A Courtroom Artist Gives Us a Rare View of the Real Kardashians

Sketch artist Mona Shafer Edwards has drawn stars like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. Now, she's covering the Kardashians' and Blac Chyna's legal battle.

A Courtroom Artist Gives Us a Rare View of the Real Kardashians
Illustration:Mona Shafer Edwards

Two major celebrity courtroom sagas are playing out in the news at the moment, but for those of us who aren’t following from the jury booth, access to the proceedings couldn’t be more different. Johnny Depp’s defamation suit against his ex-wife Amber Heard, who has accused him of domestic violence, is playing out in front of the Court TV cameras, available to stream live by anyone who has access to the internet. In the other case, Blac Chyna’s $100 million lawsuit against the Kardashian family, the public has seen the drama play out through the drawings of illustrators—people like veteran courtroom sketch artist Mona Shafer Edwards.

Chyna has accused the family of defamation, and of orchestrating the cancellation of her Keeping Up with the Kardashians spin off, Rob & Chyna, which halted production after she and her ex, Rob Kardashian, broke up in 2016. Edwards’s illustrations offer a window into the high-profile case, and while the KarJenner family may have some of the most well-known faces in the world, their fame may actually make them harder to draw. To some online, Edward’s illustration of the court proceedings on Monday didn’t look exactly like the Kardashians as we’ve seen them on TV—but the artist says that comes with the territory of drawing famous faces.

“The biggest problem when you draw someone who is incredibly recognizable is that there is a very fine line between drawing what they look like, and drawing people’s perception of what they look like,” the artist told Jezebel. Celebrities like the Kardashians can now tightly control their image, up to and including hiring private paparazzi, but courtroom artists like Edwards still create depictions that A-listers have no editorial influence over. “​​What one sees in reality is very different from what one sees online,” Edwards said, “When a photograph has been filtered, photoshopped, and whatever.”

Courtroom illustrations can also differ each day, depending on the artist’s view. On Monday, she was seated in “Siberia,” seven rows behind Jenner and her daughters, which made for more challenging work. On Tuesday, “I was able to move and I got a much better view,” Edwards said.

Edwards says she’s been criticized in the past when a drawing hasn’t matched the glamorous photos we’re used to seeing of big-name stars. When Gwyneth Paltrow went to court against an accused stalker, Edwards depicted the actress as she appeared before the judge that day: no make-up, hair not professionally styled, nose red from crying. “I was torn because I didn’t know whether to draw her as people see her when they see a beautiful picture of her, or to draw her as I saw her in court,” she said. “And I opted for, well, reality, and I drew the way I saw her. So, I got a lot of flack for that. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, you know what? I’m sorry, but I can only see what I see. I just don’t make stuff up.’”

If you’re surprised that courtroom artist is still a viable job description in 2022, Edwards is too. She worked the OJ Simpson case, and felt certain that the moment-to-moment televised coverage spelled the end of the age of the court illustrator. “‘That was it,’” she thought at the time. “‘The judges are going to love the camera. It was a great run, and see you later.”

However, the Court TV sideshow never completely took over the judicial system. Cameras still generally aren’t allowed in federal courts, and whether or not to permit them can be left to judges’ discretion in other jurisdictions. Rather than the work becoming obsolete, Edwards said that—Covid shutdown aside— she’s worked more in the last decade than she had in years prior.

If, like me, you were reared on the courtroom illustrations of New York journalism, Edwards’ style might look a bit different than you’re used to. On the East Coast, artists often work on dark-colored paper, using heavy pastels. “I hate that. I mean, no offense, but you know, we’re about the light,” Edwards says of the comparatively airy Los Angeles style. She works in ink and marker, drawing on an unobtrusive nine-by-twelve inch pad. Ideally, her subjects don’t even realize that she’s drawing them. “What’s interesting about courtroom work is that it doesn’t disturb the process,” she said. “They’re not on the spot, thinking about where to look with the camera. It’s much more natural.”

Edwards began her art career in fashion illustration, and her drawings of high-glam celebrity women have a particular flair. In addition to the Kardashians, whom, Edwards notes, wore roomy suits during their latest court appearances—“There’s this new trend, as if a girl is wearing a giant man’s suit, it’s a very weird kind of thing”—she’s also drawn stars like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears during their 2000s reign at the pinnacle of tabloid culture. In 2010, an illustration Edwards created of Lohan being handcuffed while wearing a towering pair of Louboutins was syndicated internationally.

Seen above is her depiction of Courtney Love during a 2004 court appearance on drug charges. It’s another memorable drawing, one that crackles with an energy that feels very true to Love’s personality. “She was funny,” Edwards said of the rocker. “She was like raising her hand in court to speak to the judge like she was in school or something. She was totally without filter.”

Edwards has also worked on cases as grim and tragic as those of serial killers like Richard Ramirez and Lonnie Franklin. Comparatively, celebrity cases like the Kardashians v. Blac Chyna are “all fun.”

“It’s all silly. I understand that it’s serious business, but it just pales when you compare things to terrible situations that belong in a courtroom,” Edwards said. “The celebrity stuff is what people want because it takes them out of the every day. It’s a distraction.”

“But I think for most jurors, for most people watching,” she added, “It’s really hard to conjure up a lot of sympathy when you’ve got multi-, multimillionaires suing other multi-, multimillionaires for millions and millions.”

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