As a child, Lauren Bell didn’t think there was anything unusual about her family. She figured everyone knew to constantly be aware of their surroundings, to never walk the streets after dark while wearing headphones, and to always keep their can of mace in their hand, rather than in their purse.
Only when she got to university did she realise that not all her peers had been drilled so relentlessly on how to spot and avoid potential violence. Then again, not every teenager was raised by a father who served four US Presidents as an agent of the Secret Service.
"Our neighbours literally thought my dad was a mob hitman," says Ms Bell, 34, who lives in Philadelphia, and runs an online boutique called Cardy Couture. "My [other] neighbours thought that my mom was lying that she had a husband, because he was never home... his life story is so crazy."
Earlier this year, Ms Bell went viral with a series of TikTok videos compiling "inspirational" quotes from her father over uplifting music. "Never turn your back towards the door," said one tip. Others included "headphones should never leave the house", "no one in Miami is your friend", and "order drinks that come in a bottle – they are harder to drug."
The videos were humorous, but in follow-up recordings Ms Bell recounted a time that she believes her dad’s advice saved her life, describing how a suspicious man followed her through a supermarket and tried to lure her into his car before bolting when she called for help. Ms Bell’s videos continue today, and have struck a chord for many users.
"Some of this knowledge is so logical, but if you’re not in security your brain is not trained this way," says Ms Bell, who spoke to The Independent this month about her upbringing and how her father has reacted to his online fame.
"I had a lot of moms on there who were like, ‘I tried telling my teenagers this but they don’t listen. If it comes from a viral TikTok, they take it into more consideration.’"
‘You know Liam Neeson in Taken? That was my dad’
Though Ms Bell will not disclose her father’s identity, she says that he worked for the Philadelphia Police Department before joining the Secret Service and protecting presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush Sr, sometimes while they were in office and sometimes after they had retired. He is now in his sixties.
"What’s that movie called? Taken. That was him," says Ms Bell, referring to Liam Neeson’s hit 2008 performance as a retired special forces soldier who searches for his teenage daughter after she is kidnapped on holiday. "When that came out, I was like ‘Dad! It’s you!’ He was like, ‘yeah, but you would never have been going anywhere [like that] when you were frigging 17 years old."
This led to a "very strict" upbringing, out of line with the prevailing culture of the Nineties and Noughties. Where other parents might accept their teenagers’ word about where they were going, Ms Bell’s dad would call to verify it or even drive past friends’ houses to check her car was there.
Sleepovers were firmly forbidden until she was about 14 ("I don’t know those parents. I don’t know their siblings. I don’t know the uncles," he would say), and an 11pm curfew stayed in place until she was 21.
"It all came from a place of love," Ms Bell says. "As a teenager I absolutely hated it because I thought that I was missing out... I was not happy that my friends got to stay out to all hours of the night."
When the family went to restaurants, he would insist on sitting facing the door and constantly be listening to the conversations nearby. Once, he even drove her and her brother to a decrepit district outside Philadelphia that was riven by heroin addiction, warning them that if they did drugs, this could be where they end up living.
At college Ms Bell was shocked that her friends seemed "completely unaware of their surroundings", exhibiting behaviours that she thought were "just not safe". Her roommate was confident in her can of mace but kept it buried at the bottom of her purse, inaccessible in a crisis.
"No one’s gonna stop and wait for you to take it out," says Ms Bell. "That’s when I realised that that kind of information just wasn’t common knowledge... people were not aware of where they were."
‘I had to explain to him what TikTok is’
In March 2021, Ms Bell saw a trend going around TikTok of quotes from people's parents dressed up as "inspirational" quotes, which often circulate online in misattributed or fictional form in front of generic clip art backgrounds.
Ms Bell wanted to be funny, but also genuinely believed that people needed to know what her dad had taught her. Her first video got about 640,000 views, and subsequent clips racked up around 3.8m.
"I was so surprised, honestly," Ms Bell says. "I did not think it was going to blow up in the fashion that it did at all. Which brought me some peace knowing that maybe this information is going to help somebody. Obviously, I hope it does."
One of the tips that provoked the most discussion was "men don't ask for help" – meaning, women should be suspicious of unknown men who do. Ms Bell says: "That was eye opening for a lot of people. It doesn't mean they don't need help, but they usually don't ask women for help. If they really need help, they ask other men."
Ms Bell's father was even more surprised. "I had to explain to him what TikTok is; he kept calling it Tic Tac," she recalls. "You know, he's an old school kind of guy, he just wants a flip phone [and] has a Facebook account he barely uses. He was like, 'there's a million views on that? Really? I cannot believe that; that is crazy."
Since then, though, he has been collaborating with her on videos, giving new pieces of advice such as always knowing where every exit is when you enter a building (in a disaster, most people will try to cram through the same way they came in), or never searching for a lost child in silence ("who cares if people think you're crazy?").
‘If I told you, I’d have to kill you’
These days, Ms Bell is glad for the way she was raised. As the mother of a two-year-old son, she feels a protective instinct as strong as any bodyguard’s and plans to raise him to be cautious. She says her husband agrees, even though he grew up with far more lassitude.
She does acknowledge that it's hard to follow her advice in modern society, where obliviousness is only ever a smartphone icon away. "It's hard sometimes. You get distracted... Oh my gosh, if I told [my dad] that I was walking the streets in Philly looking at my phone, he would have a heart attack." And has she done that? "Of course I have! During daylight."
She does not think everyone needs to follow her dad's rules all the time; it depends on your circumstances and where you live. Still, she says the advice has helped her multiple times, including two years ago at a pharmacy where a man followed her around the store and then followed her car with his until she took refuge in a car wash.
She still makes sure to park next to a shopping cart stand when she buys groceries, just to minimise the time it takes for her to put her cart away. Her child is always dressed in bright colours when in public, and always on the driver's side in the back of her car.
Despite his starring role in her videos, there are still things Ms Bell's dad refuses to tell her about his time in the Secret Service. "The hard questions that I've asked him my whole life, he absolutely will not answer to this day," she laughs. "I would say 90 per cent of his information is completely off-limits to me.
"I ask him, like, 'oh, was this president ever attacked before?' He's like, 'if I told you, I'd have to kill you, and you're my child, so I'm not going to do that. That's above your pay grade.' I'm 34 years old, and I've got nothing."
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies