11 Secrets of Backup Dancers

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

What would "Thriller" have looked like without Michael Jackson's army of dancing zombies? What if Madonna had to preen and pose her way through "Vogue" alone? And how could the hype of Hammertime ever be conveyed without the high-kicking energy of those parachute pants-clad b-boys?

Backup dancers add depth and dimension to live performances and music videos, and though you might not always know their names, chances are you've practiced quite a few of their moves. But what is it really like to work in the industry? From the audition circuit to backing superstars on tour and in music videos, we got the answers for anyone who thinks they can dance.

1. THEY DON'T NEED FORMAL DANCE TRAINING, BUT THEY DO NEED TO CONSTANTLY BE LEARNING.

"I was late to the game," says Lori Sommer, a dancer who has worked with Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Eve, of her start in the dancing world. "I was a martial artist, and that discipline and training gave me the ability to pick up choreography." Sommer says she was out dancing with friends at a New York club in the mid-'90s when she was scouted and encouraged to audition to be a club dancer at the popular house music venue Sound Factory Bar. There she befriended resident DJ Louie Vega, house music legend Barbara Tucker, choreographers, and others who could help her get her name in with bookers. Based on those connections, she landed her first tour with Reel 2 Real (best known for their dance track "I Like to Move It"). "That club really opened the door for me, but dancers have to constantly take classes and learn new things," she tells Mental Floss. "There's always a new style or move that will help us improve our abilities."

Dancer Mark Romain, who also had no formal training beyond joining college dance teams but has built a career dancing with Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha, agrees. "You have to work your craft. Like going to the gym to maintain your strength, you have to work out your creative muscles and skills regularly," he told BuzzFeed in 2013. "There is a big difference between doing well in dance class and being able to perform on a stage; it's important to get performance experience. If you start late, that's okay, but train, train, train."

2. SOME WILL CHANGE THEIR LOOK TO BLEND IN BETTER.

Though backup dancers need to have enough personality and style to stand out at auditions, they often learn they can't draw too much attention away from the main performer or the theme of a shoot. When Sommer was working on Whitney Houston's 1999 video for "It's Not Right But It's Okay," she realized her blonde curls stood out too much for the video's dark set. "We were all dressed in these army fatigues, and once we started shooting, the director was like 'she's standing out,'" Sommer remembers. They pulled her hair back and tried again, but the director wanted it toned down even more. "They ended up putting hats on all of us to cover my hair, which is how we look in the final video. After that, a friend recommended I darken my hair, and I realized if I wanted to work more consistently, I needed to make that change to be more uniform. That was the last video I did as a blonde."

3. THEY LEARN HOW TO ADJUST TO AUDITIONS TO AVOID GETTING CUT.

Often, dancers will show up to auditions with only a vague idea of what the artist really needs. So they learn to read a room. Dancer Pam Chu, who has done everything from being a Radio City Rockette to Cirque du Soleil to touring with Demi Lovato, told Cosmopolitan that when she went to audition for Britney Spears's Las Vegas residency, she was apprehensive because she didn't know any of the people involved. So she psyched herself up and figured it out as the day went on. "From the way the choreographers were teaching, I knew they wanted people who had technique, style, and would dance full out—all the time," Chu says. "I knew not to sit down in the audition—ever. We were there for nine hours." After a round of callbacks, Chu got a contract.

4. THEY OFTEN HAVE TO MAKE LIFE-ALTERING DECISIONS ON THE ROAD.

Because their lives are often dictated by demanding tour schedules and opportunities that feel impossible to turn down, dancers regularly have to miss family events and other personal milestones. "I sacrificed a gig and a tour once because I didn't want to miss my goddaughter's birthday," Sommer recalls. "I'd missed her first birthday because I was in Europe, and I said I couldn't miss her second. It's hard because you put yourself at risk of being replaced."

And for others, an opportunity can change their whole trajectory. Ashley Everett, Beyonce's longtime dance captain, was just 17 when she made the cut for her first-ever tour. The timing seemed impeccable—The Beyonce Experience tour would wrap up the week before she was supposed to start classes at her dream school, Juilliard. But then, the tour was extended. "I had to make a decision," Everett told Refinery29. "Go after the lifelong dream that had been on my bucket list my entire life, or stick it out with a legend, with no idea of what would happen next. I took a leap of faith and stayed on the tour. Obviously, it paid off!"

5. IT'S NOT A PARTICULARLY LUCRATIVE CAREER.

Despite the jetsetting lifestyle and getting to work with superstars, most dancers are essentially independent contractors. That means booking gigs piecemeal, working long hours, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making roughly $14 an hour on average, or $34,000 a year.

"Yes, longer-term jobs like a tour or a TV show or a movie might keep us busy for months straight, but the reality of the situation is that eventually that job will end and we have to start back over—gigging or auditioning for something else," Everett wrote in a 2016 HuffPost piece. "I'll be in 12-hour rehearsals for two months straight, then on other days I'm left not knowing when my next job will come. It's the business. We always have to stay on our toes and stay grinding."

Sommer agrees. "It can be a struggle," she says. During their time between shoots or tours, dancers frequently have more steady side jobs. Sommer worked as a dancer-for-hire for entertainment companies, where she would go to bar mitzvahs or weddings along with the band or DJ and encourage guests to come out on the dance floor. Many others do projects as choreographers and teachers, and look for commercial work, which is usually short on hours but long on pay (think dancing in Gap, Target, or car commercials). "You gotta work when work is available," Sommer says. "There's a lot of eating on a budget, a lot of ramen noodles. But every dancer I know wouldn't change it for the world."

6. THEY HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO GO WITH THE FLOW.

While many artists are known to tweak routines between tour stops or switch up sets or transitions to keep things fresh, sometimes a dancer's hard work will get sidelined because the artist just isn't feeling it. That can be devastating, especially for major award shows like the Grammys or the VMAs, which are extremely sought-after roles with multiple auditions and rehearsals that can last for 10 hours a day.

Sommer recalled that at her first VMAs in 1999, she snagged a spot dancing for Jay-Z, who was also making his first VMA appearance with a medley of his recent hits like "Can I Get A…" and "Hard Knock Life." "My friend Ray [dancer and promoter Voodoo Ray] had choreographed this great piece, and it was a huge opportunity for him," Sommer says. "And on the day of the VMAs as we were rehearsing, all of a sudden Jay said he didn't want anyone dancing backup." Instead, he wanted his crew, which included DJ Clue, Amil, and 15 or so other friends, to hang on stage where the dancers were meant to be. The dozen backup dancers were moved to the side stages and were allowed to dance there, but it didn't have the same effect as the choreographed routine they were preparing for. "I mean, I got paid for my time," Sommer says. "But not to do what I'd practiced and really, really wanted to do."

7. THEY'LL SOMETIMES WEAR IN-EAR MONITORS ON STAGE.

It's common to see singers use earpieces during live shows in order to hear themselves or their band better. But dancers will often wear in-ear monitors as well, especially for large arena shows when the roar of the crowd can drown out any chance of staying in sync with the music. "It's an interesting experience … because we can't hear the audience," dancer David Shreibman told W Magazine about wearing "ears" while touring with Justin Bieber. "All you're hearing is Bieber's voice and the choreographer talking to us throughout the show. I took my ears out last night … and it was SO loud. When he goes into 'Baby,' it's crazy. I had to cover my ears."

8. TWO CAN SOMETIMES BE BETTER THAN ONE.

Sometimes having a built-in dance partner can help get dancers noticed and book gigs. French dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, already known in their home country as "Les Twins," made a splash in the States when they started working with Beyonce in 2011; they've since toured with her multiple times, appeared in numerous videos, and recently won Jennifer Lopez's new competition show, World of Dance. Mark and Donald Romain often appear together as dancers at awards shows and have been in videos like Britney Spears’s "Till the World Ends." And up-and-coming Korean twins Kwon Young Deuk and Kwon Young Don, who have backed Psy and other KPop acts, are getting plenty of fan attention and calls to upgrade them to "idols" in their industry.

But for Canadian sisters Jenny and Jayme Rae Dailey, who have done music videos, TV shows like Smash and X Factor, and movies like the Step Up franchise, sometimes working together just isn't in the cards. "For us, it's not really competing because we go in together as twins. We are a team when we audition," Jenny told the Montreal Gazette in 2013. "Our mentality is, 'If it's not both of us, it's none of us,' although it doesn't always work out that way."

9. EVEN WITHOUT A SIBLING, DANCERS CAN FEEL LIKE FAMILY.

For all of the stories of artists who date their backup dancers (Mariah Carey and Bryan Tanaka, Jennifer Lopez with Cris Judd and Casper Smart, Prince and Mayte Garcia, Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, etc.), those long hours rehearsing and traveling together can really cement a familial bond. "I became very close to those who danced with me, but even closer with [those] who danced on tour with me," Janet Jackson told an audience in October 2017 before she brought out a number of those dancers to perform "Rhythm Nation," a staple at her shows since the song and its iconic video took the world by storm in 1989. One those dancers who returned was Jenna Dewan-Tatum, who got her big break touring with Jackson in 2001-02.

"Janet asked her 'kids' to come back and perform rhythm nation at the Hollywood Bowl," Dewan-Tatum posted on Instagram. "I dreamt of dancing with her since I was a kid and literally pinched myself every night of the All for You tour. And here I am pinching myself again last night. She created a legacy for her dancers and she personally began my career! It all begins with Jan. Thank you for this my love!!!"

(Another person who worked as a backup dancer for Janet before making it big on her own? Jennifer Lopez, who was in the 1993 video for "That's the Way Love Goes.")

10. FOR DECADES, DANCERS HAD NO UNION OR HEALTH CARE ASSURANCES.

The lack of health coverage and union benefits for dancers was widespread until very recently. Dancers Alliance, a group working to negotiate equitable rates, healthcare options, and ensure dancer safety, launched campaigns in 2011 to get contracts for work on music videos and in 2013 to unionize tours. "I believe dancers who have trained themselves to a professional level should be treated—and compensated—as professionals," Dancers Alliance board member Dana Wilson told Dance Magazine in 2015. The group had worked out a contract with SAG-AFTRA for music video shoots in 2011, but Wilson, who was dancing with Justin Timberlake at the time, pushed for a union tour contract so that the dancers would be eligible for health care and other benefits while on the road. It worked. In 2014, Timberlake became the first artist to protect his backup dancers under a SAG-AFTRA contract.

11. THEY ALWAYS HAVE A BACKUP PLAN.

As with most athletic careers, dancers know that eventually they'll have to back away from their sport. Injuries, from muscle strains and spasms to various tears and sprains, can take their toll. Many performers, like Paula Abdul and Lady Gaga, have discussed their issues with chronic pain.

"The wear and tear on body is tremendous," Sommer says. She would know—a herniated disc sidelined her dancing career in 2002. "Most dancers are going to find ways to work through injuries. A lot of Epsom salt, Bengay. It's a beautiful life that enables you to travel and see the world, but there was the point in time when I couldn't walk."

Many dancers find ways to stay active by teaching or going into the fitness industry, developing exercise and training careers. Some, like much of the staff of New York's Westside Dance Physical Therapy, were professional dancers who turned their specified knowledge of dancers' bodies into careers in the medical field.

In fact, the variety of post-dance careers can be as varied as those of non-dancers. Sommer went into comedy, becoming a mainstay stand-up in New York City and now managing the West Side Comedy Club. And at least one former '90s dancer became a football coach: One of M.C. Hammer's original "U Can’t Touch This" dancers, Alonzo Carter, is currently the running backs coach at San Jose State.

10 Secrets of User Experience Designers

iStock/RossHelen
iStock/RossHelen

While you may be able to recognize and appreciate the work of graphic designers, fashion designers, and architects in your everyday life, you may not think too often about experience designers. But user experience (UX) designers have a huge impact on the products most of us use every day, especially digital products like smartphone apps and websites. A UX designer is in charge of how you interact with a product and the overall experience: What features does it offer? When you click a button on an app or website, where does it take you? Can you find that button? How many clicks should it take to put in your credit card information or sign up for a new account? How easy is it to figure out how to share a link or invite a friend? It’s a UX designer's job to figure that stuff out.

Mental Floss interviewed four people who work as UX designers to find out more about their job. Jonny Mack, a Seattle-based freelance designer, previously worked at Google designing products like Chrome OS and has since worked on projects such as Coinbase Wallet, a cryptocurrency app. Rob Hamblen is a design director at the Berlin design agency AJ&Smart and has worked with clients like Adidas, Twitter, and Mercedes-Benz. Talin Wadsworth is the senior UX design lead for Adobe XD—the user experience design software that UX designers use to create prototypes—and Nina Boesch is a senior interaction designer at Local Projects, a New York-based studio that designs (among other things) museum experiences for institutions like the American Museum of Natural History.

Here are 10 secrets you might not know about the job, from the user features UX designers hate to the reason they hope you never notice their work.

1. THE DEFINITION OF A UX DESIGNER VARIES A LOT …

Not everyone who works as a UX designer has a similar job description. Some handle a wide breadth of tasks, from coming up with product features to prototyping to designing user testing to writing code. Others might be more specialized, overseeing other designers, researchers, and engineers as they work on individual aspects of the design process. Some are also involved in user interface design—known as UI—creating the visual look and feel of a product. “The range of skills across UX designers is pretty varied,” Mack explains. “Some people call themselves UX designers and they’re extremely technical. They’re actually doing a lot of engineering and front-end development. There are other people who call themselves UX designers who don’t write code and don’t even design much, who are doing a lot of research and usability stuff.”

"At a startup, I would define a UX designer as a generalist,” Mack says. “They would be working with a product manager and an engineer to define what the product even is.” They will help figure out what features a product will have and what features it won’t have, and might create a prototype. They’ll do interviews with potential users, asking them to test the prototype to determine whether people can actually use it as the designers envisioned. They might even be writing the code and designing the interface of the site or app.

“In a large company like, for example, Google, you had specialists for each of the things I mentioned,” he explains. There would be a dedicated usability researcher who would conduct those interviews and user tests as well as a team of prototypers and visual designers who would actually make the product, among other roles. In that kind of environment, the UX designer acts as more of a manager, helping determine what the product should be and guiding the project through the creation process.

2. THERE ARE A LOT OF MEETINGS.

Designers don’t spend all day at their desks sketching out ideas. It’s an intensely collaborative job—sometimes to a fault. “When I worked at Google,” Mack says, “I spent very little of my time actually designing—probably four to six hours a week at most, and that time happened either early in the morning, late in the evening, or on weekends, because all day was filled with meetings.”

Wadsworth, too, spends a lot of time meeting with other people rather than working on his own. His team typically has daily check-ins or critique sessions together. “The perception of the lone designer is not true,” he says. He tries to carve out an hour here or an hour there to work through ideas on his own, but says the rest of his time is spent collaborating and talking about ideas in meetings or on Slack or during formal research sessions. For him, that’s not a bad thing. “Some of my favorite moments are when someone’s passing by and I just grab them and get them to give me their take on something—that’s where a lot of the more ‘aha’ moments come from.”

3. IF THEY DO THEIR JOB WELL, YOU NEVER THINK ABOUT THEM.

The UX designer’s role is almost entirely behind the scenes. While you may admire how pretty an interface looks, you probably don’t think too much about the process that helps you get from Point A to Point B in an app. And that's a good thing.

As Hamblen puts it, “If you have done your job properly, you can design an interface where the user has no friction whatsoever. If the UX designer has done their job as well, [users] will be able to achieve their goal without thinking about it.” That goal might be buying something on a website, checking your account balance on your bank app, finding that “share” button, or otherwise understanding how to navigate the product you’re trying to use.

“In a way, we are working on deliverables, no one, other than our team or the client, will ever see,” Boesch says. “We are putting diagrams and storyboards in front of clients, we are providing our developers with wireframes and sitemaps,” but the end user isn’t going to see that work. Unless, of course, they do their job poorly, and their product or experience is hard to use—at which point a user might start to wonder what's going on behind the scenes, and why the product isn't easier to navigate.

4. THEY HATE TUTORIALS.

Mack hates to see multi-step user tutorials pop up the minute you open a consumer app, calling it “aggressive handholding.” Ideally, users should be able to figure out how to navigate and explore the features baked into an app or website without any special instruction, just by intuition and context. “I get the impetus to teach people, ‘Hey, here’s what this is,’ but you can teach people through use,” he says. “If you’re having to train people, it’s probably a failure of design.”

For instance, if you’re spending a ton of time trying to figure out how to buy a train ticket from a machine in the station, it’s the designer’s fault, not yours. “Most public kiosks, such as ticket machines at subway and train stations, hurt my eyes and my faith in the respective authorities,” Boesch explains. “If it takes me more than a minute to understand the interface and get my ticket then the UX/UI design failed. Most ATMs are pretty awful, too. In a perfect world, it wouldn't take more than 20 seconds to get money out of an ATM.”

One app that Mack says does this especially well is Todoist, the to-do list and task manager app. “It’s so simple at first glance, but it’s like an iceberg of complexity.” You might open it thinking you’re just going to write down a to-do list, but then realize you can assign priority to certain items, share them, comment on them, nest tasks within other tasks, assign deadlines and then snooze them, and more. “If I were to write all these features down in a document, you’d read it and you’d say, ‘This is the most complicated to-do app ever.’ But when you’re looking at it, it just looks simple and easy.”

5. DESIGNERS HAVE TO WORK VERY QUICKLY.

For Wadsworth, creating a new prototype for Adobe XD usually takes between three and six months, but that doesn’t mean the team is working at a leisurely pace. “The pace at which we work is pretty frenetic,” he says. While students in design school have the luxury of developing concepts and ideas for projects over a long period, professional designers have to make those decisions much more quickly. “We’ve committed to developing features every month” with Adobe XD, he explains.

Hamblen’s work at AJ&Smart is particularly fast-paced. The firm specializes in “design sprints,” a five-day, intensive prototyping process that’s designed to be an accelerated way for companies to solve a particular problem or come up with a product. In that environment, the initial UX design might need to be completed within just one day so that the design can be prototyped and tested by users by the end of the week.

6. THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE AS MANY USER TESTS AS YOU THINK.

User testing is a vital part of the design process. Designers might create something they think is genius, but if a normal user can’t figure it out, it’s worthless. But while you might imagine that a new product would be tested with dozens of potential users, in all likelihood, it’s a lot less than that. The standard size of a test group is just five people.

“It might not seem like that’s enough people, but there’s a lot of field research that’s gone into [that number]," Hamblen says. A group of five people is big enough to generate useful feedback, but small enough to support tight budgets and quick turnarounds. After two or three user reviews, you start to see patterns in the feedback, but the fifth user might not see something blatantly obvious to others—representing a population that’s not all that tech-savvy, for instance. These test reviewers are typically recruited based on what the hoped-for user base of a product, which could be something like "parents of small children," or "20- to 30-year-olds," or "people who use online banks," or any other kind of characteristic or demographic the company is looking to target.

7. THEY NEED AT LEAST SOME TECHNICAL KNOW-HOW.

UX designers often work very closely with developers, so they need to at least understand the basics of writing code. “A designer needs to understand the core concepts of code for whatever platform they’re designing for,” Wadsworth says, in order to have an idea of the constraints and possibilities of a particular product. “I myself have taken an iOS development boot camp,” he explains. “I’m not doing that as my daily job, but it helps me be a better designer.”

“You do have to have a good understanding of the tasks a developer would have to do," Hamblen says. You can create the most beautiful interfaces in the world, but if your engineers can't translate it into code, it's not going to happen. "I’ve seen designers create stuff that’s impossible to build or just makes the developers' lives so much harder."

8. USERS CAN BE VERY PASSIONATE.

When you’re working on updating a design that’s part of something people use every day, even little tweaks can be a big deal. When Wadsworth and his team change something about Adobe XD, it impacts how creative professionals do their jobs. “People have very strong opinions about that,” Wadsworth says. “More so than just ‘They changed that button from green to blue,’ they’re like, ‘You changed something that was a built-in part of my process and now I’m going to have to relearn something.' There’s a lot of pressure.”

“Whenever I’m out there talking about my job, I show a picture of a woman who has the toolbar from Photoshop tattooed on her arm,” he explains. “That’s how strongly creatives take their tools.”

9. YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO SEE THEIR FINGERPRINTS IN UNEXPECTED PLACES.

Good UX design may be subtle, but that doesn’t mean UX designers are totally invisible in their work. “I’m in the tutorial file of [Adobe] XD,” Wadsworth says. If you open the sample file designed to help you learn how to use the software, you’re following along with his work. “I’m the designer you can jump in and design along with,” he explains, and the app you watch him create has a personal connection for him. "I’m originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, and so the app that we designed to be the app you learn along with me inside XD is all based on my formative years growing up around national parks in the West.”

10. THEIR WORK ISN’T BUILT TO LAST.

“My life’s work will be gone when I’m old,” Mack says. “I will look back at all the work I’ve done as a UX designer and I won’t be able to go and touch any of it or use any of it—it will all be redone.” Regular product updates, aesthetic trends, and technological change mean that when you’re creating something for the web or mobile devices, it’s not going to stay the same for very long. If you create a website now, you probably aren’t going to be able to go back and look at your work in 10 years. That ephemerality isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. “There’s something I like about it,” he says. “It’s like theater.”

15 Secrets of Courtroom Sketch Artists

Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images
Kim Ludbrook, AFP/Getty Images

After aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and found dead in 1932, perpetrator Bruno Hauptmann was brought to justice—and cameras followed. So many lit up the courtroom during Hauptmann's trial and eventual conviction that the American Bar Association successfully lobbied to ban photographers from proceedings due to the distraction. Some 30 years later, during the trial of Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, Jack Ruby, CBS found a solution. They hired illustrator Howard Brodie to capture Ruby’s expressions.

The rest is history, most of it rendered in charcoal and watercolor. Courtroom sketch artists go where cameras cannot, recording the often-tense atmospheres of high-profile judicial cases featuring the likes of Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, and Michael Jackson. On tight deadlines, these artists use their craft to communicate the emotions of a courtroom.

But being talented isn’t enough. Speed is essential, and so is finding just the right scene to encapsulate an entire day or trial. “It’s difficult to do,” says Mona Shafer Edwards, a courtroom illustrator in California. “It’s not a cartoon, it’s not caricature, it’s not a portrait. It’s capturing a moment in time.”

To get a better sense of what goes into their work, Mental Floss spoke with three of the most celebrated artists working today. Here’s what they had to say about drawing conclusions to some of history’s biggest stories.

1. THEY HAVE TO DRAW AROUND OBSTACLES.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams featuring Teresa Giudice
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Imagine sitting down to sketch a friend and finding that someone has placed a column, screen, or body directly in your field of vision. Now imagine that if you can’t capture this person’s likeness, you don’t get paid. That’s the most common problem faced by courtroom sketch artists, who frequently have to navigate around obstacles in order to get a glimpse of their subject—often the defendant, attorney, or judge. “You generally have to wait for someone to lean over,” says Elizabeth Williams, an artist based in New York who works for CNBC and the Associated Press, among others. (Most artists are hired by the larger news outlets.) “Fortunately, people aren’t potted plants, and they do move.” If they don’t, Williams will move around the courtroom herself, trying to secure a better vantage point. During pleas and sentencing—and depending on the judge—she might be allowed to sit with other reporters in the jury box.

If visual obstacles remain a problem, some artists might turn to family members. Vicki Ellen Behringer, who works out of California for clients including CBS and Fox, says she once used the father of a defendant as a reference when she couldn’t see his son. “I had studied his son’s face and the father reminded me of what he looks like,” she says. “They looked so much alike.”

2. YOUNGER PEOPLE ARE HARDER TO DRAW.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski and his attorney
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

For Behringer, faces with plenty of distinguishing features are a gift. “I love glasses, I love facial hair, lots of wrinkles, anything that shows character,” she says. “The most difficult thing is doing someone fairly young and good-looking. They don’t have lines on their face.” Behringer cites the sketch of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski (above), seated with his attorney. While Kaczynski's weathered look was easy to render, his lawyer—younger and relatively unlined—was much harder to capture.

3. MORNINGS ARE BETTER FOR THEM.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams features Bernie Madoff accomplice Frank DiPascali being led away in handcuffs
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Sketch artists work in a pressure cooker environment. They’re often called to court by news agencies on a day’s notice or less and need to render their drawings quickly. If a crucial moment in a trial happens in the late afternoon, artists may have as little as an hour to finish coloring their piece before scanning and sending it to the news outlets that have contracted the work. “There’s a lot of pressure to turn it around quickly” in time for the evening newscasts, Williams says. If something transpires in the morning, she has more time to refine the work. “Nobody’s really breathing down your back then.”

4. THEY CATCH HEAT FOR CELEBRITY RENDERINGS.

A courtoom sketch by artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts Gwyneth Paltrow testifying during a trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Because celebrities are familiar to people, seeing a court sketch that doesn’t seem to line up can be disconcerting. But according to Edwards, that’s because celebrities aren’t necessarily putting their best face forward. “I was pilloried for making Gwyneth Paltrow look unattractive,” she says, referring to the actress’s appearance (above) during a 2016 trial to testify against Dante Michael Soiu, a man accused of stalking her. (He was acquitted.) “She had no make-up on, wore a beige turtleneck, and her nose was red from crying.” Paltrow’s fans criticized Edwards for the unflattering likeness.

5. THEY SOMETIMES REARRANGE THE COURTROOM ON PAPER.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts players in the 2012 Apple v. Samsung trial
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

According to Williams, some news outlets have strict guidelines about how sketch artists interpret a court scene. The Associated Press, for example, doesn’t allow artists to mess with the proximity of one person to another. If a defendant is four feet from his or her attorney, Williams can’t have their shoulders touching. But other outlets allow for artistic license. “Sometimes you can’t get everything you want and be accurate, so you squish it together,” Behringer says. “You sometimes want the defendant in the same sketch as a judge, or to move the defense and prosecution tables closer together.”

6. THEY SELL THEIR WORK TO ATTORNEYS.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts attorney Robert Hillard in a 2016 trial examining the possible fault of General Motors in a motor vehicle accident
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Like big game hunters, lawyers enjoy a trophy. Some attorneys in high-profile case will approach Williams asking to purchase a sketch that she rendered. “I’ve sold my work to a number of attorneys,” she says. “Generally speaking, they only want it when they win.” Behringer says that some attorneys fresh out of law school will specifically request she come into court to sketch them. “I guess it might be to show parents you’ve finished law school.”

The Library of Congress even has a collection of 96 courtroom drawings from famous trials, with illustrations by Williams among them. They were purchased with funds from the noted L.A. laywer Thomas V. Girardi, best known for working on the California environmental contamination case involving Erin Brockovich.

7. SOMETIMES SUBJECTS ASK FOR A MAKEOVER.

Courtroom sketch artist Mona Shafer Edwards depicts the trial of the Menendez Brothers
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Edwards is sometimes approached by defense attorneys or other jurists and asked if her work could be a little more flattering. “Men will come up to me and ask me to give them more hair or make them look thinner or better-looking,” she says. “It’s never women asking for me to take weight off or whatever. It’s always men.”

8. POLKA DOTS AND BARS ARE BAD NEWS.

A courtroom sketch by Vickie Ellen Behringer depicts accused Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo in 2018
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Sketch artists need to spend their time capturing and refining emotions and moods. If defendants are wearing prints, it can be exasperating. “White polka dots on dark clothing can be hard to do in watercolor,” Behringer says. “Stripes, too. You don’t want to waste energy into making the clothing accurate. I’d rather put that time into the face. It can be frustrating.” Another Behringer pet peeve: bars. In California, some defendants are arraigned in a mini-jail cell in court, leaving artists to try and sketch them while they’re behind the railing. Behringer illustrated suspected Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo while DeAngelo was in his mini-prison (above), carefully drawing each bar separating him from civilized society. “That was very time-consuming.”

9. THEY SOMETIMES PRACTICE BEFOREHAND.

An artist sketches using a pencil
iStock.com/cherrybeans

When artists book a trial, they know they might only have a millisecond to glimpse a defendant’s face before he or she is either ushered out of the courtroom or takes a seat out of view. To help get a better look, artists will sometimes do some drafts at home using existing photographs as reference before heading to trial. “Occasionally I’ll do that [practice] with someone famous because everyone knows what they look like,” Behringer says. “Even if they’re not a celebrity, looking for certain features in photos helps because you might not be able to see it in court.”

10. THEIR SUBJECTS RARELY COOPERATE.

A courtroom sketch by Elizabeth Williams depicts Michael Cohen seated next to his attorney during a 2018 hearing
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

Unlike normal portrait subjects, defendants and other court personalities don’t usually have a big incentive to cooperate with a sketch artist. They’ll express a variety of emotions, changing expressions so quickly that it can be difficult to nail one down. Covering former Donald Trump attorney Michael Cohen (seen above) and his federal hearing for tax evasion in August 2018, Williams was taken aback by his elastic face. “If someone is just sitting there, it’s like, ‘OK, got it,’” she says. “But during his allocution, he was so overwrought, his range of emotions went from fear to depression to practically being in tears. When people are making a lot of expressions, it’s challenging to make it look like them.” She drew 17 Cohen heads before settling on one she liked.

Other times, defendants can be chillingly emotionless. Chronicling the 2016 case of “Grim Sleeper” Lonnie David Franklin Jr., who killed between 10 and 25 people, Edwards was struck by the fact that he seemed unmoved by the trial. “I kept staring at this guy waiting for him to have some reaction,” she says. “He didn’t even lift his head.” Sketching James “Whitey” Bulger in 2013, the notorious Boston mobster who had finally been brought to justice after years on the run, Bulger looked directly at her and shook his finger “no" before trying to cover his face.

11. THEY BOND WITH JUDGES OVER ART.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts judge Elden Fox and Courtney Love during a hearing
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

Most artists have good relationships with judges, who appreciate their work in chronicling important civil and criminal cases. Sometimes, a judge may even decide to talk shop. “I’ve had judges buy my drawings and take me into their chambers to show me what they’ve done themselves or show their collection of art,” Edwards says. “A lot of them have good taste and a good eye.”

12. DEFENDANTS CAN CHANGE THEIR APPEARANCE.

A courtroom sketch by Vicki Ellen Behringer depicts Jay Leno's testimony while Michael Jackson looks on during Jackson's child molestation trial in 2005
Courtesy of Vicki Ellen Behringer

Some trials can mean day after day of sketching the same faces. Other times, defendants will experience some fairly radical physical transformations that keep sketch artists on their toes. “Barry Bonds, from the day he was indicted [in 2007, for perjury] to the day the trial was over, lost a significant amount of weight,” Behringer says. “There was another trial in Stockton where the defendant gained a significant amount of weight. People said it was the carbs in the jail food.”

The most dramatic alterations in appearance are usually attributed to the late singer Michael Jackson (above, seen with Jay Leno), who was frequently sketched during his participation in a 2005 trial to refute charges of child molestation. (A jury found him not guilty.) “Every day, he wore a completely different outfit, different armbands, and his hair would change from Monday to Friday. One time, it was longer on a Monday. It’s like, how did you do that?”

13. THEY TRY TO DRAW QUIETLY.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer edwards depicts Clint Eastwood sitting next to his attorney during Eastwood's 1996 palimony trial
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

When cameras are in a courtroom, everyone knows it. When Edwards is around, subjects might not even know they’re being rendered. The artist carries a small 9-inch by 12-inch pad with her along with a small number of tools. “Defendants never know I’m drawing them,” she says. “You might act differently if you’re aware someone is staring. I try to blend in.”

14. O.J. SIMPSON MAY HAVE KEPT THEM IN BUSINESS.

A courtroom sketch by Mona Shafer Edwards depicts O.J. Simpson testifying during his 1995 trial for murder
Courtesy of Mona Shafer Edwards

The decision in 1995 to allow television cameras to depict the O.J. Simpson trial—Simpson was accused of killing ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman—seemed to signal a new and relaxed policy about media coverage in courtrooms. “I thought that was it, the swan song of sketching,” Edwards says. “Then it turned out to be a joke.” Judges, fearing they’d be criticized as much as Simpson’s presiding judge Lance Ito, shied away from that kind of scrutiny. “Judges realized they didn’t want to be on camera. So every time I think it’s over, it keeps going.”

15. THEY DO WEDDINGS.

Artist Elizabeth Williams depicts a newlywed couple
Courtesy of Elizabeth Williams

The nature of the court sketch business has changed over the years as some federal courts are becoming more lenient with the presence of cameras. (While cameras are typically not allowed in federal trial courts, there have been certain exceptions, experiments, and pilot projects to allow cameras; state rules vary.) Experienced artists still find work, but it’s a good idea to have some alternative methods of income. Williams books her services as a sketch artist for weddings on weekends, when court isn’t in session. “People are always getting married, but you can’t always count on ‘El Chapo’ getting arrested,” she says. “You have to do other things.” Williams approaches nuptials in much the same way as a trial. “I’ll meet with a client and go over the key moments.” Instead of closing arguments, it might be the first dance as a married couple.

The biggest difference? “It’s so nice to be around people who are so happy and just beginning their lives, as opposed to people going to, you know, prison.”

All sketches are copyright their respective artists and used with permission.

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