Sitting in a restaurant courtyard in the pretty commuter town of Hertford, Jacquie Davis and Helen Cliffe look like a pair of elegantly dressed, lunching ladies. You’d imagine they were out to enjoy a bit of sunshine before perhaps going for a manicure and picking up the children from school. The reality, however, is very different.
‘We’re worked off our feet at the moment so it’s lovely to have a day off to stock up on cat food,’ says Davis, a smiling woman in a smart white blouse. ‘Between April and November is our busiest time of year, what we call “the season”, when all the rich Arab families come over. Luckily we have a lot of private clients at the moment. What I hate is when you get a member of the royal family. It’s the same thing every year: you have to be vetted by a guy from the Saudi embassy saying, “Oh, my God, you are a woman!” At which point you have to throw one of his blokes on the floor and stamp on his windpipe to prove you can do the job.’
Davis and Cliffe are bodyguards. Over the years they have protected a huge variety of clients, from the Saudi royal family, to Benazir Bhutto, to Liza Minnelli, to J K Rowling. Both aged 48, they are doyennes in an overwhelmingly male field. There are estimated to be about 2,000 bodyguards in Britain, of whom only about 30 are women.
Yet demand is growing all the time. Prince William and Kate Middleton have been seen with a female bodyguard, and study any photograph of a rock star leaving a restaurant, or an oligarch arriving at his football stadium, and the neatly dressed woman in the background you assume is a secretary or mistress is, in fact, far more likely to have a black belt in karate and be scanning the crowds for potential assassins.
Earlier this year the role of the female bodyguard was highlighted when Anna Loginova, a 29-year-old Russian who protected billionaire clients in Moscow, was killed when her own vehicle was carjacked. Loginova had just posed for a men’s magazine in a bikini to demonstrate her belief that a girl ‘should be a girl, not a Terminator’.
‘The stereotype of a bodyguard as a huge man in a suit, wearing an earpiece and dark glasses, is totally inaccurate these days,’ says Laura Webb, a 34-year-old who looks like Meg Ryan’s younger sister, but who, in fact, runs an agency, Global Protection, that specialises in female bodyguards. ‘Most male and female bodyguards have the same skills, but what a female has – which more and more clients require – is an ability to blend in. If you’re working with children, for example, a female can take them to the park or pick them up from school and no one’s sure if she’s the nanny or the mother, whereas a man – however fantastic he may be – will always stand out. We can sit in a restaurant and look as if we belong there, or go shopping with a client. People think we’re a friend, not a heavy. It’s much more discreet.’
Then there is the question of propriety. Arab clients, for example, are often unhappy with the idea of another man being in such proximity to their wives or daughters. Tales of clients who have become unusually close to their bodyguards are legion – Princesses Stephanie of Monaco had relationships with her minder, and Diana, Princess of Wales was rumoured to be inappropriately close to one of hers, Barry Mannakee. ‘Obviously a husband doesn’t have to worry about his wife getting too close to a female bodyguard,’ Webb says.
Few women, of course, will have the traditional bodyguard’s build. Yet, according to Webb, this is unimportant. ‘Bodyguarding is far more about brain than brawn. Most of the job is about assessing risks and minimising them. Much of my time is spent on the computer planning how to keep my clients safe, looking into their travel arrangements, understanding the politics of a country we might be visiting, pinpointing where any threat might be coming from.’
Until recently ‘the Circuit’, as the bodyguarding world calls itself, was an insular industry where virtually everybody was ex-Army or ex-police. But the field has been ostensibly more open since 2003, when the Government set up the Security Industry Authority, which licenses bodyguards who have passed an exam and completed a course, offered by dozens of security firms, in surveillance, firearms drill and defensive and evasive driving (for example, spinning a car 180 degrees to block a suspect vehicle when travelling in convoy).
While not denying the importance of these skills, old hands are sceptical about the value of a bodyguarding ‘certificate’. ‘It’s great that the industry is a bit more open now but a paper CV, however good, counts for nothing,’ confirms Webb, who started her career working in venue security. ‘This job’s always been about word-of-mouth recommendations.’
Nor is bodyguarding a career to embark on straight out of school. ‘You need to be at least 25, because the biggest thing about our job is being a diplomat,’ Davis says, inhaling on one of many Mayfair cigarettes (‘That’s the bodyguard’s diet: nicotine and caffeine’). ‘You have to have learnt how to deal with people and, at 21, you’re too scared to be pushy. I have bullshitted my way into, out of and around so many situations.’
Most candidates are attracted to bodyguarding by the money, with day rates starting at about £300, and rising to as much as £1,000 for the highly experienced. There can also be a huge amount of glamour. ‘Not in a James Bond sort of way,’ Cliffe warns. ‘But we do spend our lives flying all over the world first class and we stay with our clients in five-star hotels and accompany them to fabulous restaurants.’
Yet often the work is decidedly tedious. ‘I laugh when I see a young bodyguard all excited because he’s off to Dubai for the first time,’ Davis says. ‘I wonder if he’ll be so excited when he’s had 100 arguments with the immigration department and paid all the money [for bringing in their own alcohol]. After a while, every city looks the same.’
Then there’s the danger. During her 28 years on the Circuit, Davis has been stabbed in the leg, thrown through a shop window and shot at by Kashmiri snipers. ‘Ultimately, you have to be prepared to take a bullet, especially in this country where you’re not allowed to carry a hand gun,’ she says. ‘I’m nearly 50 and I am shocked that I’m still alive. I was shocked at 30 and I was shocked at 40. I keep saying it’s time to wind down, but I miss doing my job too much. I need the adrenalin.’
What happens in countries where it is legal to carry firearms? ‘Depending on the level of threat, we’ll carry a gun if we’re allowed to do so,’ says Davis. ‘Local contacts can provide us with firearms as and when necessary. Some countries allow a gun on a plane if you’re escorting a politician, some don’t. It all depends.’
Davis’s career began in the Metropolitan Police but, to earn more cash, she began moonlighting, protecting Saudi families in her spare time. In 1980 she took up bodyguarding full-time. Since then she has worked all over the world, mainly with Arab clients but increasingly with Russians and Chinese.
Understandably, she is reluctant to divulge too many details but it’s impossible for her to hide all her irritations. ‘It’s very frustrating working with people who have no understanding of the value of money, who think they can buy anything. There was one 10-year-old Middle Eastern princess I had to take round London. She asked: “Can you go and get me a kitten, a puppy, a baby to play with, and a tiger?” I said I couldn’t get a baby and all hell broke loose. So someone else found one for her. I think she picked it up once. She never got the tiger.’
There have also been several household names. ‘But I’m not really keen on celebrities because so many of them refuse to listen to you. They employ you for your expertise but then they won’t hear it. We turned down Britney Spears recently and then I switched on the TV and saw her in Leicester Square with some man mountain who left her to have a go at a photographer, leaving her unprotected. It was all wrong, but then she wouldn’t have done as she was told with us. That’s why I loved Jo [J K] Rowling. She did what she was told. That’s where it went wrong for Benazir Bhutto. The only person who died in that car was her and that’s because she stuck her head through the sunroof, which her team would have told her not to do. But she was an obstinate cow. I know that from personal experience.’
Cliffe, originally from Manchester, has a military background but has been bodyguarding for nearly 20 years, often in tandem with Davis, including four years on and off protecting the aforementioned Rowling, mainly in America. Of the pair, Davis is the more charming and articulate, while Cliffe is more reserved and intimidating. ‘Occasionally, I have been called the pitbull,’ Cliffe says. ‘And they label the pair of us the two middle-aged witches. Everyone thinks we’re a lesbian married couple but we’re not gay.’
‘There are lesbians on the Circuit but we just don’t happen to be that way,’ Davis adds. ‘Yet everyone assumes it, just like they assume you’ll look like a Russian shotputter.’
Davis had one early disastrous marriage and was unable to have children after a hysterectomy at 23 for ovarian cysts. Cliffe is the single mother of a 10-year-old, Michael. How does she reconcile motherhood with her long absences and unpredictable schedule?
‘A bit of juggling,’ she says. ‘I’m not your typical earth mother or your – what-you-may-call-it – yummy mummy; I don’t do all that. Michael has to fit in with my routine. He doesn’t know anything else. He didn’t like Harry Potter because it took his mummy away. But he got over it. Eventually.’ Friends and family help with babysitting. ‘It’s far more stressful than being shot at, sorting out the childcare.’
Laura Webb agrees that bodyguarding is about the most ‘female unfriendly’ profession imaginable. ‘You have to have the ability to go anywhere at the last minute, to live life on fast-forward, and it really is quite difficult to maintain a family.’ She and her husband, also a bodyguard, have made the decision not to have children. ‘We’ve decided this is what we prefer to do.
She adds that her marriage works because her husband appreciates the demands of her career. ‘He understands that even if I’m exhausted and have been working an 18-hour day seven days a week for months I still can’t go home until the client says so.’
Cliffe and Davis have succeeded largely thanks to the support they have given each other. ‘I look after Michael sometimes, and if I’m away for weeks Helen feeds my cat and waters my garden for me,’ Davis says. They live just a few doors away from each other in a smart part of Hertford. Since their arrival the local Neighbourhood Watch has become somewhat redundant. ‘There were a few problems with teenagers walking around,’ Davis says. ‘We went out and told them their future. And now there are no problems,’ Cliffe says grimly.
She’s interrupted by her phone ringing. After a long conversation she hangs up, looking satisfied. ‘That was the beautician. I went for a facial yesterday and came out in a terrible rash. But they can’t do enough to put it right.’ I bet they can’t. Because fun as Cliffe can be, you really wouldn’t like her when she was angry. Which, I imagine, is what makes her an excellent bodyguard.
jacquiedavis.com ; Global Protection Group, 0870 486 8580