Less threatening than men and more able to blend in, female bodyguards are increasingly in demand among discerning celebrities. Nadine Bateman takes a look at an exciting career opportunity for those with a sense of adventure and good aim. A slender, attractive woman steps out of a limousine and walks towards the lobby of The Peninsula hotel. She's well dressed and well groomed, wearing the latest designer fashion and sporting a sleek, expensive hairstyle. She could be a model, an actress or a singer. Accompanied as she is by a group of burly security guards, it would be a reasonable assumption for onlookers to make. But Gloria (who asked that her real name not be used) is not a star and she's not being protected - she's one of those providing the muscle. The 36-year-old martial arts expert is a female minder, or bodyguard. Highly trained in personal protection, she's hired to take care of visiting royalty, celebrities, dignitaries and wealthy business people. When superstars such as Kylie Minogue come to town, Gloria knows how to look after them. 'I can take a man down if I have to,' she says matter-of-factly. 'It happened about a month ago. I was confronted by a male while I was accompanying a client and I asked him to back down and walk away. But he wouldn't go and so I was forced to make a move. I used a defence technique I picked up during training. Luckily, he was embarrassed by that and he just sloped off. 'But that's a rarity. It's not a situation I expect to find myself in because we're trained to plan ahead, think quickly and avoid confrontation.' Female bodyguards are not a new phenomenon. Britain's Prince William has one, so did former British prime minister Tony Blair and the crack Korean BlueBird women's bodyguard team has a reputation for fanatical dedication to the job. Then there's the all-women unit employed by Muammar Gaddafi. A decade ago, one of them sacrificed her life when she threw herself on top of the Libyan leader as his car was being strafed. Briton Jacquie Davis is a veteran of the industry. For 29 years, the former police officer has travelled the world providing security for a variety of clients including celebrities such as Liza Minnelli and J.K. Rowling as well as members of the monarchy and politicians. Recent assignments have included protecting a mainland family visiting Europe and America. 'The family requested a female close-protection officer [CPO] because they wanted to keep a low profile,' says Davis. 'They hadn't brought their own staff, so I supplied four officers. We were required to protect the wife and husband while he attended meetings in Los Angeles, London and Zurich. Quite a lot of our clients want women CPOs for religious and cultural reasons. They do not deem it acceptable for men to protect the females in their families.' Davis doesn't underplay the potential risks in her job. She's been the recipient of violence too many times to be complacent. 'Of course, it's dangerous. I've been stabbed, thrown through a window and shot at. I constantly wonder how I've survived so long. I keep saying I'll retire next year, when I'm 50, but I enjoy it. I like the adrenalin buzz it gives me.' It's difficult to imagine that a bodyguard working in Hong Kong, with its reputation as one of the safest places in the world, would be expected to lay her life on the line. 'I do what I have to do,' says Gloria. 'I have weapons training and a gun licence in the [United] States but not in Hong Kong, because I wouldn't be allowed and because I don't really think it's necessary here. 'I wouldn't take a bullet for anybody and I wouldn't go to Afghanistan or Iraq. I don't take unnecessary risks. I try to work with the interloper, rather than against him. Usually, I do not try to stop him because that's what he's expecting. I find the quickest way to diffuse a situation is to be polite and calm - and then get the hell out.' American-born Gloria has lived in Hong Kong for about 15 years and has been practising martial arts since she was a child. In her 20s she moved to California to work in the wardrobe departments of television shows, which led to some stunt work and then to a job as personal assistant to an Oscar-winning Hollywood actress. 'I can't say who she is because I signed a confidentiality agreement which is binding and lifelong but I worked for her for six years during the late 1980s and early 90s,' says Gloria. 'I quickly discovered that being a bodyguard is a lot like being a babysitter. As security to the stars you never do just one job. It can involve being a driver, cook, secretary and therapist. Language skills are often expected.' Australian Kim Maree Penn is a minder to Hollywood's great and glamorous. Blond, attractive and fit, Penn is a former karate world champion who worked in Hong Kong for 13 years. While here, she starred in a number of martial arts films alongside the likes of Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng - and took a course with the International Bodyguard Association. Penn now runs her own security firm in Los Angeles, where her impressive client list includes Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Rihanna, the Rolling Stones and actress Mischa Barton. 'I've looked after them on stage, at press conferences, while out shopping, dining, shooting videos, travelling - pretty much every situation. 'I'm passionate about being a close protection officer. I take it very seriously. The security industry is always changing and it's crucial to keep up with the latest technology. These days, there are things such as a gun that looks like a cell phone. It's important to refresh your training throughout the year.' Penn relies on her martial arts skills to be a bodyguard. 'I use pressure points/nerve clusters and joint manipulation as opposed to relying on muscular strength. It's all about knowing the body's weaknesses and exploiting them if you have to. '[However,] that's just one of the skills you need as a close protection officer. When managing a threat, we work on three principles: avoid, escape and confront. We prefer to avoid the situation and not get physical - it's a last resort if we need to disarm or restrain.' Penn then reels off a list of industry acronyms, which, she says, all bodyguards should be familiar with: 'Our training consists of CQB (close-quarter battle), tactical firearms, IED (improvised explosive devices), protective driving, paramedicine and ECS (electronic counter-surveillance). 'I like the work as it's different every day. You live life on fast forward: one day I'm in LA on the red carpet at an awards show, the next I'm in Las Vegas for a concert. I meet a lot of interesting people on the circuit and sleep well knowing my clients trust me to repeatedly ensure their safety.' Defiantly shrugging off the possibility of a backlash from her male counterparts, Penn vehemently believes women make better bodyguards than men. 'Female CPOs can blend in a lot easier than their male counterparts, especially on a low-profile detail - I look like the PR or assistant. We can also generally talk our way out of a situation without the threat of violence and without the ego I've seen in some of the men. 'When working with female clients I can go to the bathroom or locker room at the gym with them. I always clear the cubicles either side if there is a gap between the walls and floor - you never know. I'm professionally paranoid. Also, if I need to place my hands on a woman to stop her from getting close to the client, it's going to be less threatening to her than if I was a 300lb guy doing the same thing.' Penn's talking from recent experience. 'It happened at an awards show I did recently. I was with a client when a woman - a 'reality star' on a nasty, unappealing show - ran towards us with a camera in her hand. Firstly, she's not the type of person I want photographed with my client [CPOs are also expected to guard their client's image and reputation] and when she started making a scene with one of the male venue security guards, I went over and eased the situation by talking to her. I explained that my client had a very tight schedule and needed time to relax between appointments. She went away and my client was safely in her trailer none the wiser, image intact.' For Penn, part of the attraction is the 'high' she gets from the subterfuge and espionage. 'Sometimes, when the client's being tailed and chased by the paparazzi, there can be up to eight vehicles and it can get crazy because they'll run red lights, go straight through stop signs - they just don't seem to care. 'In a situation like that, the CPO who's driving will try to do it as evasively as possible. I also arrange decoys.' While Penn clearly thrives on the adrenalin, Gloria says her job is to avoid dramatic incidents. 'I'm no Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, or the character Angelina Jolie played in Wanted. I wish I was sometimes, that might be exciting. Sure, there's glamour and drama - you're working for really wealthy people who have an enviable lifestyle - but to be honest, the bulk of the work is quite mundane. You accompany the client on shopping trips and to the hair salon, massage therapist or manicurist and there's a lot of waiting around - sometimes for hours. That's where the challenge lies. Because it can be quite boring, you have to really focus your mind in order to stay alert. You've got to keep moving and stay vigilant.' Unlike the stereotypical 'man mountains', the former military men with bulging biceps who usually get hired to provide personal security, there's nothing physically intimidating about Gloria. Her body is taut and lithe but not bulky. She's got more than a little of the Madonna about her and looks very good for her age. She could easily pass herself off as Madge's younger sibling. 'That can work for me and against me,' she says. 'I can look as though I'm the client's girlfriend, friend or female relative, so a potential attacker won't think I'm a threat. My looks - I call them 'the packaging' - definitely help me to blend in better. For the same reason, I frequently change my hair colour. And people can find it disarming if you've got an attractive smile. That's my most effective weapon. 'Also, I've learned to run very fast - in heels.' Being attractive can be a disadvantage, however. 'Men sometimes try to hire me hoping I'll offer other services, if you know what I'm saying. I turned down a job this week because of that particular misunderstanding. 'He was a wealthy banker and contacted me through a friend of a friend. I knew something was wrong as soon as I arrived at the meeting place. He basically wanted a prostitute who could also double as a bodyguard. I was polite but firm. I told him that it wasn't my services he was in need of; that he had the wrong number.' And what do the male bodyguards think of her? 'They don't really voice their criticism when they see me turn up for a job. Sometimes the older ones can be a bit hostile because they have so much experience and they've faced some life-threatening situations. It's a male environment but I fulfil a different function and I don't pretend to be like them. We complement each other.' Gloria's security assignments in Hong Kong have included working for Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. 'I was part of a supplementary team that provided back-up for his personal security unit during the Beijing Olympics. It was basic surveillance and I followed orders from his team. They wanted a female because he has children and they felt too many big men might be intimidating.' In that respect her work can be sometimes, literally, babysitting. 'Well, yes. Because I'm a woman, I tend to get offered the jobs that involve looking after kids. They feel much more comfortable having me around them than a big, beefy man who's probably never had any experience with children and doesn't know how to engage with them. 'I'm also a mum, so I know what to look out for. I have first-hand experience of their behaviour and the sort of thing that might attract children or entice them to run off suddenly. I'm happy to do that kind of work. It's important and I do it well. If that's because I'm a woman, so be it. It doesn't detract from the fact that I'm good at my job.' Bruce McLaren, owner of Hong Kong-based security firm Signal8Security, agrees that women make excellent personal bodyguards. The Scottish-born former firefighter set up his own company 17 years ago, initially to provide security at rock and pop concerts. Security8 has taken care of supermodels and stars such as Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss and Jennifer Lopez. Recent clients have included Lionel Richie, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and US politician Al Gore. 'I employ three female staff. Clients request them because they can be unobtrusive in a way that a burly 6' 8' tall guy weighing 300lb can't,' says McLaren. 'Women are also good at the meet and greet side of security. There's a lot of that with celebrities. Recently, we went to Beijing for a Christian Dior event where we looked after a number of celebrities including Charlize Theron and Maggie Cheung [Ho-yee]. In that situation, a female bodyguard is an invaluable asset.' There are situations where McLaren would be reluctant to send in a woman, though. 'We also work with high-profile business people and we've been employed to do money drops in kidnappings. We did one in Shanghai which involved a businessman and half a million dollars. It needed someone who had experience in that area and I know of no woman who has. 'But that sort of assignment is rare. They're for the kind of bodyguards who are trained to kill. We're trained to live. If you do your job right - it doesn't matter if you're male or female - you shouldn't reach the stage when you get into physical combat with anybody. In many respects it is a lot like being a personal assistant but with an added dimension. 'Ideally, it's best for clients to hire a unit that's a combination of male and female personnel. It's not cheap but, then, neither is your life.' The money is a big draw for bodyguards. 'I once applied for a job as bodyguard to the mistress of a high-profile mainland businessman,' says Gloria. 'It was a very glamorous assignment with lots of travelling, a good salary and a generous expense allowance so you could buy the same designer clothes as those worn by the client. 'And if you're hired by a wealthy family - especially in the Arab states - you can be offered salaries in excess of US$200,000 a year, not including expenses. So you could save all that. If you were smart you could do that for about five or six years, invest wisely and retire or start up your own small business.' There are other perks, too. Female bodyguards are often regarded as status symbols, especially on the mainland. 'It's prestigious to have a female bodyguard - and to be one. It's the same sort of status English nannies used to enjoy,' says Gloria. And the flexibility of the work is appealing. 'I can be hired for a few hours to attend certain events such as charity balls or parties, or it might be for a few days - perhaps a weekend break somewhere,' says Gloria. 'I'm not in a relationship but I have a young daughter, so I do work which fits around her needs. This is not a full-time occupation for me, it's something I do in fairly short bursts and then take time out to be a mum.' How does she reconcile the decision to work in a potentially dangerous job with being a parent? It's a question that has her bristling with indignation: 'Look, men have been doing it for years. They work in all sorts of careers that involve risk to their lives on a daily basis and nobody questions their choice to marry and have children. 'I'm not worried about the danger aspect of the job [while I'm doing it] but I find it's necessary to keep a low profile. I don't tell anybody what I do for a living. I think it's safer that way - for me, for my family and for my clients.'