Driven by the Fear Factor
Everyone wants to be a star, until they discover it can be scary at the top. Gavin de Becker, a charismatic, controversial private-security specialist, wanted success and recognition as much as any American dreamer. But he quickly learned about the dark side of public life--the constant scrutiny, the dangers posed by wacko fans. Now 48, he has been a celebrity assistant, presidential advisor, expert witness, author, entrepreneur and script consultant. He’s worked for and been befriended by some of the most celebrated people in the world.
Like George Harrison. The former Beatle came to Los Angeles to die late last year. De Becker wanted his friend to have privacy and safety, and if shielding Harrison would upset some people, De Becker’s attitude was, so be it. He’d made enemies before. After Harrison died, De Becker’s strategy backfired, and he found himself embroiled in a big public mess.
Harrison’s death capped a busy season for the consultant. He never sought to profit from the tragedy of Sept. 11. Yet understanding fear is his metier and, suddenly, the whole country was jittery. So in the weeks following the terrorist attacks, he constantly answered his phone, even at 3 a.m., whenever a celebrity or a corporate client felt the need to talk about biological or chemical warfare.
“I frequently get calls from people who are afraid or concerned about something,” he says. “But after Sept. 11, I spoke to more people who were afraid than in any other time in my life. They were asking me questions that God could answer much better than I could. ‘What city do you think will be hit next?’ ‘If we do travel, where is it safe to stay?’ I came to the conclusion that the only place not to be was in the imagination, because that’s where all the really dangerous stuff was going on.”
De Becker’s response to the public’s panic was to write a book, “Fear Less: Real Truth About Risk, Safety and Security in a Time of Terrorism” (Little, Brown, $19.95). His first book, “The Gift of Fear,” (Little, Brown, 1997) had reached No. 4 on the New York Times’ bestseller list, revealing the depth of public interest in demystifying and predicting violence. His follow-up, “Protecting the Gift,” (Dial Press, 1999) was a guide to keeping children and teenagers safe. The latest work explains that terrorism isn’t something completely new in America and that this country would be better off if its citizens soberly examined potential threats, rather than automatically buying into the kind of speculation and mass hysteria fomented by De Becker’s nemesis, television news. The author’s share of profits from “Fear Less” will go to Victory over Violence, a Pacific Palisades-based charity that provides support to families affected by violence.
Fear, to De Becker, is more than a catchy word to put in a book title. It is the foundation of the Los Angeles-based business he has built over the last 25 years. A pioneer in the still-developing field of threat assessment, he analyzes fear, categorizes it, heeds or discounts it.
“Fear Less” is a balm for psyches frazzled by current events. He debunks a number of worst-case scenarios terrorism has inspired, from mass death from anthrax to nuclear attack. (“A nuclear device used by terrorists would be low-yield; it would not, contrary to our worst imaginings, level whole cities.”) He believes that when the unknown is studied, it can be better understood and controlled. Information is power. He who has it has the ability to instill fear, or minimize risk.
What would be considered a routine risk minimization procedure in De Becker’s world led to a brouhaha after Harrison’s death. The singer, who was not a client, didn’t own a home in Los Angeles. He knew his condition was terminal and needed a place where his friends could come to say goodbye. De Becker rented a house in Coldwater Canyon for the Harrisons to use. Everyone who visited was given a nonexistent address on Coldwater, where they were met and escorted to the house.
When Harrison died, the funeral home was given the same non-address for picking up the body and listed it on the death certificate. When it was revealed that the death certificate included a fictitious address, a chorus of questions and accusations arose. Was someone deliberately trying to falsify information on a legal document? Why did Harrison die at a house rented to De Becker? Gloria Allred filed a complaint about the discrepancy. Conspiracy theories fed the gossip machine. The investigation that followed was, De Becker says, “a silly waste of taxpayer money.”
He believes the public doesn’t have the right to know everything about celebrities. “Most people have no idea the kinds of challenges high-profile people face,” De Becker says. “They have the same hierarchy of risk as anyone when it comes to home accidents, disease, car crashes. What most of us don’t have that they do is constant pursuit by alarming strangers. Famous people experience stalking, fear, threat, intimidation, unwanted pursuit with extraordinary frequency, and most of the public doesn’t have a remote connection to what living with that is like.”
It makes sense that De Becker would apply some of his expertise to protecting his own privacy. In order to visit his office, a reporter and photographer are driven in a customized black Suburban with windows so thick they look like they could stop a bullet. The driver wears a suit right out of “Men in Black.” The office address is kept secret for the clients’ sake, he says, so confidential files at the headquarters of Gavin de Becker and Associates won’t be vulnerable.
Inside a nondescript warehouse in the San Fernando Valley, De Becker strides in wearing a midnight-blue pinstriped Armani suit. His voice is resonant, his manner upbeat. He’s just returned from doing some television interviews about “Fear Less” and hasn’t had time to wash off his TV makeup. He excuses himself to take an urgent call in his inner office, encouraging his visitors to help themselves to soft drinks and snacks. The walls are covered with photographs of the security expert with former presidents and movie stars and certificates of commendation from law-enforcement groups. His hospitality is unusually gracious. Perhaps his mother was a wonderful hostess, one might think.
Hardly. She was a heroin addict who lived on welfare in Los Angeles, who shot (but didn’t kill) her third husband in front of her three children. At 39, she committed suicide. De Becker was 16. Self-educated and self-made, he credits his painful childhood with forcing him to summon survival skills beyond the ken of most teenagers. As a boy, he had only sporadic contact with his father, a gymnast and dancer who traveled a great deal, and he was beaten by his mother, he recalls, “with everything in the house” as a weapon. He believes his history made his career possible. “When I was just starting out, a lot of my clients were women in peril,” he says. “I lose my mother at 16, and then I find myself dealing with madness and craziness. Dealing with pain. Surprise, surprise. All my career, people told me I really have compassion. I had more than that. I had empathy because I knew the experience of victimization and fear. I understood it.”
When De Becker was still in school, his grandfather rented an apartment in Beverly Hills to give the family an address in that city’s school district. At Beverly Hills High, De Becker was one of the poor kids. He was friendly with the children of Rosemary Clooney and Jose Ferrer and was a constant presence at their house. After De Becker’s mother died, Clooney invited him to move in.
Shaun Cassidy, a friend for 30 years, says, “Gavin was basically running Rosemary Clooney’s house.” He made himself useful. Just old enough to get a driver’s license, he became Clooney’s de facto road manager when she went on tour.
His next job was as a personal assistant to Jeanne Martin, Dean Martin’s ex-wife. That led to a position with Elizabeth Taylor. Just into his 20s, De Becker traveled with Taylor and Richard Burton during their tumultuous second marriage. He helped them elude the paparazzi and paid attention to mail they received from weird fans. He saw why people with public lives need someone to handle logistics and the press--to create a zone of privacy and safety. While De Becker was envisioning a consulting company that would provide services for public figures, his job suited the emotional needs of the abused child who was different from most of his classmates.
“When I was a kid, I looked at families on television and thought that was real life, and my life wasn’t real. I thought everyone on TV looked happy, and I wanted to be in their lives. That life was cleaner. I thought wealth was cleaner. I became, in effect, the guard at the door,” he says. “You couldn’t exclude me. I was the guy who was excluding people.”
Taylor and Burton were show-biz royalty in their prime and were received like heads of state throughout the world. “What I could do was fake it,” he says. “My whole approach was to never act surprised. The first time I was on a private jet, I acted as if I’d been on one just two weeks before. I had moxie.”
He also had an easy charm and a sense of humor. Today, he says, most of his close friends are comedians and comic writers, wits like Carrie Fisher, Bruce Wagner and Ed Begley Jr. They’re his audience as often as he is theirs. “He’s the funniest civilian I know,” says Harry Shearer. “He’s very bright and disciplined, and he’d probably be good at whatever he wanted to do. But if you do what he does for a living, having a light side would be a necessity.”
After Taylor and Burton’s marriage ended, De Becker came back to L.A. and began getting referrals. When De Becker was 23, he handled security for Cassidy, who had become a teen idol. “Back then, the usual security you could hire were just bouncers,” Cassidy says. “Gavin turned that whole business around and invented it, really. He ran a protective detail the way the Secret Service would operate.”
Three years later, he was meeting with the Secret Service, sharing information about stalkers who targeted entertainment, corporate and political leaders. In 1980, De Becker, a Democrat, was made director of a special services group responsible for the safety of public figures who attended Ronald Reagan’s inaugural. President Reagan then appointed him to a 21-member presidential advisory board of the Department of Justice, and he contributed to a federal research project on mentally ill people who stalk public figures.
Gavin de Becker and Associates, founded in 1978, employs 77 people and offers protective security, threat assessment and management, as well as training and educational materials. The majority of his clients are corporations, government agencies and schools. He won’t name clients, but his work for Theresa Saldana, Madonna, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael J. Fox, Barbra Streisand and John Travolta has been reported, particularly when stalking cases have been prosecuted. Faye Wattleton, the head of Planned Parenthood and target of violent anti-abortionists, turned to him. After Camille and Bill Cosby’s son was murdered in 1997, they hired him to assess threats they received. Some of the firm’s less grisly tasks involve helping celebrities plan weddings and other family occasions so that they won’t be disturbed by uninvited fans or the press.
The company has assembled an archive of more than 400,000 letters sent by disturbed, angry and possibly dangerous people to his clients. In addition to threat letters that can run 100 pages long when a star becomes the object of a fan’s obsession, everything from body parts to dead animals, hair, skin, fake bombs, razor blades, caustic chemicals, syringes full of blood or semen and engagement rings can become bids for attention.
The most controversial element of De Becker’s work has been his development of computer-assisted threat-assessment tools sold to law enforcement, state and federal agencies, schools and corporations. Academics and law enforcement professionals have questioned the data used in the programs and complain that De Becker won’t reveal it.
Law-enforcement officers and private security often have differing opinions about the best way to handle stalkers. The police believe in the effectiveness of restraining orders and confrontation. De Becker emphasizes the safety of the client over police intervention. “His reputation in the law-enforcement community is mixed,” says a deputy district attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In my opinion, sometimes he doesn’t get law enforcement involved in a case quickly enough.”
But even his detractors admit that professional jealousy motivates many who knock De Becker. He has homes in the San Fernando Valley, Lake Arrowhead and a retreat on a private island in Fiji. Never married, he’s popular with a loyal group of famous friends and goes out with glamorous women. Geena Davis is a former girlfriend and although he was a consultant on “The Bodyguard,” the Kevin Costner-Whitney Houston film that romanticized love in the private-security business, he says he never has, nor would, date a client.
He requires employees to sign nondisclosure agreements that protect the privacy of his clients and prevent his staff from talking about him, even after they’re no longer working for his company. A former employee who still works in the same field says, “He’s a love-him-or-hate-him guy, and I left after being with him a long time because I wasn’t in love. But I will give him this. Gavin made targeted violence and domestic violence media issues. If he hadn’t helped bring that to the public’s attention, we’d be years behind where we are now. The Department of Justice is giving research grants and we’re making progress because he helped educate people about it and he’s a terrific marketer.”
One of the ideas De Becker would most like to spread is that a troubled past isn’t a predictor of one’s future. He is close to many of the children who live in the Fijian villages near his home and has mentored others in L.A., through the UCLA School of Public Policy and Research’s mentoring program. “I love telling kids that you are not the architect of your childhood experience, and that you build your own life,” he says. “I wouldn’t want other people to have learned the way I have, but my experiences have affected everything, in good ways and bad.”
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