The well-known tourist attraction and wax museum, Madame Tussauds, had its start in the streets of Paris just before the French Revolution. Dr. Philippe Curtius, Madame Tussaud's mentor, opened his first cabinet de cire (wax exhibition) in Paris in 1770. It proved so popular that he was forced to move to larger accommodations twice and eventually opened a second location in 1782. When Curtius died in 1794, he left the business to his protégé, Anna Maria Grosholtz, who later became Madame Tussaud when she married François Tussaud in 1795.
Tussaud began touring with her figures throughout Europe, and was in London with her eldest son Joseph in 1802 during the Napoleonic Wars. As she was unable to return to France, she spent the subsequent years exhibiting her collection through Great Britain and Ireland. The first permanent Madame Tussaud's wax museum opened on Baker Street in London in 1835 as the Baker Street Bazaar, and over the years she and her sons continued to update the collection with contemporary figures. Her grandson moved the museum to its current location on Marylebone Road in 1884.
Since then, the business has grown into a major tourist attraction across the globe, with museums in twelve cities including London, Berlin, Vienna, Hollywood, Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Shanghai. They are so popular that Tussauds has adopted a time entry system to limit crowding. The collection of wax figures is constantly being updated as new celebrities emerge (40 to 50 new figures are created each year). Some of the more recent stars to be cast in wax include Justin Bieber, Robert Pattinson, Susan Boyle and Lady Gaga.
The creation of a single wax figure takes approximately four months and 800 hours of work, and all are made at the company's London studios. The first step is deciding where in the museum the figure is to be placed, what its pose should be, and, possibly, how it should relate to other figures. The subject is then invited to a sitting where detailed measurements are taken with calipers, and photos are taken from all angles. (If the person is exceptionally busy the sculptors rely on photos and videos only.)
Sculptors then use the measurements and photos to create a clay model of the head and an armature out of steel and aluminum rods for the body (life size plus 2%, since wax shrinks), to which they add clay. Plaster molds are made using the clay head, and then a hot wax mixture is poured into the plaster molds. The molds are removed after the wax has cooled and hardened, and hair is attached - a process that usually takes about five weeks since each hair has to be inserted individually. Hand-made acrylic teeth and eyes are added, and then the figure is colored using oil-based paint, applied in layers. A hard plastic cast is made of the clay body and dressed for display.
It is a Tussauds tradition that the sitter donates his/her own clothes, although if that's not possible, Tussauds has a team of tailors who work to reproduce the subject's wardrobe. The final cost of each figure is estimated at $250,000. They're inspected and primped each day before the attraction opens, and all figures have their hair washed and their "make-up" retouched regularly.
This article was originally published in May 2011, and has been updated for the
December 2011 paperback release.
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