Johnny Depp is getting a peck on the cheek. A bloke peers up Marilyn’s billowing skirt. Teenagers jostle a wobbly Russell Brand. A Kuwait scarf is draped around Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai. “Where is Tony Blair?” asks a tourist from Afghanistan. Who does he want a photograph with? “All of these bastards,” he says, making a beeline for George W Bush. There’s a commotion outside No 10 Downing Street: the top of Nicolas Sarkozy’s right ear has been chewed off. Is Mike Tyson marauding through the building? The diminutive French president is unceremoniously wheeled away for some TLC with molten wax.
In an era of virtual reality, interactive Wiis and 3D TVs, it is difficult to imagine a more anachronistic attraction than a crowded dark room peopled with static wax models. But Madame Tussauds is more popular than ever. After the venerable London attraction’s busiest ever year, next month sees the opening of a new Madame Tussauds in Blackpool. Another, the 12th Madame Tussauds in the world, will be added in Vienna. Almost every month, a new celebrity is added to the waxen lineup. Gok Wan is set for Blackpool, while the much-requested Justin Bieber will arrive in London, New York and Amsterdam next month. Tussauds’ owners, Merlin Entertainments, is the world’s second largest leisure group after Disney, with a portfolio of fun that includes Alton Towers, the London Eye and Legoland. Last year it reported visitor numbers up by 10% across its attractions with a 16% jump in profits to £239m. Madame Tussauds may be its most unlikely success story.
Born in Strasbourg in 1761, Marie Tussaud studied model-making under Dr Philippe Curtius, a doctor who became highly skilled at making anatomical models from wax. They moved to Paris and she created figures for a waxwork exhibition, narrowly escaped the guillotine in the French Revolution, and ended up making death masks of guillotine victims. Tussaud inherited Curtius’s models and her travelling exhibition of waxworks became the touring newspaper of the day, providing vivid impressions of contemporary events, particularly the revolution, in a time before photographs. When she settled in Britain and opened a museum in Baker Street in 1835, her most popular exhibit was the “chamber of horrors” featuring murderers and criminals. This tradition of what academics call “dark tourism” endures today: there is something morbid about peering at Amy Winehouse’s skinny but healthily waxy arms. In Tussauds’ alternative reality, there are two Winehouses so one body can be regularly removed to repaint her tattoos, which get worn away by all the fluttering fingers of fans, touching her with a delicate concern.
“Madame Tussaud believed she provided entertainment, artistic enlightenment, historical education and a place of pilgrimage,” writes Pamela Pilbeam, author of Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks. This presentation of news as entertainment continued under Tussaud’s sons and grandsons, who placed famous figures in dramatic historical dioramas. But Tussauds (which has now dropped the apostrophe) never quite enjoyed the credibility of a museum and tended to be sneered at by historians. Since the 1960s, theorists of high culture have been more forgiving. “There is something irresistibly timeless about Tussaud’s, as though the clock had obstinately stopped at the high noon of Victorian history painting,” wrote Roy Strong, former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. More recently, Pilbeam has argued that Tussauds presents an “intimately corporeal biographical history”. Academics may mock, but “for most people history is biography and the story of famous people, and Tussaud’s always excelled in portraying them”.
Tussauds, in short, has always enabled us to touch the hem – or bum – of royals, celebrities and criminals. Half-term in its rabbit warren of rooms on London’s Marylebone Road is noisy, hot and busy. This carnival of camera phones, caressing and even groping (the waxen men do have “moulds” where their private parts would be so that their trousers hang properly, but no, nothing too realistic down there) is the celebrity world were we in control. In this fantasy land, there are no ropes, red tape, spin doctors or security minders to come between us and our idols.
“I squeezed somebody’s bum. Who’s bum did I squeeze? Was it Robbie Williams?” Vicki Kennett asks her daughters, Miranda, 12, and Emma, 10.
“And you kissed Lewis Hamilton,” says Miranda severely.
“Here you have an illusion of rubbing shoulders with the stars,” continues Vicki, insisting she didn’t really kiss Hamilton. “Some of them are really charismatic. It’s the way they’ve done their eyes. It looks like they are staring at you.” But she is a little wistful about when Tussauds seemed less in thrall to celebrity culture. “I remember coming down here when I was little and there was a massive reconstruction of the Battle of Trafalgar,” she says. “It was more about storytelling than celebrity.”
Perhaps there is only so much CGI and 3D TV you can take, because the youth of today seem weirdly bewitched by these figures, which still really are fashioned from wax. Each model is painstakingly crafted using modelling techniques pioneered by Marie Tussaud and featuring chicken wire, newspapers and clay. The figures take four months to make and typically cost £150,000. The hair, for instance, is not a wig: each strand of real hair is individually inserted into the artificial scalp.
Unusually, in these days of tightly controlled image rights, Madame Tussauds claims there are no contracts and no celebrity is paid to be reproduced in wax. Most stars seem to enjoy the indulgence of being measured and photographed in a two-hour sitting. Even David Cameron found time to pose for the waxworkers at No 10. “They give up their time for nothing but the privilege and honour of having their figure done,” says Liz Edwards, spokeswoman for Madame Tussauds. A few stars succeed in controlling their doppelgangers with a rule or two: Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson, for instance, do not allow their wax selves to be photographed by the press or used in promotional photography. But most even donate their own clothes. Boris Johnson took off his suit and handed it over immediately after his sitting; his trouser legs still sport a small tear where he caught the hem in his bicycle chain.
Teen heartthrobs are the most pawed over. Twilight star Robert Pattinson is currently the most touched model. His face is wiped clean of lipstick marks several times a day. Cheryl Cole, Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron are mobbed by pre-teens. But some favourites are not the obvious ones. Jo O’Hare, 23, thinks that her boyfriend, Matt Holland, 24, was most taken with Cheryl Cole. Oh no. “It’s all about Stephen Hawking,” he says. “He was brilliant; I had a photo taken with him.”
“Audrey Hepburn was so beautiful in real life that her waxwork didn’t do her justice, whereas Charles and Camilla were very good,” reckons Moira Carrasco from Surrey, who is visiting with her daughter and granddaughter. The theory that ugly folk make better waxworks may be disproved by the unconvincing Wayne Rooney. Older folk, however, and lived-in faces, work better: Bruce Willis and Morgan Freeman are certainly more convincing than Daniel Radcliffe. Modern trends may be working in Madame Tussauds’ favour: as celebrities turn ever more plasticky with their botox and botched surgery, so the waxworks look ever more real.
The ubiquity of Madame Tussauds, found everywhere from Bangkok to Berlin, may reflect the globalisation of Hollywood but each city gets the waxworks it deserves. Washington DC is the only Tussauds to feature a gallery of all 44 US presidents, which opened last week, while Tussauds in Las Vegas features the only topless figure (former porn star Jenna Jameson) and the unforgettable opportunity to bounce on a bed with a stiff Hugh Hefner. Madame Tussauds in London is the nearest thing to a British Walk of Fame. Unlike Hollywood’s, however, here a star can disappear. The comings and goings of celebrity waxworks deliciously mirror the fickle wax and wane of fame. When his solo career imploded a decade ago, and Gary Barlow was reportedly “melted down” to make Britney Spears, the star concluded he had hit rock bottom. But this melting down is a “complete myth” according to Edwards. Now there are 12 Tussauds around the world, many models are sent on tour: a pop star may be down the dumper in Britain but still big in Berlin.
According to Edwards, every unwanted waxwork is archived in a warehouse in Acton, west London – a fabulously creepy place that is off limits to the media. Former Australian PM John Howard was recently dumped there but the exhibition’s prophetic creative director and others involved in the selection process chose to keep Muammar Gaddafi on display and this suddenly newsworthy figure stands between Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, just along from Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe and Adolf Hitler. Happily for Barlow, when Take That reformed, he was dusted down and reunited with the replica Robbie Williams.
Tussauds confers more than immortality on leading celebrities: its biggest stars undertake a Doctor Who-like regeneration. Waxworkers may add a tattoo or amend a hairstyle, but often build an entirely new model to keep abreast of the ravages of ageing, image changes and plastic surgeons. Kylie has gone through four reincarnations; Michael Jackson, for obvious reasons, 13.
For all the kids’ adulation for Cyrus and Efron, it is surprising how many young pilgrims are paying homage to the king of pop. Children have a surprising capacity for nostalgia, and reverence. The most visited figure remains the Queen. While Brad Pitt may get knickers left in his pocket, there is more decorum around the royals. Princess Diana is treated with great respect: the Versace gown she donated rarely needs dry-cleaning, unlike the oldest waxwork in the exhibition, Sleeping Beauty, aka Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry. She recently had to be removed for a clean after someone sought to wake her with spilled coffee.
The success of Madame Tussauds across three centuries is part of a long tradition of the tourism of replicas, simulations and spectacle. Its more recent blossoming may reflect a society increasingly obsessed with celebrity but it is also because, as its visitors soon realise, the division between static wax and interactive virtual reality is a false one. The exhibition has moved with the times, introducing Bollywood stars, who are a big draw, and interactive exhibits. Most crucially, it has ripped away the ropes and the “do not touch” strictures. Tussauds has always been 3D and its waxworks are now thoroughly, irreverently interactive.
Ann Wootton from Walsall admits her grandchildren wondered what she was on about when she suggested a visit to the waxworks. Now they are enthralled. “I’m absolutely amazed how you can have photos and touch the models, which you couldn’t do in previous years,” says Wootton. “It’s lovely.”
In the 1880s, when Madame Tussauds moved to its current location, Chambers’s Journal wrote that people did not flock there to admire statues and nor were they wowed by simple likeness in what was a new era of photography. Its appeal, the journalist concluded, lay in the liberation of the observer from the normal rules of politeness. At a time when voting was extended to more working men, its newly enfranchised visitors could rant at a disliked politician or stare impertinently into the eyes of royalty.
And so it is today. Madame Tussauds has all the appeal of a fantasy dinner party in which heroes and villains from across the ages are gathered together in one room. But it does not merely make these celebrities our house guests. It turns them into our playthings, always-accessible automatons onto whom we can project all our fantasies. These are celebrities who cannot jump into a limo with blackened out windows and cannot answer – or tweet – back. And so when I tickle David Cameron behind the ears the prime minister very tolerantly continues to gaze towards Gaddafi with a look that is part patrician statesman and part underwear model.
First published online by Patrick Barkham.