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Lindsay Lohan is led from court in handcuffs, giving a flash of red on her Louboutins, caught by the courtroom artist Mona Shafer Edwards.
Lindsay Lohan is led from court in handcuffs, giving a flash of red on her Louboutins, caught by the courtroom artist Mona Shafer Edwards.

Speed is key, says Lindsay Lohan court artist

The courtroom artist Mona Shafer Edwards talks about her career sketching celebrities in their time of trial.

As Lindsay Lohan continues to dance the jailbird hokey cokey - she's in, she's out - after failing court-ordered drug tests, it is the Christian Louboutin Madame Butterfly heels on which she was perched at the hearing that have grabbed the world's attention, thanks to an on-the-spot sketch by a courtroom artist. With Lohan taken into custody after being denied bail, those shoes have come to symbolise the actress's defiance, later being brought out of the courthouse in a plastic bag by Lohan's mother, Dina. Just hours later, Lohan was released again as a new ruling set bail at $300,000 (Dh1.1 million), which was quickly posted.

"What I think is hilarious is that no one is talking about the case," says Mona Shafer Edwards, the illustrator behind the pictures that, in the absence of cameras in the courtroom, showed the proceedings in Lohan's case. "That's what happens all the time whenever there is someone who is in fashion magazines or in the rags. This is more of the Case of the Louboutin Shoes than anything else." Edwards is in a position to know: you would find few people with as much authority on the potent combination of crime, fashion and celebrity. Trained as a fashion artist, and from a film industry family, she has been a fixture in what is probably the world's most glamorous courthouse for the past 30 years or so, sitting in on cases from the OJ Simpson trial to the spate of starlet trials of recent years - Britney Spears, Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton and, of course, Lohan. She has even played a courtroom artist in a couple of films as well as in the long-running soap The Bold and the Beautiful.

It's a strange job, and one that has made Shafer a minor celebrity herself. She works as a freelance artist primarily for ABC news, but her sketches travel around the world in seconds as the gossip blogs and other news organisations pick them up, as the only visual records of trial from which cameras have been banned. So how did a fashion illustrator come to be sketching at the law courts in Los Angeles?

"The fashion background served me very well," she explains. "I worked for many manufacturers and department stores, and one day I was looking at TV news and I saw some drawings from the court and I said to my husband, 'Those are awful sketches!' So I called up a station and I asked them if I could show a portfolio. It was CBS, and they looked at my book and they said it was really beautiful work and I should stick to fashion - and that got me very angry. So I went to another station and asked them to give me one chance to prove myself, and it turned out that it just clicked, and that my speed and my knowledge of anatomy, and how I know movement and how I know clothes, and how clothes fit, and that just started it."

That speed is phenomenal. At the Lohan trial, which lasted around 10 minutes, she created five sketches, of which three were good enough for publication. Take the speed, add the news sense ("they know me well enough that if there's something I have a hunch about they'll let me go and cover it") and stir in that Hollywood background, and you have an expert at capturing the precise dramatic moment that will encapsulate a trial. In Lohan's case, it was the shoes.

"When she turned and was handcuffed and led out and I saw that red sole, and I put that red in there, I knew that was going to be the sketch of the day," says Edwards. "Just that little red. It was sort of like somebody turning on her heel and walking out and that's the last statement. I thought that was perfect. Almost like it was choreographed, but I'm sure they didn't think about that: she was just wearing shoes that would complement her outfit because there were lots of bows, and she had a black bow plastic barette in her hair, like a little girl, a little bad girl."

Those high-fashion moments grab the gossip magazines' attention, in turn pushing publicity-hungry celebrities on to more and more outrageous antics. Courtney Love, never one to shirk publicity, inspired one of Edwards's more flippant sketches. "She wore a skirt, and it was chiffon. She sort of flipped the dress up and flung one leg over another, and I drew this sketch where she's sort of arrogant and sitting there and I thought, oh, that's the sketch." It was indeed, and Edwards says that in recent years the place of the stylist has become more and more dominant in such cases.

"People now have these stylists, and they have the make-up and hair as if it's a red-carpet appearance. With Nicole Richie, when she came to the courthouse, her PR people had sent out a press releases to all of the TV stations saying what designer she was wearing. It was the first time I'd ever heard something so ridiculous: what she was wearing to go to court for a DUI [driving under the influence]! It just doesn't cease to amaze me how that's what people focus on."

But while the more media-savvy celebrities' looks and behaviour can be carefully choreographed, some of those snapshot moments have a darker tone. Take Edwards's sketches of the compelling OJ Simpson trial in 1994, the most famous of which shows Simpson holding up two fists. "It was a whole long day of testimony and I can do sketch after sketch after sketch. And you look for a moment of drama, and sometimes you have this 'aha!' moment. So he was talking about his playful times with Nicole [his wife, whose murder he denied], and he said they used to wrestle, like playfully wrestling, and then he held up his hands and they were closed fists. And I drew the fists and that was, I thought, the winning sketch for the day."

That's something of a responsibility: choosing a dramatic moment to report might make a great picture, but is it really fair to the defendant? Edwards explains that she works very hard to keep things objective. "I'm not there to pass judgement on anyone. I'm there just to be the historian of that day, and put down what I see. Sometimes, though, I get very upset or angry and I put in a colour like red, or whatever, if I'm angry. A red background or something like that. But I do think that I'm pretty objective - I'm almost like a fly on the wall. I don't want people to know that I'm there. That's why courtroom art is busier than ever, because the judges do see that people are affected when there is a camera in the courtroom."

Still, being under the scrutiny of an artist can hardly be comfortable for those in court, and some react better than others, including Lohan, for example. "She knew I was about three feet from her, and she kept turning and looking at her mother, and she was looking at me because I was looking at her. Sometimes people really don't want to be drawn - they'll hold papers in front of their faces or put their heads down. And sometimes it's very uncomfortable for me too, because they will scowl or look at me, and sometimes it's a little bit scary. When I was drawing this one serial murderer I was almost directly at the back of him, and he turned round and looked straight at me, and it just scared me. It was an awful feeling, just awful."

Not that she has that much time to worry about her subjects' feelings: when Edwards goes into a court it's straight to work. She usually gets the best seat - "The bailiffs, the sheriffs, everybody knows me, and people are very nice about letting me sit pretty much where I want" - and she works at high speed, with no preparation. "The minute my pen hits the paper it's got to be a finished drawing. The more time I have, the more difficult it is. The best is this high nervous energy, when I walk in and I know it's going to be fast, and my heart is racing and I'm kind of shaking. Then as soon as I take the pen and I draw it all goes away and I'm in a different mental zone and I just focus on what I have to do."

And the results are good enough to hang on a wall, if her response from some of the subjects is anything to go by. "Many times they buy my work," she says. "Dolly Parton had a big federal trial, and she came up to me in the ladies' room and she wanted to buy a drawing, and Anna Nicole Smith, who I really liked - I thought she was quite spectacular when she was her heaviest; I thought she was the most beautiful; she was like a huge doll - she came up to me, also in the ladies' room."

In fact, it turns out, it may not be the Dolly Partons and Paris Hiltons that are the vainest of them all. The male attorneys keep a close eye on Edwards's work to make sure she keeps it flattering - to them, at least. "They come up to me and they say, oh, can you please give me some more hair, please make me thinner, and the biggest people with that are the men. It's like they're ready for their walk-on part. Also they commission me to come in and draw them when they have these very big cases.

"It's almost like hiring a portrait artist. I come in, I sit there for a few hours, I do the sketches, and then they buy the illustrations and they frame them, so they can say, 'Oh, look, this courtroom artist did work of me.' Isn't that wild?" You get the feeling that Edwards is used to the wildness of Hollywood's bold and beautiful, as she names the legendary actors whom she has met through work or family.

"But these are people who I've met because my family's in the film business," she says. "So it was kind of a funny thing - you'd see them at a premiere and then two weeks later you'd be drawing them in court." Edwards pauses for a minute. "It's a weird thing how Hollywood and crime cross paths all the time," she says thoughtfully.

Mona Shafer Edwards's book, Captured! Inside the World of Celebrity Trials, published by Santa Monica Press, is available from www.amazon.com.

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