Karen Valby
October 06, 2006 AT 04:00 AM EDT

On the morning of the recent MTV Video Music Awards, Justin Timberlake’s head of security, Eric Burrows, or BIG E as he is better known, has his game face on. At Manhattan’s chic restaurant Pastis, he waves off offers of coffee and breakfast. He will shortly whisk Timberlake to Radio City Music Hall for rehearsal, hover stage left during his client’s performance later on that evening, guide him through an endless night of celebration, and then gear up for the weekend flight to London for a promotional tour. ”I’m working on fumes right now, darling,” he says genially.

BIG E, affable and elegant, his 6-foot-3, 320-pound hulk compressed into a tailor-made suit, has worked for entertainers like Celine Dion, R. Kelly, and the Backstreet Boys. A Montreal native, he went to college to be a high school teacher, but somehow stumbled instead into shielding celebrities from their daily dramas — paparazzi, cuckoo fans, the wicked works. ”I’ll tell you how I really got started in this business,” he says. ”My father was a strict disciplinarian. Like, mad strict. In a sense, he made me want to protect people. If you need protecting, call me. I’ll get it done.”

The eight men pictured in these pages come from a wild array of backgrounds. Jeff ”Stretch” Williams, who long watched over Diddy, was previously an NYPD cop for 8 years. Tadao, Wilmer Valderrama’s man, cut his teeth bouncing drunks from Samoan bars in Carson, Calif. The inappropriately named Big Shorty (who, at 6 feet 8 inches and 491 pounds, loomed largest) got a degree in criminology and was training to be a probation officer in Rockford, Ill., before he fell into the fame game on a trip to L.A. He worked for Tone-Loc and Death Row Records before doing time with Beyoncé. ”Girls are harder,” Big Shorty says, with a rumbling sigh. ”We can’t hang out. I don’t like to go get my hair done.”

There are a few things these men all have in common, though, the first being that they dislike being called bodyguards. ”It makes it sound like the job is more about bulk than brains,” says Mike Garner, a.k.a. Mikey G, who watches over L.A. actors visiting New York for a Broadway or Law & Order gig. ”This is cerebral work. For me, it’s 80 percent mental, and only 20 percent physical. If you’re good at what you do, it’s almost like playing chess. You want to be a few moves ahead of the crowd, the paparazzi. You’re thinking about how many exits there are, where the car is at, how am I going to get my client out of this situation safely.” ”A bodyguard is somebody’s brother or somebody they used to playfootball with,” seconds Stretch. ”Clubs have bodyguards. We’re professionals.” They consider themselves in the business of executive protection, and thus prefer the term personal security.

In terms of personality, these are unflappable men who can navigate chaos with a cool head. At a Manhattan bar, Stretch talked about his rough roots growing up in Harlem. ”I was not a good boy,” he admitted. ”I was running numbers when I was 8 years old, doing whatever I had to do to survive and put food in my stomach.” His street smarts served him well on the police force, and continue to inform his work today. ”If people just started shooting right now, I’d go into a relaxed calm. Everything would slow down and there would be no time to be scared.” ”Always look like you’re in control,” stressed Mikey G’s business partner, Carmine Lucariello, who worked with Ashlee Simpson while she rehearsed for her West End debut as Roxie Hart in Chicago. ”If you’re in a state of panic, then that’s a problem.”

They value discretion above all else. No whispered stories here about a client doing coke off a stripper’s back. ”I’ll cut my arm off before spilling secrets,” vows Stretch. Another no-no is blurring the lines of the professional relationship. So don’t bother bringing up the Kevin Costner movie. It’s a sore subject.

And while many of these fellows sport an impressive girth, they know to keep their fists in check. Diplomacy and restraint are musts, and the best rely on a form of verbal judo. ”Nobody wants to be in an altercation,” says Hassan Smith, who works for John Legend. ”But sometimes it gets to the point where, ‘Alright now, I can’t let that much disrespect stand.”’ Smith, a smooth giant swathed in Gucci and Ermenegildo Zegna, bears an impressive skull scar from his days working with Ja Rule at the height of his fame. They were in a Las Vegas club in 2002 when some jerk swiped a bottle of champagne from Ja Rule’s table. ”So I approached him like, ‘You’re being disrespectful now.’ But he’s popping, he’s not bowing down. So I punch him in his face, and I jump on him and I’m beating his ass.” The jerk’s buddy blindsided Smith with a bottle to the back of his head. ”They got the ass-whipping of their lives.”

All in a day’s work. And if you do it well, you can pull in a yearly salary upward of $200,000. But you will never know what it means to work 9 to 5, your cell phone will always be on, and your personal life constantly shoved aside whenever your client calls. ”In this world, it’s never about you,” says Big Shorty. ”It’s always about somebody else.” During his Los Angeles photo shoot, Big Shorty lumbers down the star-studded sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard. A tour bus full of sunburned camera clickers stops at a red light, and a fat man in a pink tank top peers suspiciously at Big Shorty. ”Hey, you ain’t nobody!” the tourist yells. Little does he know.

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