Marie Tussaud’s waxwork museum has given rise to a billion dollar global franchise. What’s the secret of its success?by Hephzibah Anderson / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
Alfred Hitchcock (Madame Tussauds London)
© Artur Andrzej
Madame Tussauds is like a safari, only it’s celebrity you’re stalking, and about halfway through you begin to feel more hunted than hunter. You are, after all, the only thing moving, unless you count the eyes that flick mechanically back and forth on the French revolutionary waxwork. And the revolutionary is hidden many, many famous faces away—past Brangelina, past Harry and Wills, past JFK and MLK—in a far-off “zone” devoted to the place’s own history.
But it is precisely the institution’s history that has brought me here. On 1st December, to little fanfare, Madame Tussauds passed a milestone: the 250th birthday of its founder and namesake. Born Marie Grosholtz in 1761, she learned the art of waxworks from Philippe Curtius, a Swiss doctor, and went on to found an institution that has become a museum empire, its outposts strung across the world from Amsterdam to Washington DC and Shanghai to (of course) Las Vegas.
Marie Tussaud made her name during the tumultuous years before and after the French revolution. A quarter of a millennium on, the institution she founded may yet be scuppered by another populist cultural force, this time one she helped to create: the idea that celebrity status is within the grasp of us all. If celebrity can be had by everyone, why splash out more than £20 to get close to a waxen imitation?
A trip to London’s legendary house of wax used to begin with the queue that snakes around its copper-topped home. Now, you can pre-book online and step fast-track into a lift to be swept directly up to the “A-list” zone.
“Everyone step this way and just beyond the doors the stars are very eagerly waiting to meet you today,” promises a tired-looking staffer on the afternoon of my visit.
Inside, there is no natural light, just a high-wattage glare, enhanced by the dazzle of glitter balls and camera flashes. To my left, Bollywood stars smoulder, oblivious of one another, indulgent of a middle-aged woman in sari and woolly scarf who wanders among them, beaming beside each in turn. To my right, Robert Downey Jr brings anachronistically tousled hair to the role of Sherlock Holmes. Then it’s on past Drew Barrymore, Marilyn Monroe, and a neglected Audrey Hepburn. Sat in the middle of the room…