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Hollywood's New Favorite Cars Are Armored and Electrified

Celebrities from Steven Seagal to Kanye West are rolling in the latest status ride: Luxury vehicles that can take a bullet -- or shock a paparazzo.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Publicist Ronni Chasen was waiting at a red light in Beverly Hills in 2010 when she was shot five times through the car's closed passenger window and killed. Christopher Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, was leaving a party in L.A. when a gunman sprayed the door of the rap star's Suburban with 9 mm bullets, striking Wallace four times and killing him.

The combination of guns, death and the particular vulnerability that a car on a public street presents to stars who are under siege from paparazzi and stalkers hits close to home for many in L.A.'s celebrity culture, where spending lavishly on personal security is a seldom-discussed necessity.

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According to Aaron Cohen, director of IMS Security in Hollywood, whose clients have included Katy Perry, Kate Moss and Charlie Sheen, the cost to secure the home of a tabloid-exposed family like that of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie can top $1 million a year. So it's inevitable that celebrities -- as well as Hollywood's high-net-worth agents, studio executives and producers -- would extend their security periphery to include the possession that serves as a mobile status-signifier in this car-obsessed city.

Enter the armored vehicle. The trend got rolling in L.A. in the aftermath of the 1992 riots, when navigating the jittery city in military-derived SUVs like the Mercedes G-500 suddenly seemed prudent. (Arnold Schwarzenegger was a famous early adopter.) Now, heavily armored vehicles designed to withstand large-caliber ordinance are turning up at valets around town.

At the extreme end of the spectrum is the Prombron Iron Diamond armored vehicle from Latvia's Dartz Motorz Co. (Dartz manufactured Sacha Baron Cohen's gold-plated presidential SUV featured in The Dictator.) According to car news website Jalopnik, Kanye West recently ordered two Iron Diamonds, for $1.2 million each. New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith was spotted in Manhattan's Meatpacking District parking a $450,000 Gurkha F5 armored truck -- the same brute driven by Dwayne Johnson in Fast Five.

Mercedes, BMW and Bentley quietly manufacture armored versions of their cars. The BMW 7 Series High Security can withstand armor-piercing bullets and is outfitted with run-flat tires and a sealed ventilation system in case of attack by chemical weapons.

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The cars aren't sold in the U.S., leaving plenty of business for companies like Texas Armoring Corp. in San Antonio, which has custom-built bulletproof rides for Steven Seagal and rap star T.I. and for a referral-only L.A. company co-owned by America's Got Talent judge Melanie Brown and husband Stephen Belafonte that rents armored cars. Texas Armoring strips a vehicle to the frame and installs countermeasures like electrified door handles that deliver nonlethal shocks to carjackers and overzealous paparazzi. The finished cars take two to three months to convert at a cost of as much as $100,000 and are virtually indistinguishable from unarmored vehicles.

Texas Armoring executive vp Jason Forston says the company has seen demand in the U.S. soar the past five years. "A large part of it is celebrities, pro athletes and rock stars," Forston says. "You even have a lot of Hollywood executives, studio heads, people not in the spotlight." Forston credits the "climate of fear right now -- the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots" -- for the surge in sales.

IMS Security's Cohen is not quite convinced of the need for driving an armored Range Rover to dinner at Soho House: "I've been in the risk-management business for 10 years, and I can tell you statistically, with the exception of a few cases, I don't think there's a need for it. In my opinion, it's overkill."

On the other hand, says Robert Siciliano, a New York-based security expert: "A bullet costs about 25 cents. It will go through a nonarmored vehicle pretty efficiently. What's your life worth?" West earned about $20 million last year, according to Forbes. In that context, says Siciliano, "to spend three quarters of a million dollars on an armored vehicle isn't that outrageous. I bet Biggie Smalls' mom wishes he had."