From Hollywood to Hamilton with celebrity secrets
He is a Hollywood heavyweight - the muscle behind the stars. Samoan-born bodyguard Tai Vaimaona talks about life with Mariah, Marlon, Britney and Enrique, and coming home to his New Zealand family.
Tai Vaimaona's handshake is firm and strong. A diamond-encrusted watch sits heavily on his wrist.
It seems oddly out of place in a modest Frankton villa.
"Take a seat," offers Vaimaona, 45, in a Californian drawl, folding his muscular body into a sofa. His strong, Samoan features relax into a smile.
Wife Alice, 33, sits nearby, her long wavy hair and pretty face make her a dead ringer for Beyonce or Jennifer Lopez.
The world of celebrities seems far from suburban Hamilton, but Vaimaona and his wife are intimately involved with life in the Hollywood hills.
Vaimaona is a bodyguard to the stars.
Vaimaona works for big names such as Mariah Carey, Jackie Collins and rapper Lil' Kim.
Other clients include bands Linkin Park, Korn, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and stars Nicole Kidman, Whitney Houston, Paris Hilton, Enrique Iglesias, and the late Marlon Brando.
The watch is worth $14,000, a gift from Korn drummer Dave Silveria, a client and a friend.
Vaimaona has just blown off one of the entertainment industry's biggest names.
"Britney Spears has called me up, wanting me to help her out, but I'm too busy."
He's home for a 10-day holiday, visiting Alice and son Tyler, 10, who is a student at Frankton Primary School. Alice is a Wintec business student and aspiring singer.
"I'd make millions of dollars if I wrote a book, I guarantee you," says Vaimaona, sipping a cup of tea.
He was with Mariah Carey right through her physical and emotional meltdown in 2002, and when she was stalked by her former boyfriend, Latin singer Luis Miguel.
"I had to stay up with her 20 hours a day," says Vaimaona, who has worked with Carey for seven years.
"She would come outside, with her glass of wine, and sit down and start talking. My job was to make her feel secure. It's not my job to judge."
Vaimaona was born in American Samoa into a strict Mormon family, but raised in Los Angeles from 11.
He spent time in the US Army and was a police officer in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for 18 years.
He worked in South-Central LA, in gang narcotics.
About 20 years ago, he began moonlighting as a bodyguard, for hip hop group Niggaz With Attitude (N.W.A.), and found the role rewarding.
"All the (police) officers wanted to work for celebrities," says Vaimaona.
"It was for the pay, but also because you could travel the world, and everything was paid for - your flights, your food, your accommodation. I've been all over Europe, Asia, South America, and the US, to every state, 1000 times."
There was a potential conflict of interest for off-duty police, turning a blind eye to clients' illegal activities.
The LAPD no longer allow officers to work as security or bodyguards.
"When I worked for Bone Thugs N Harmony, these guys would get so drunk before a show, and they'd want to drink or smoke up in the car," says Vaimaona.
He retired from the police and became a full-time bodyguard.
He estimates about 30 per cent of Hollywood bodyguards are former police, and "the other 70 per cent are guys in the right place at the right time".
For any bodyguard, "it's not your place" to tell clients how to behave. "It's the manager's job".
Also, knowing what information to keep discreetly under your hat is one of the unspoken rules of being a bodyguard.
"It is my job to keep them safe," says Vaimaona.
He's not interested in ratting out clients. And it's one of the reasons celebrities trust him - his loyalty.
"The day I move to New Zealand and retire, is the day I give it all up," he laughs.
The current custody case between Spears and Kevin Federline over their two young sons has seen her former bodyguard, Tony Barretto, testify in court this week, alleging he saw Spears use drugs.
Vaimaona frowns on Barretto's actions.
"(Snitching) is a no-no in the industry," he says, adding the bodyguard only worked with Spears for a month and barely knew her.
Vaimaona works two days a week for Jackie Collins, earning $60,000 a year, and freelances the other five days a week.
He is a trusted employee, advising her and comforting her when her beloved dog was sick.
Bodyguard work can involve long hours, with pay usually $US25-$US70 an hour, but as high as $US100 an hour for high-risk assignments.
He has two guns, a .45 calibre Glock and a 9 mm Baretta, and uses one or the other depending on the client.
"If it's a rapper like Ice T or 50 Cent, or any gangsters, then I have a .45," says Vaimaona.
"I refuse to do rappers though, it's too dangerous and libellous. If you pull a gun in a crowd you could lose your license (for carrying a concealed weapon) and $100 an hour isn't worth it."
The risk of death or injury in being a bodyguard for a hip hop artist seems quite high - Busta Rhymes' bodyguard was shot and killed last February, and bodyguards for 50 Cent, Snoop Dog, P Diddy and other rappers have been in altercations or trouble involving guns.
"I'm not taking a bullet for a client," says Vaimaona.
"If they want to get you, and kill you, they will kill you. It's our job to get them to the safest place, but could I take a bullet for them? No. For Jackie or Mariah, yes, because I know they would take care of my family and kids."
There have been some fun moments, with the celebrities, who consider him a friend.
"Lil' Kim and I went to the Beckhams' 'welcome to LA' party, thrown by Will Smith and Tom Cruise, and she was holding my hand as we went up the red carpet. Everyone wanted to know who her new boyfriend was."
Vaimaona says the most important quality for a bodyguard is patience.
This is followed by physical fitness - he works out six days a week. He says training and a background in martial arts is very valuable.
The third quality is communication, which is particularly important - at 1.78cm and 100kg, Vaimaona is solid, but no giant.
"You've got to be able to talk to people," says Vaimaona.
Things have changed in the 20 years he's been in the business.
"Paparazzi are more violent these days, and they know you can't get angry back," says Vaimaona.
"If you touch them, they will sue you for $10,000 or $20,000. But there are ways to talk to them, and I try and develop a good relationship with the paparazzi. It's all about communication."
He sometimes sweetens the mob with signatures from his celebrity clients, which helps develop rapport.
Vaimaona is a family man, and has four sons; Brandon, 24, John, 20, Joey, 17, and Tyler.
Alice, a New Zealand-born Cook Islander, felt it was important to bring their youngest son up in a country where he can learn about his Pacific Island heritage.
The couple met in Samoa when she was Miss Cook Islands New Zealand 1994-95. It was a whirlwind romance, which saw Vaimaona move to New Zealand briefly, where he proposed.
The former beauty queen has also worked in the Hollywood bodyguarding business, encouraged by her husband.
Her clients have ranged from rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers, to Arabian royal families. It's been a culture shock for the Kiwi.
"Money is no object to them, they can buy a Lamborghini and just leave it," says Alice.
"One time, they brought six jet skis and didn't want to use them anymore, they were bored, so they said 'just give the keys away'.
"I've been with a client at an exclusive Hollywood store, where you have to get buzzed in. Paris (Hilton) was downstairs but they didn't let her in. My client bought two dresses, vintage Chanel, one $40,000, one $50,000, like it was nothing."
Insiders to the celebrity world, bodyguards know the story before the gossip hits the magazines.
"We knew Jen (Aniston) and Brad (Pitt) were going to break up before it happened, and Britney and Justin (Timberlake)," says Alice.
When Jessica Simpson and husband Nick Lachey were breaking up, Vaimaona knew before the press because Simpson was seeing one of his clients. He was security for Maroon Five at the time.
"Adam (Levine, vocalist) rang saying someone special was coming up to the gate. It was Simpson, but he said, `don't tell anyone'. Two weeks later, Simpson broke up with Lachey."
Another time, his nephew was working as bodyguard for Lindsay Lohan, when she was hanging out with Paris Hilton.
"They were at the Palms Hotel (in Las Vegas), doing all kinds of crazy stuff, and he called me and said, 'do I have to go in there with them? They are doing all this illegal stuff'. And I said to him, `stand outside the door, don't listen or look, sing a song to yourself if you want, and think of the dollar bills'."
Being half a world away is a sweet thing for Vaimaona. He doesn't understand the All Blacks ( "why do they keep kicking it out for touch?") but is a fan of Kiwi beer, particularly Tui.
He is enjoying the quiet life, away from Hollywood. "I was driving down the main street here at 8pm last night and it was so quiet compared to LA," laughs Vaimaona.