March 2010

Looks Can Kill

Kim-Maree Penn

Kim-Maree Penn is lovely, but her winning smile isn’t the only thing that will knock you out by ANNIE JACOBSEN / photograph by ERIC RAY DAVIDSON / styling by ILARIA URBINATI

In Hong Kong, they call Kim-Maree Penn Gum Mar Lei—the Golden Leader. With looks that could kill and a lethal kick she wouldn’t hesitate to use if necessary, Penn understands celebrity from a personal perspective. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, she became one of the most sought after Western action heroines in all of Asia. Cast in a series of films with titles like Ultimate Revenge and Fist of Fury, Penn worked with great action stars Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

“My fight scenes were almost always in high heels, leather or denim suits. Once I fought in a wedding dress,” she says. Gradually it became obvious her roles were predictably the same. “Evil CIA agent, evil FBI agent, hooker or girlfriend, my character was almost always killed off. I was strangled with barbed wire, thrown down a river, shot, beaten, had my throat slit.”

Eventually, the acting roles died down, and Penn found herself working as a “door bitch”—or bouncer—at a disco called Club Manhattan in Hong Kong. Always an entrepreneur, she needed greater challenges. Standing at a door watching party people left Penn with the sense that there were better opportunities out there.

Kim-Maree Penn was born in Sydney, Australia, and grew up pretty, blond and athletic. Her parents saw her future in ballet. After her neighborhood experienced a spike in crime, including the murder of a local nurse, Penn’s father enrolled her in a Shotokan class. “Which is how I caught the karate bug,” she says.

Soon, she was winning tournaments. By 17, she had a black belt. Then came an invitation from the World Karate Championships in Japan. “During the tournament, one of my teammates broke her arm, so I said, ‘I’ll fight twice!’” Her performance during those two fights won her Most Outstanding Competitor in 1987. “It was a feat never accomplished in Australian karate history or by an Australian citizen before.” Her parents wanted her to settle down and finish her studies in biomedical science. Instead, she went to Hong Kong and became a kung-fu-film star. For several years, it was thrilling...then when she worked the door of Club Manhattan in late 1991, suddenly not so much.

A few months later, Penn learned a Planet Hollywood was opening in Hong Kong. American megastars—Sylvester Stallone, Don Johnson and Bruce Willis—would be arriving and would need help to keep the fans at bay. “I saw the situation as an opportunity...I knew people in the bodyguard business. After 30 films in Asia, I could speak Cantonese. And being Australian, I understood the Western mindset. I was hired to coordinate security at that event, and that’s when I said, ‘I can make a business out of this.’”

Penn established a security firm in Hong Kong that catered to Westerners. “Offering protection to visiting dignitaries, VIPs, celebrities—people like that,” she says. “We also provided security at local concerts and other events.” That bright idea blossomed into Signal 8 Security, a name derived from the Chinese rating system for tropical cyclones. “A signal-8 typhoon is one below the top.”

Business took off. The company has since protected dozens of international celebrities visiting Asia, from the Rolling Stones and the Black-Eyed Peas to John McEnroe and Mariah Carey. When Penn was nominated to be the national director of the International Bodyguard Association for all of Hong Kong and China, her global profile expanded. It was time to open an office in the heartland of celebrity protection: L.A.

“In Los Angeles, a lot of my work is, say, how to get someone to the county courthouse without being seen.” For that, and without giving away trade secrets, Penn does things like talk directly with the bureaucrats at city hall to find out what works best for them. “If the goal really is privacy and security, which for me it is,” she explains, “you’d be amazed at the help you can get if you just ask nicely in advance.” Her point: It never helps being at odds with people all the time.

“Being female in a world made up mostly of large, usually muscular men” perhaps works to her advantage. Being a former actress gives her an extra edge here as well. The happily married Penn says, “When I advance a location for a client, I’ll approach the staff and tell them what kind of privacy I’m looking for when getting in and out. I’ve posed as the girlfriend, the secretary, the nanny. It’s a part I can play, and I do it well because it serves the clients’ needs.”

While she plied her trade in L.A.—taking a paparazzi-magnet songstress “on a quiet shopping trip to Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills” and guarding Tony Blair in 2008 while he was in America—her partners in Asia took care of business in that corner of the world. Then in early 2008, there was one case in Hong Kong that she needed to handle personally.

In late 2007, 28-year-old megastar Edison Chen was the Justin Timberlake of China— the most popular singer in the world. He made records, designed clothing and starred in films. In late autumn, he sent his laptop to a shop in Hong Kong for repairs. When one of the techies discovered explicit sex photos of Chen and some of China’s most famous starlets on his hard drive, the techie brazenly posted more than 1,000 shots online.

It was a major scandal and naturally made its way to the American celebrity and gossip magazines. When the conservative Chinese government sought assistance from Interpol, desperate to quash the spread of images—which had turned into an unwanted reflection of how “democratic” China had become—the story shifted from sensational to newsworthy. But what didn’t make the news was that several of the young starlets having sex with Mr. Chen were also the girlfriends of members of China’s powerful Triad, or Asian mafia. Wanting to make a point—don’t touch our property—the Triad put a $5 million bounty on each of Mr. Chen’s hands. Subtext: Let’s see Mr. Chen try and hold a microphone now.

Chen announced he was taking a break from singing “indefinitely.” Behind the scenes he had good reason to fear for his life. A single bullet with his name on it arrived at a Hong Kong cable-television station, with a note warning him to stay out of the limelight or else. He needed to get out of China—fast. But everywhere Chen went, he was mobbed. (Google reported his name was the number one most searched name in China. A government-run poll placed him as runner-up to Barack Obama in Hong Kong’s Person of the Year 2008.)

Newsreel footage taken during the height of the scandal, shows Chen trying to leave an underground parking garage surrounded by dozens of blueshirted police officers holding hands in an effort to keep crazed fans and paparazzi at bay. What was a besieged starto do? Call the lovely—and crafty—Kim-Maree Penn.

From her Hollywood Hills home, with a gorgeous view of the Chateau Marmont spire rising up from the palm trees behind her, Penn explains, “I was hired to get Mr. Chen out of China” without him being dismembered or killed. “It was challenging,” she adds in a lilting Australian accent. Chen’s great escape involved “several different trunks of several different cars,” as Penn moved him around Hong Kong like a magician working a shell game. “It was a lot of defensive driving and finally getting him onto a private plane.” With millions of Chinese following Chen’s daily whereabouts, ferreting him out of China was an accomplishment despite considerable odds. “We succeeded in getting him to an undisclosed location in America,” where he lived in hiding for over a year.

How does she compare ensuring a peaceful shopping experience for a celeb to guarding heads of state like Bill Clinton (in Asia) and Blair? “Protection is protection,” Penn says. “Its about safety and security and privacy. For a client, this is all one and the same.”

Regardless of her assignments, Penn keeps up with a regimen of serious bodyguard training. She also holds an exposed-weapons permit and frequents a shooting range in Burbank called the Firing-Line to keep her weapons skills sharp. “If I’m in Thailand or Vancouver, say, I’ll enroll in tactical training classes there to stay current. I know I’m not as physically strong [as some men], so my strength has been to learn weaknesses in the human body. I look for areas not padded by muscles, nerve clusters, places where I can manipulate a joint.” Then there are the current assassin’s gadgets everyone at Signal 8 needs to be aware of: “A gun designed to look like a cell phone—that kind of thing.”

Handling death threats against dignitaries as well as celebrities is part of the job, which is why Penn and her staff spend time studying the work of assassins. “We review assassination tapes,” she says. For as grim as it may sound, there is much to be learned, Penn says, in examining how John Hinckley Jr. got close enough to President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to fire six shots. “From watching tapes, you learn to scan a crowd, see who is behaving how. Who is too close, who is smiling strangely, whose hands you can’t see.”

She also studies cases where the assassins managed to succeed, as it was with the female suicide bomber who killed former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 while he was on the campaign trail. “I tell all my clients to shake hands like the Queen, use just four fingers and never give anybody a thumb, which they can grab on to and not let go.” With the Gandhi assassin, “the bomber was allowed to get too close for too long.” The assassin knelt down to bow before Ghandi, then detonated 700 grams of explosives hidden in her dress.

“Again, at the end of the day, protection is protection,” says Penn. Threats change. Sometimes the threat is a camera. Other times it is a gun. “When guarding any client, it’s always about keeping them secure and safe. People must trust me, believe I have only their security in mind. In Chinese, my star sign is the dog. That’s the symbol for loyalty and trust.”

And trust her they do. While Penn asks that we keep the majority of her long list of clients anonymous, her personal collection of photographs makes crystal clear that Hollywood’s equivalents of the paparazzi hounded Chen have complete confidence in her.