[Image: It's OK to touch ... a fan gets close to the Johnny Depp waxwork at Madame Tussauds. Photograph: Susan Swindells (work experience) for the guardian]
What makes Madame Tussauds’ wax work?
It’s been pulling in visitors since 1835, but why does Madame Tussauds remain so popular, even in the CGI age? Patrick Barkham joined the crowds – plus Brad, Jacko, the Queen and all – to find out
The Guardian, Saturday 26 February 2011
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. Read more on Why Madame Tussauds remains so popular in the CGI age…