He's behind you

Obsessive fans can make life terrifying for Hollywood stars. As Oscar night approaches, Gary Humphreys talks to the men who protect A- listers on the red carpet and beyond
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The Independent Culture
With Oscar night just three weeks away, most people in the industry are focused on the stars they hope to see walk on stage and pick up a statuette. But for Robert Mann, John Lane and Dennis Bridwell, the heads of three leading LA-based personal-protection agencies, 27 February will bring other concerns. Sitting in the shadows, as close to their clients as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences protocols will allow, they won't care whether it's Leonardo DiCaprio or Jamie Foxx who strides into the limelight, or Kate Winslet or Hilary Swank who flashes a winner's smile, just so long as nobody gets shot in the process, or stabbed, or followed home.

"We're paid to be paranoid," says Robert Mann, sitting in his fifth- floor office with its sweeping view of Sunset Boulevard. Until very recently Mann was paid to be paranoid for Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen, his firm, the modestly named Worldwide Intelligence Network (WIN), providing bodyguards and anti-stalking intelligence to the celebrity twins on a round-the-clock basis. "This time of year there's a marked increase in demand for bodyguard services," he says, "and events like awards ceremonies and premieres present particular challenges."

Mann, who also numbers Rod Stewart and Sylvester Stallone among his clients, started out in Special Operations, working for a government intelligence agency (he's a little coy about using the well-known initials), "blending in, keeping my eyes and ears open", he says. It was in Special Ops that he honed his investigative skills, and sharpened his appetite for situations that most people would pay to avoid, such as going into LA's notoriously dicey South Central district last year to doorstep a mysterious someone who had been impersonating Mary-Kate in an internet chatroom in order to set up meetings with young girls. It was one of these girls' mother who contacted Mary-Kate's theatrical agents, and the agents who called Mann. "I had to shut this guy down quick," he says. "Who knew what the hell he was planning once he got the girl where he wanted her?"

After sifting through internet traffic for a week, he finally traced the impersonator to a physical address. "I was armed and had a three- hundred pound ex-football player with me, but I still didn't know what was behind that door when I knocked." As it turned out the impersonator was a young gay man, and the only threat of violence came from the abusive father furious with his son, but it could have been otherwise. Like the time Mann traced a stalker to his house. "The guy had gotten into the twins' place of business and scared the hell out of the staff," he says. He ended up face to face in the street with a character who was obviously not fully in control of himself. "I said what he'd been doing had to stop," Mann recalls, "told him the cops would be patrolling his house on a regular basis." Mann's departing line was pure Terminator. "I told the guy I was his worst nightmare." The stalking stopped.

WIN's promotional literature states that its agents are "trained and experienced in the avoidance of confrontation", but there's a gun on the wall in Mann's office wired to a plaque that says: "We don't call 911". In other words, don't worry about getting involved in embarrassing litigation, or having to appear in court with the person who's been making your life a misery, we'll deal with the problem.

As compelling as that promise might seem, it is rare to hear it made at the more corporate end of the personal-protection business, where the consensus is that threats are better assessed, monitored and avoided rather than faced down.

"The problem with confrontation is that in many cases it can incite more extreme behaviour," says John Lane at the Omega Threat Management Group. Lane, a soft-spoken character with 25 years of law enforcement behind his steely blue eyes, spent the last seven years of his public service setting up LAPD's Threat Management Unit, which was devoted to dealing with the various forms of predatory pursuit that became a crime in the state's anti-stalking legislation of 1990. It was there that Lane came into contact with the world of celebrity stalkers, most notably in the Madonna case, where Robert Hoskins, a homeless man, threatened to kill the superstar for rejecting his marriage proposals.

Like Mann, Lane has a gun on his wall, but there the similarities end. In all his time in the private sector, Lane, who claims 50 per cent of his bottom line is generated from A-list celebrity clients, has yet to get in anyone's face to "shut him down".

The nearest he got to it was when he and a forensic psychiatrist, at that time an Omega Group partner, rode out to an LA suburb and doorstepped a man who had been sending letters and gifts to a celebrity newsreader client. "The man was in his forties and lived alone with his mother," says Lane. "He had this idea that he and my client were going to get married, which was fine until he actually started making wedding arrangements."

The parallels with the Madonna/ Hoskins case were too chilling to ignore. Lane decided there was a danger that the disappointment resulting from the inevitable failure of the "wedding" could lead the client to a physical confrontation, and so the decision to confront - for Lane always a last resort - was taken. Pretending to be employees close to the newsreader, they told the man they'd come to talk about the situation with the gifts and the letters. It was the forensic psychiatrist, versed in the art of dealing with delusional subjects, who took the lead.

"We basically told this person it wasn't going to work out," says Lane, "and that we'd make sure all the gifts got back to him." The man seemed to accept their version of the situation, but Lane left the premises with no illusions. "I had the feeling he'd find a way to rationalise what had happened and then get back to the business of writing inappropriate letters.

"The thing about people who do this," Lane explains, "is that they are compelled to do it. Appealing to them at a rational level, presenting them with possible consequences, for example, only pushes them to find another way to satisfy the demands of their compulsion." Similarly, obtaining a restraining order or threatening criminal prosecution, simply opens up the possibility of satisfying their deepest desire: to enter the celebrity's life.

That doesn't mean nothing can be done. For one thing, the client can change behaviour that might be considered provocative or inherently risky - such as having a house in heavily populated Venice Beach, as does Julia Roberts for example, or going jogging in the park every day. Alarms and decent deadbolts are another good idea, as are "panic rooms". Having your mail and phonecalls filtered also takes the edge off being stalked. With the phone, it's a simple question of having calls rerouted to an answering machine in your personal-protector's office where the evidence of inappropriate communication can be allowed to accumulate without anyone getting upset.

As far as the stalker goes, what can be constructively done has more to do with assessment of risk and containment than confrontation. It's the reason the word "management" is at the heart of the personal-protection lexicon. Lane says that he has clients whose stalkers he has been monitoring and managing for years. "We read the letters, we monitor the movements. They're not going to stop, but as long as the behaviour doesn't impinge on our client, that's OK." Whether it's a question of making relatives aware of a sick individual's behaviour, of making sure they get their medication, or simply knowing where they are at any given moment, and finally, as a last resort, confronting the individual, the stalker is managed rather than "shut down". And the basis of good management is understanding.

"You have to know what you are dealing with," says Lane, who, despite his law-enforcement background, claims considerable expertise in the psychopathology of stalking based on the thousands of cases he's reviewed over the years.

Dennis Bridwell, who heads up Galahad Protective Services, is another non-specialist who claims something like a specialist's understanding. A soldier by training, his promotional literature emphasises hands-on experience in forensic psycholinguistic assessment, abnormal psychology, criminal psychopathology, behavioural assessment, criminal profiling and psychopathy, stalking and stalking behaviour. Not bad for a soldier.

To be fair, Galahad also employs a trained forensic psychiatrist, Tammy Schroppel, who headed up a number of research projects while in academia dealing with abnormal and forensic psychology, criminal profiling, psychopathology and abnormal attachment behaviours. In fact, most of the more serious players, have a psychiatrist either in-house, or available for consultation. Even Robert Mann, with his in-your-face approach to stalker deterrence, puts emphasis on the importance of his relationship with Dr Park Dietz, generally considered to be the leading figure in the field of stalking- related psychopathology.

Of course, no one needs to be an expert forensic psychiatrist to see that the awards season gives rise to some particularly threatening circumstances. The siren call of the event promoters, film production companies and publicists is a stimulant to everyone, including predatory or obsessive fans. "There's no doubt the Academy Awards, and events like it, bring certain kinds of individuals out of the woodwork," says Lane. Combine the effect of high- pressure publicity with the physical proximity to members of the general public that the Oscars invites, and you have the personal-protection professional's worst nightmare.

Not that the organisers of the Academy Awards are unprepared for the kinds of things that could go wrong. "We take our responsibilities extremely seriously," says Academy spokesman John Pavlik, "and do everything to ensure the security and comfort of our celebrity guests." This includes drawing on the muscle of Los Angeles Police Department, which will be stationing a Swat team nearby. FBI agents will also be present during the red-carpet ceremony along with approximately 700 private bodyguards. Colour-coded access cards, personal ID numbers and the ubiquitous metal detectors of last year's event will no doubt all be part of the mix.

Michael Eubanks, John Lane's partner responsible for event-security planning at the Omega Group, is happy that the ceremony after-parties will also be pretty much watertight. Security in those places will be handled by private firms and not by the Academy. "Once you are inside the Elton John party or Vanity Fair party, security is such that exposure of our clients is minimalised," he says. That doesn't mean he won't have personally checked out all the venues first. "We don't always know where our client might want to go after the ceremony, so a week ahead of time, we check out every after-party venue, and on the night commit the appropriate personnel to several of them."

What worries Eubanks more is the red-carpet phase in which the celebrities are completely exposed to the public sitting in the stands erected outside. "Getting out of the car and on to the red carpet, and then moving on into the venue is where we have to be at our most alert," he explains. "That's where the press, the paparazzi and sometimes the public have direct physical access to our clients." In the past, walking in front of the stands was even more harrowing because fans were able to camp out for days, a la Wimbledon, to secure one of the 500 seats, and who but a lunatic would be ready to do that? This year they will have to send an application (last year there were 4,000) and hope to be chosen, then hope that they pass a security background check.

And the Oscar for best video surveillance goes to...

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