Imagine what the celebrity culture in the 18th-century Paris would have looked like. For a sneak peek, one would only have to look at the wax statues made by Marie Tussaud. Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau were just some of the literary and scientific heavyweights who had been immortalised by Marie through her lifelike waxworks.
Tussaud is believed to have had quite a journey herself. When imprisoned with her mother in Paris during the French Revolution (she was the art tutor to King Louis XVI’s sister), she was compelled to prove her allegiance to the cause by making death masks for King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and other noblemen executed by the revolutionaries. It wasn’t until the Revolution had ended and Tussaud went on to inherit her mentor Dr Phillipe Curtius’ wax collection that the foundations of Madame Tussauds would be established.
Typically, Madame Tussauds has captured the essence of every era by featuring public figures whose lives are aspirational and inspirational at various levels. Today, the idea of celebrity has changed. It’s not as though writers, thinkers, philosophers and scientists do not capture our imagination, but a new crop of public figures who leave us with dreamy images of lives we think we should be leading have become popular.
Madame Tussauds, in our minds, is associated with this very idea of a celebrity — someone with whom we would want to take a selfie, or as is evident from Queen Elizabeth II’s waxwork at Madame Tussauds Dubai, have a cup of tea replete with interactive sounds of the British monarch’s famous Corgis. It combines our love for art with our fascination for all things glamorous. This is evident at the museum located in Bluewaters, the first in the Arab world. Its studio manager Chelcie Coulthard, who has been working for Madame Tussauds since 2012, says the normal process revolves around looking at international as well as domestic demand for who a guest would like to see. There are polls and surveys, and then the Madame Tussauds team contacts the celebrity and invites him/her to be a part of the process.
Dubai being an international hub of tourists and a melting pot of cultures was a natural choice of location, and the team has kept this ethos in mind while showcasing its offerings. A Bollywood section, followed by a sports section, followed by Arab superstars — the diversity pays homage to the multiculturism of Dubai.
Typically, a wax statue takes four to six months to finish. The process includes sculpting, moulding, hair insertion, colouring and costuming. “We send a team of artists who make these figures to the destination and install all the figures into different zones, making sure that they have been replicated with precision,” says Chelcie, adding that it takes about a month to install.
Celebrity sittings are usually the most important part of the project because this is when all measurements are taken. “We spend close to three hours with them and decide on the pose that the figure will assume. We capture around 500 measurements and thousands of photos. They document all of their details, from eye colour to teeth casts and skin tones, hair colour and texture. All this information is taken back to the team in London where production begins. Everything about the person is captured on the day, so we can spend our time back in the London studio recreating the celebrity,” says Chelcie. This prospect of likeness is the monumental challenge in front of 100 artists in Madame Tussauds’ London studio where wax figures are made. For the Dubai museum, however, Chelcie recalls some of the Bollywood figures being most difficult to recreate. “I think capturing how a saree flows was difficult to replicate. Some of our costumers would spend weeks handsewing sequins on Kareena Kapoor Khan’s saree, so it took a long time to be made. But it was worth the effort because it looks so beautiful.” On many occasions, in fact, celebrities themselves donate outfits. “Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan donated the suit you see on his wax figure at Madame Tussauds Dubai. Sergiu Toma is a Moldovan-born Emirati judoka who won a bronze medal for the UAE, and his wax figure wears his actual uniform from the 2016 Rio Olympics.”
As for the making of the waxworks, there are a number of aspects that are important. The sculpting team creates the head and body (the figures are sculpted from clay). When moulding, melting wax is poured into the plaster mould and the wax head is revealed. Hair insertion is another process and an artist spends 4-6 weeks inserting each strand of hair into the head, following the reference taken from the sittings and the colour of the hair matching that of the celebrity’s. As far as colouring is concerned, it takes about one week for the wax figure to be painted. Many thin layers of oil paints are used to recreate the skin tone and bring the celebrity to life. During this time, the costumes are finalised and worked on.
One may wonder how the process of making wax statues has evolved ever since Marie Tussaud began making them. Chelcie says that for most part, the same technique is used. “We would always stay true to how she used to do this because it works. We would probably add on to it to enhance it further. During Covid-19, however, we began using scanners while meeting celebrities in person. To be able to take someone’s measurements, you will need to be up-close and personal. For this, we decided to use technology to keep everyone safe. We’d use a photography rig where the celebrity would be captured in 360-degree angle with thousands of cameras, which gave us same information as taking physical measurements. It’s just a different way of doing it,” she adds.
In the age of technology, the interaction with these waxworks has become more personal. With people wanting to take selfies all the time with the lifelike statues of their favourite celebrities, maintenance has assumed a more important role. Chelcie and her team take rounds every morning to make sure costumes, hair and everything else is in place. “Sometimes, outfits require steaming. We ensure curls are nice and bouncy and the paint looks fresh. Maintenance is basically taking preventive measures,” she says.
With its emphasis on public figures, what is it about celebrity life that Madame Tussauds truly captures? The broader idea is always to zero in on an iconic moment in a celebrity’s career. “A World Cup win, a red carpet moment when they won an Oscar, a music video. We want to capture that specific moment in time and want our guests to be a part of that experience with our onsite interactive,” says Chelcie. But at another level, perhaps it reflects on our own obsession with the fabulously famous.
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