Fight the power: Why Kim Kardashian swapped cosmetics for criminal law

Fight the power: Why Kim Kardashian swapped cosmetics for criminal law

One of the world’s biggest celebrities, Kim Kardashian has swapped cosmetics for criminal law studies to tackle the US justice system, writes Lucy Allen.

Kim Kardashian West is one of the most famous women in the world.

The star of reality show Keeping Up with the Kardashians has built herself a brand that is worth millions thanks to beauty lines, partnerships, and her shapewear, Skims.

Now she is using her celebrity to shine a light on criminal justice reform with new documentary film Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project.

During the film, Kim — who has just completed her first year at law school — will visit prisons and work alongside legal experts on four cases of people they believe have been unfairly sentenced.

Kim’s justice reform journey began in 2018 with the case of Alice Johnson, a mother and a grandmother who received a life without parole sentence for non-violent drug crimes.

Kim and a team of lawyers lobbied US president Donald Trump for clemency on her behalf, which was finally realised and Alice was freed.

In early 2019, she helped win clemency for another woman, Cynthia Brown.

Lucy Allen talks to her about her new documentary, which she executive produced, how motherhood inspired her new career path, the criticism she has faced over her latest project and how she hopes her documentary will convince viewers that there are people who deserve a second chance.

Firstly Kim, congratulations on your first year of law school?

KKW: Oh, thank you.

Tell us about your life as a student? And you aced your latest test right? What was it?

KKW: Well, I have to do 20 hours a week. So the test was a contracts test and it’s really interesting because had I been doing it out of school I don’t think I would have the knowledge or I wouldn’t care as much.

I deal with contracts on a daily basis in my own personal life, so I started off thinking that subject was my most boring, right, but now I’m pretty good at it. It all makes sense to me.

I mean, crim laws are super easy to me and I love all the details and everything that I have to learn. Torts, like I have to deal with in my home, and personal injury law and all that stuff so it all makes sense to me when I read it and I put it into my real life, it’s really interesting.

But I spend a lot of time, my kids know I’m in school and so I have to film my show, I get up at 5.40am. My day is so micro-managed from 5.40 to workout at 6am, at 7.05 I wake the kids up, we have breakfast, at.7.40…

Are you surprised by just how much you manage to cram into your day?

KKW: I am sometimes. But I think that it also shows my kids how motivated I am. Every time I have a prison visit, I explain to them why I’m going and what I’m doing and they understand.

I love talking about it with everyone around me when there’s a case going on. I mean even our group chats about different cases that go on, my conversations are different. I literally had to change my number and just say, ‘I’ve got to focus for four years’ to all my friends, ‘Guys, I’ll be back in four years. I need to really focus’.

But I’ve found just my interests have changed, everything has really just shifted and it’s been a fun journey.

How do you balance all this with motherhood and making sure you have time for each of your four kids and your husband?

KKW: Yes, we definitely have our date nights, we have our vacation time. I definitely take that time off. So I know when I really need that time and just before I would have, I mean simple self-care things, a massage I used to do at a specific time and now I just don’t do it.

But if I needed to it would probably be 10pm or 11pm after everyone is asleep and just my schedule is really changed.

Obviously, my kids and my husband are my life so I just honestly had to cut out all the extra stuff that I was doing and the friends. I mean obviously I’m best friends with all my friends that I’ve been friends with forever but they understand and they know.

I just don’t go to all these events anymore, the movies. I just don’t do all that extra stuff and that’s OK for me. I need to focus. I do my mornings with my kids and they go to school.

Would you say that you have found your calling outside of your family, is this something you are going to pursue for the rest of your life?

KKW: I do. I really do. I don’t see how I can just say no to someone that really needs help if I know that I can help them.

What has been the hardest part of this new career path for you so far?

KKW: I think what’s been challenging but once I do it I get used to it, is helping with specific cases when we are investigating, writing memos for specific cases and actual, like the paperwork that has to be done, which is really important. 

I never want to mess anything up but luckily, I have a really good team that is guiding me and looking through everything and helping me get through those challenging things for me.

Tell us about the process for choosing the people to feature in this documentary?

KKW: Yes. Every case that I chose is really personal to me, and a lot of the time it’s from a letter that I receive from someone on the inside that just really touches my heart and something that I know that moves me.

You know, sometimes there’s so many cases that I do want to help, but I just know that it will be a huge challenge. And so, those might take a little bit longer, and I’ll send those off to a group of attorneys I think can make a difference.

But the ones on this particular documentary showcase different aspects of our broken system, whether it’s sex trafficking, everything is over-sentencing issues, but I picked four very different cases.

How do you deal with some of the criticism that you have got that you are only doing this for the publicity or to make yourself look better?

KKW: I’m very used to criticism so nothing really fazes me. I’m one of those not human souls that can really deal with it.

However, I really genuinely just stay focused on cases and people and am extremely compassionate. No, I’m not doing it for publicity. I really do care and spend 20 hours a week away from my family and my kids every single day.

There’s so much behind the scenes that has never been publicised on cases that I work on. 

I literally do this every single day and spend hours of my time away from my work and everything else, my family because once you realise that — once you get so deep into the system, and I really was not aware of so much that goes on for so long, you just can’t give up.

Like, there’s so much that can be done in every single area. So, it can be exhausting, frustrating, but I know that we can make a difference. 

And so all the criticism in the world will not deter me from what I really want to do and I hope that The Justice Project can really — like how I believe that Alice Johnson, people not ever putting a face with maybe a drug offense, but to hear that a great grandmother and to not hear her background of what led her to make that decision, but for the public to see Alice Johnson make a difference that I believe led people to really endorse the First Step Act that’s let out now thousands of people, I think Alice put a face with the injustice that goes on in sentencing issues.

And they saw Miss Alice and saw that they can feel from her that she shouldn’t have the same sentence as Charles Manson for a first-time low-level drug offence. That just didn’t make sense. 

So, if I didn’t understand it, and I saw Alice and I heard her story and I educated myself, I believe that these people that we have chosen for this documentary will do the same in that field and let people know that even if there was a violent crime involved, you really have no idea what was on the other end and what led them to make those decisions.

And I hope that people can be more empathetic and feel that by giving people like that who are featured in The Justice Project a second chance, there is no danger to our society that I think some people feel and have this stigma. 

And so I just hope that for whatever reason they tune it, that their hearts are opened the way that mine was when I started this and is every time I read a different letter from someone else.

At the same time, though, as you’re helping these people and whether they get out or they’re in the process of it, do you find any of them sort of wanting though another handout, whether it’s a hookup through music or your other businesses? That what you did for them initially maybe isn’t enough and could you help them again somewhere else?

KKW: I haven’t had that personal experience with anybody. I find everyone to be extremely just grateful for the work that we’re doing and the people that I’ve introduced them to.

But I’ve also introduced them to organisations that do help them find employment as well. 

And I love seeing the choices that they make and the exciting projects that they’re working on outside once they do get out.

How long did it take to be able to make up your mind and say, ‘you know what, they know me for the TV reality show, but this is what I have in my heart and this is what I want to do?’

KKW: I think subconsciously having lived in a home with my attorney father who made me sign a contract for everything to when I got my car that I would make sure I had gas and washed it once a week. I mean, everything I had to sign a contract for.

So I think that by the time I was a teenager and he was working on the OJ case and I was sneaking in his office looking at all of the evidence and things I shouldn’t have been looking at, to just the day that I happen to be on Twitter and see a video pop up of Alice Johnson.

It didn’t take me, maybe just it was in my soul for years that that’s what I would have wanted to do. And I’ve even seen interviews pop up now from six, seven years ago. And people ask what I wanted to do if I wasn’t filming my show. 

And I always said I wanted to be a crime scene investigator or an attorney. I’ve always said stuff like that because I’ve been really interested in the law.

But it didn’t take me years to think about wanting to help someone when I saw Alice Johnson’s face. When that popped up, it took me two seconds to send a message to my attorney to see what I can do to help. And

it’s interesting though because when I first started my show, different publicists that I worked with said, ‘Oh, you should get involved in an organisation just like the publicity question that was asked earlier.’

Like you have to be doing something in charity work. And that’s kind of the formula that the publicists that I was working with was trying to push on me. 

And I mean, there was obviously I would visit the Children’s Hospital and things that were close to my heart, but nothing to where they were pushing me to do.

Nothing was authentic like that. So, I believe as you grow older, you have children. I’m raising four black children that could face a situation like any of the people that I help.

Kim with husband Kanye West
Kim with husband Kanye West

And so, just to know that I could make a difference in my children’s lives and their friends’ lives and their children’s lives by helping to fix such a broken system, that is just so motivating for me.

Has your legal work made you feel closer to your late father [Attorney Robert Kardashian snr]?

KKW: In a way yes, because there are times when I can be frustrated and studying really late and have to get up and wonder how he did it having four kids and must have been going through some of the same things that I have gone through. 

So it would have been exciting to talk to him about that and I know that he would be so, so proud.

Where do you draw the line? Because as you just said, you want to help people who might be in jail for the wrong reason or were there at the wrong time.

Where do you draw the line and say, ‘okay, I read that letter, but no, I’m not going to touch that case’ or he or she deserved it?

KKW: Yeah, there’s so many deserving people that I wish I could help everyone. But sometimes it’s really hard to get through to a specific governor or find the specific attorneys. 

Every time I know that I can help someone, I do or I pass it onto someone that I believe can.

And that’s why it’s so important to me to showcase these specific faces that people might not — like when I first, when I met Alice, I thought, ‘Okay, low level drug offence, easy. I can attach myself to that.’ 

But if there’s something that might be violent, I don’t know how I would feel about that. And then I went to prisons. 

And I started sitting down and listening to these peoples’ stories that were so open with me and so gracious to share their stories with me.

And it like took my breath away sitting there hearing these stories of people that are no different than really us. 

They just have a completely different circumstance, but they’re one bad decision away from being in a situation that me or you or anyone could really be in. 

And I heard horrific stories, but it opened up my heart because I know after hearing their circumstances that I would do anything to fight for them because they did deserve a second chance.

So I think sometimes people might hear a murder and throw the key away and say they deserve to spend the rest of their life in jail. 

But had you heard of what they had been through to what led them to make that decision, you would support them, too.

And you would definitely feel safe knowing that if they were released that they would have an amazing life outside. And sometimes it’s just as messed up as them having an attorney that said, ‘We’re not going to share anything that happened in your past.’ 

And you’re painted out to look a certain way. So it’s really interesting.

Fight the power: Why Kim Kardashian swapped cosmetics for criminal law

I used to be — and I am obsessed with crime shows. That’s why I love Oxygen, but I’ve never seen a crime show that was really from the other side, from the person that had done it situation. 

And I think it’s really important, there really are two sides to every story, and I was never that type of person to believe that. I was always so, you know, ‘They should be locked up forever,’ and never wanting to hear their side of the story. 

And since I would go to prison after prison and sit down with these people and hear their stories, I realised there’s a whole other side that is never being shown on TV, and so that’s why I really wanted to partner and do a documentary that shared from a completely different perspective and mindset.

You seem to be one of the only people President Trump will listen to. So are there any other issues besides criminal justice reform you might advise him on or approach him with?

KKW: I wish it was that easy. 

There are a lot of issues that I might privately speak about with people in power that I feel strongly about; however, I stay extremely focused on an issue that we see eye-to-eye on, and I have been just really focused to get a lot done and just keep my eye on what we connect on.

You have a lot of young fans. Were you thinking about sort of how kids grow up watching TV, like you said, and seeing ‘Law & Order’ and seeing only the one side of the operation, and do you want younger people to be watching this?

KKW: I absolutely do. I talk to my kids about it, and they’re extremely young, just when I go to a prison visit, when I do go to the White House, and I do explain to them and just even my younger sisters. 

I think everyone is really interested in justice reform right now.

I’m like so proud of the younger generation for really being so knowledgeable and caring so much, and I would absolutely like because I, personally, feel like I had my own awakening after I had kids and I was a little bit older, I hope that through my stories and seeing people that the younger generation can be aware at a younger age.

You said that the documentary covered a low level drug offence and a violent shooting — what are the other issues this documentary covers?

KKW: Yes, there is sex trafficking, which involved a murder as well, but the backstory that you don’t hear about her is from the age of five years old up until she was 30 and killed her step-grandfather. 

He had been raping her and she had been going to the hospital obviously as a child at five years old, six years old, seven years old, multiple hospital visits and knowing that the state did nothing to protect her, nothing to save her and when she’s 30 years old she goes in and at this point she is on drugs, had a really hard life, she has seven kids at this point from all different situations and trauma and her step-grandfather, she asks him for some money and he goes to sexually assault her and she pulls out a knife and kills him.

And none of that was presented in court, none of that was even allowed at her trial. She was looked to be a drug addict that came in to rob him of money and then killed him.

So if I were to see that on paper I would think what everyone would think but then once you … she wrote me this letter, this like ten-page letter and it was the most detailed letter. I will never forget it. 

I took my stack of letters and I read them in Palm Springs and I just cried reading her letter and I instantly knew that I had to help her and I reached out, I had Jessica [Jackson #cut50] reach out to her and her story is so traumatic and so heart-breaking but to know that throughout her whole life no-one even tried to protect her and then she gets sentenced to life in prison instead of some type of therapy and rehabilitation.

And also, I’m never one to say that there is no consequence to anything. There’s a time but it’s over-sentencing I think is the huge issue.

Can you talk about your relationship with the #cut50 organisation?

KKW: Absolutely. So #cut50 which Van Jones’ organisation is my sponsor for my law school. 

So Van, in order to study or read the law in California you have to get a law firm to sponsor you to have your apprenticeship. And so, Van put that together for me.

So, the way that it works in California is not only do you have to put in 20 hours a week in actual studying of courses, but you also have to participate in what the office is, basically, doing. So, policy that they’re working on.

And so, Jessica is the co-founder with Van Jones of #cut50. 

Fight the power: Why Kim Kardashian swapped cosmetics for criminal law

And so, she walks me through specific cases that I work on, that they represent people that they have me come on and help with. 

So, yeah, so I work with #cut50 all the time and other organisations like ARC that help with re-entry once people get out of prison and how they’re going to find jobs and housing. They work with that as well as #cut50.

So, there are a few other organisations. We all get them together and work together all the time.

So are you planning to take the bar exam in 2022?

KKW: Erm I will definitely take it when my four years are up. We just finished one year, so would that be 2022 or 23? Yes.

Finally, with your other life which focusses on fashion and beauty, you talk about being woke now in so many areas of your life. Do you ever think ‘you know what, I’m not going to do that photo shoot?’

KKW: Post a bikini selfie? No, I think I want to do it all and I think you can do it all and it’s still me and I think that’s why it works.

I think you no matter what have to be yourself and it’s all fun and I really do believe that we can do it all.

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