Being a bodyguard is a job for the eagle-eyed and patient

Most people's idea of a bodyguard is the 17-stone beefcake in a dark suit and shades pictured hovering over the likes of Madonna. But the reality is far removed from the stereotype.

It's more about brains than brawn, says Chris Hoare, who has worked in the industry for 10 years and owns the security company Cerberus Protection. "My job is to think ahead and prevent bad situations arising in the first place," he explains.

The work of a close-protection officer, as it's now more often called, can involve accompanying Arab royalty or celebrities on shopping trips, ensuring the safety of defendants in high-profile court cases, or attending corporate AGMs to protect the top brass from disgruntled shareholders or green protesters. Experienced bodyguards can also find more dangerous but lucrative work abroad – Hoare spent two years in Iraq looking after ammunition-disposal teams and escorting convoys.

He enjoys the responsibility that comes with the job, as well as the occasional perk. "You sometimes get to go skiing or on a yacht with a client, or eat out in an upmarket restaurant, although you'll usually be sitting at a separate table near the door," he says. But there are downsides, too. "It's not a glamorous job," he warns. "It can be boring as you spend a lot of time hanging around waiting for the client to go out."

The hours can be irregular and jobs can extend into the small hours. "You need to have a very understanding partner," he says. But it's generally a lot less risky than it's made to seem in the movies, and, in Britain, the chances that you'll be required to hurl yourself into the path of a bullet are remote, although you do get the occasional high-risk client. "You have to ask why you're being hired," says Hoare. "You make a threat assessment of every job and then decide whether you want to take it."

So, what qualities make a good close-protection officer, apart from the obvious things like being eagle-eyed, calm under pressure, and able to think on your feet? "Discretion is important," says Hoare. "You need to know when you should be seen and not heard. You also need to be sensitive to different cultures and their customs."

Although close protection is still male dominated, opportunities for women are increasing. The many Middle Eastern clients in London often prefer female bodyguards to accompany their wives and families, and it can be easier for women to work with children, says Cheryl Lewis, who has been a close-protection officer for three years. A woman can often blend in and keep a low profile more easily, and her presence can sometimes help to defuse a situation. "I love it," she says, "but it's hard work and, as a woman, you often have to prove yourself tenfold."

Close protection is a popular second career for those leaving the military or police, although it's not necessary to have this sort of background. Lewis decided to train as a bodyguard after 14 years of working in the security industry covering events, festivals and football matches. She believes it is vital for prospective bodyguards to gain experience in general security work before undertaking close- protection training.

There are a growing number of companies running courses, and you need to do your research to find the one that's right for you. Training with a well-established company with a good reputation will help you gain a foothold in the industry.

It can take a while to get yourself established, and networking is important, says Hoare. "A CV doesn't count for much in this industry. It's about who you know. You need to speak to those on the circuit, make phone call after phone call, and keep badgering people."

You will also need to mix close-protection jobs with other security jobs, particularly when starting out. Pay in the UK starts at around £120 a day, rising to £300 for experienced bodyguards working abroad or with high-profile clients. For Lewis, the challenge and variety is the biggest buzz. "One day you can be doing reconnaissance in a hotel, the next you can be on a private jet," she says.

To work as a close-protection officer you must hold a Security Industry Authority licence. This involves a training course of a minimum of 150 hours, followed by an exam. A list of training providers can be found on the SIA website, Courses start at around £1,500, although a course at a highly regarded school can cost as much as £4,500.