The Vigilant Illusionist
Anthony Burnside surveys the room, choosing his seat carefully and within sight of all exits. Despite his intimidating physical presence, he tries to make himself blend in among the other patrons. While they’re busy enjoying their entrees and reviewing wine lists, he watches them, looking for signs and taking mental notes of unusual behavior. His client sits a few tables away; she is waiting for her steak that will be prepared under surveillance in the kitchen, served by wait staff who have been hand-selected because they are deemed trustworthy. Burnside sits at the nearby table and waits. He watches. He wants the only news in the restaurant to be of the celebrity who dined on steak and quietly left through a door that's not the one she used to enter. For Burnside, an executive protection specialist, the perfect evening is an uneventful one.
An inquisitive child growing up in Colorado, Burnside was 4 years old when he decided on his first career. He was going to be a magician. It all started with a regular pen — a pen that someone made disappear before his 4-year-old eyes, opening a door to a world of possibility.
Burnside approached his study of magic with the determination, intrigue and commitment that he would later apply to all interests in his life. He developed skills that eventually let him perform for small groups and parties during high school. Eventually, however, he realized that, despite his love for the craft, his gift for illusion might not provide a viable career path. He became open to possibilities that provided an equally creative and unique use of his skills.
Burnside now sits beside me at a table in a Kansas City restaurant, an intimidating presence with a soft-spoken voice and infectious laugh. Burnside has called Kansas City "home" for most of the past four decades; he values his time here because work often takes him elsewhere.
Burnside is a bodyguard, a very good one. He smiles at the memories of his early years, his respect for the art of illusion and those who practice it written across his face. David Copperfield, David Blaine, Criss Angel — to most, these are famous illusionists. To Burnside, these are friends, their relationships built over the years and cherished for providing the opportunity for his love of magic to live on.
“We speak the same language,” Burnside says of illusionists. “Principles of magic go hand in hand with what I do. It’s all an illusion. The most dangerous people out there are not going to highlight who they are. I have to read body language to protect my clients.”
He explained that, by studying the art of illusion and how to change people’s perception, he can quickly identify others who are doing the same thing when they are in the presence of his clients. His skills place him one step ahead in their game and can effectively quash any threat. Being a bodyguard isn’t about size or physical intimidation.
“Our best weapon is the brain,” Burnside explains. “We think our way out.”
As Burnside eats his burger and drinks water (even in this social and off-duty environment, alcohol is not on his menu), the conversation takes an unexpected turn to literature and music. He feels strongly about both, but don’t expect him to be following the latest trends or en vogue artists.
Burnside reserves any free time to exploring artists and works that will challenge his mind and add something of quality to his life. He is intrigued by existentialist philosophy — an admirer of Kierkegaard’s writings — and quotes “no snowflake can cause an avalanche” when discussing the socio-psychological concept of diffusion of responsibility and its implication for society.
He is a huge fan of the musical group Alabama Shakes and can’t resist bringing up their music on his phone to introduce me to their unique vibe. An instant fan, I found the group’s soulful style reflective of Burnside’s own easygoing nature and appreciation for music that comes from the heart.
It’s difficult to listen to Burnside and imagine him as a 19-year-old with plans to run away with the circus. Without a thought as to what it meant or where it would take him, Burnside made plans to follow when it left Kansas City and had every intention of following through.
Describing it now, Burnside speaks as though all teenagers consider joining a caravan of high wire performers and animal acts at some point, an endearing glimpse into the mind of a man who was born with a bit of wanderlust. Driving to meet up with the circus before it left Kansas City, Burnside reconsidered and — both literally and figuratively — turned around to take a different road.
He pursued and landed acting jobs, and later he joined Johnson County Sheriff’s department. The fact that Burnside eventually found himself in high level security, protecting celebrities, politicians, and even an occasional fearful lawyer was perhaps a natural progression encouraged by his gypsy heart and adventurous soul.
It’s tempting to ask him details about celebrities that most people only read about. He makes his loyalty to those he protects clear, then reveals things he feels are within bound.
Burnside considers Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie among his friends (a fact highlighted by his reference to “Angie”), and his Facebook page greets you with a photo of Burnside standing next to Lionel Richie, Julian Lennon and Billy Bob Thornton. Burnside considers Kevin Costner and the late Steve Allen to be two of the nicest men he’s ever met.
There is another side to celebrity, however, a side that we don’t often see and Burnside can’t forget.
- He has been there. He was at the Beverly Hilton Hotel the night that Whitney Houston died. He was suddenly charged with controlling a chaos that was fueled by confusion, disbelief, and grief.
- He was there as news broke that Jesse James cheated on Sandra Bullock and remembers seeing her face. He remembers seeing her pain.
- He was there, in the aftermath of the Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston divorce, seeing firsthand that heartache is relentless and indiscriminate in its reach.
True, celebrities are a part of Burnside’s life, but their status as cultural spectacles means little to him. He sees them when they aren’t feeling well, battling colds and the flu, dealing with family troubles and struggling with life challenges that are no less harsh because of their zip codes. To say that Burnside sees the dark side of celebrity isn’t entirely accurate; he simply sees the human side.
Burnside remains, at all times, aware. He knows that the average assassination or attempt occurs within 25 feet or less and, in the United States, 87 percent of attackers are acting alone. He knows that 64 percent of attacks occur around vehicles and are successful 77 percent of the time.
Most importantly for his position, he can effectively analyze what went wrong, why it occurred, and how things need to be handled differently in the future.
Case in point: On March 22, 2012, Kim Kardashian was doused with flour as she walked the red carpet outside West Hollywood’s London Hotel. The event was covered extensively by media outlets; jokes were abundant and fingers were pointed amid questions about how such a thing could happen to someone considered, well, untouchable.
Burnside had been asked to work security at the event, but he declined and remained in Kansas City. Had he been there, Burnside is confident that the incident would have been avoided, or rather, prevented, because he never would have allowed the offender to gain such close access to his client. A few seconds, a few inches, and a few distracted moments can mean the difference between uneventful and newsworthy.
Flour is one thing; it’s a pain to get off clothes and may make you sneeze. The seconds stolen to humiliate a celebrity and make a very public statement could have been just as easily used to toss acid or some other vicious substance in Kardashian’s face.
For Burnside, those split seconds are simply unacceptable.
“These people want to feel important,” Burnside explains of attackers. “They’re not afraid to get caught.”
For example, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon five times and, after doing so, calmly began reading “Catcher in the Rye.” Because Burnside’s work requires quick thinking in unpredictable circumstances, he is not willing to jeopardize a client’s safety by failing to over-prepare.
“It’s better to ask for forgiveness, than permission,” he explains.
Burnside hopes to still be doing the things that he loves 10 years from now. Meeting new people, trying new things, and challenging himself to always walk through an open door has served him well; the most recent addition to his impressive resume includes published author.
Selected as a contributing writer to the "Life Choices" book series, Burnside writes of his unique journey and lessons learned along the way.
When asked if he has a life mantra, he responds without hesitation, “No fear.”
“I believe in performing random acts of kindness all the time. Not because I want some reward upstairs,” he says with a smile. “That would be selfish.”
He sits back in his seat.
“Because it’s the right thing to do.”
The Wrong Way to Do It
The concept of a bodyguard is one entrenched in history, although the role itself has changed significantly over the years.
Consider, for example, John Frederick Parker. Perhaps you’ve never heard the name, but his ineptitude as a bodyguard for President Lincoln on the night of his assassination in 1865 has earned him a notorious place in history. A policeman with a history of being drunk on duty, Parker had moved his seat from directly outside the President’s box to get a better view of the play that night and, at one point, left the theater altogether to grab a drink at the saloon next door.
Although the Secret Service was actually formed that same year, it was created to combat counterfeit currency and wasn’t assigned responsibility for protecting the president of the United States until 1902.