwood.

I caught up with him to find out what it's like to be the hardest guy in the world, how he got into looking after famous people, and whether he'd rather fight in a war or take care of Kate Moss…

VICE: How did you get into guarding very famous people?
Mark Billingham: It was a natural progression. Before I'd even left the regiment, I got invited to help out with a few A-list celebrities, the first one being Tom Cruise. A friend of mine had recommended me, and it really just started from there.

Sean Penn. He's a lovely bloke, really nice guy, but I tell you what, he can look after himself.

Why do so many ex-SAS guys end up getting involved with A-listers?
It's really through word of mouth. Celebrities want the best protection, and the SAS is that. They've had ex-SAS bodyguards before, so they naturally want to carry on with that level of service.

Is it really hard to get into the SAS?
Well, let me put it this way: There were 280 people who applied, and seven got in. It's the most arduous physical and mental testing you could ever imagine. You have to be a physically robust person, but the most important thing is your mind—it's about how you think, how you look at things, how you interpret things, your integrity. What makes people like you such good bodyguards?
Being a bodyguard is about forward planning. It's not about beefcakes with a six pack. It's about knowing how to escape, about contingency plans, about how to read a situation. We're all about keeping calm in high-pressure situations and avoiding conflict. We keep our heads when everyone else is losing theirs.


Are there any celebrities who have been so bad that you rather wish you were back in a warzone than dealing with them?
They've all been really nice, to be honest…

What was Kate Moss like?
She was Kate Moss; she was different. She was professional; she was good at what she did. I didn't get to know her as well because there was a lot going on at the time. It was a busy time with the paparazzi, and there were photographers following us around all the time. But she respected me and always did what I asked, so we had a good working relationship.

Who's been the nicest person you've taken care of?
I've spent the most time with Brad and Angelina, so I'd probably be biased toward them.

What are they like as people?
Very professional, very motivated, with an incredible amount of energy—even more than I've got. They were so good at planning their lives, always managing to find time for their children and charities. To be honest, the amount of pressure they're under, to always look good, to be good when everyone is always looking for the bad side of the story because it sells better, the way they dealt with that was incredible.

Do you pick which celebrities you look after?
No, no, it's got to be the right person for the right celebrity. For me, with Brad and Angelina, they trusted me with their children and their inner most secrets—right down to their clothes sizes. So if you want to have someone to work with, you've got to be the right fit.

What's the worst moment you've had with a celebrity? Was there ever a time when you were genuinely worried?
Absolutely. As you say, most of the time you are more worried about what will happen if there's a coffee spill on a dress. But I do remember one time with Brad and Angelina at a film festival in Toronto. I was on my own in the car with them, and the driver got into a frenzy because of the crowd. It was chaos—people were trying to pull the doors open, blocking the road. They were trying to rip me out of the car. Brad and Angelina were looking to me for answers. The answer was to get the vehicle out of there, get out of town, and cancel the party they were supposed to be giving. We were lucky we didn't run anyone over.

Do you have to overrule people when things are getting out of hand?
My contract is to look after the client at all costs. If I advise them that a situation is unsafe, then they usually respect that. I mean, they can overrule me if they want. But I've always been lucky that my clients listen to what I tell them to do.

So lastly, who is the hardest celebrity you've ever taken care of?
Sean Penn. He's a lovely bloke, really nice guy, but I tell you what, he can look after himself.