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Why People Still Go to Madame Tussauds

A modern mystery, explored.

by Ralph Jones
25 November 2019, 10:30am

Photo: London Entertainment / Alamy Stock Photo

Madame Tussauds is a building full of waxworks made to look like the rich and famous. Madame Tussauds has been standing next to Baker Street station on Marylebone Road for 135 years. Madame Tussauds, we have to be honest, is the natural world's most baffling phenomenon (as well as the London site, the tourist trap exists in 23 locations in America, China and beyond).

Can we ever explain our fascination with this attraction, a nauseatingly banal but morbidly bewitching fixture on the London culture map?

I vaguely remember going to Madame Tussauds when I was a boy. To a child, the appeal seems perfectly clear: a young mind marvels at how the famous person in front of them can be there in front of them, but also not truly there in front of them. You might assume that the building is therefore constant'y full of kids incredulously screaming. But the demographic I saw when I visited on a Monday afternoon disproved this assumption in a heartbeat.

Children's voices do not fill the air. Largely, it was people in their twenties to forties ambling around, asking their friends to take pictures of them as they awkwardly laid a hand on Angelina Jolie's shoulder. The power of inanimate wax and steel to make people almost as nervous as they would be standing next to actual celebrities is a sight to behold.

kylie minogue madame tussauds
Photo: Peter Phipp/Travelshots.com / Alamy Stock Photo

As soon as the lift doors opened on the first floor, we saw a Marilyn Monroe model, iconic white dress billowing beneath her. A teenage boy looked at her and smiled – he was impressed and he didn't care who knew it. Walking around the first proper room, a kind of palace in which circular red lights hang from the ceiling and glittering strings of beads dangle into pools of water, I asked people why they'd come.

Ellie and Tom were there for Tom's 23rd birthday. "Everyone we know has been and said it's brilliant, so we thought, 'We need to go,'" said Ellie. Even in Plymouth, where the couple had travelled from, Madame Tussauds advertises everywhere (I asked a spokesperson how much the attraction spends on advertising; they refused to tell me).

Navigating the London Underground, you have probably noticed that Madame Tussauds urges you to FEEL LIKE A SUPERSTAR by standing next to a wax model of Dua Lipa. "FEEL LIKE HAVING TEA WITH THE QUEEN?" shrieks an advert outside the attraction. Many probably do. What is actually on offer – overpriced tea with a dead-eyed object who resembles the Queen – is so mundane it doesn't seem healthy to dwell on.

Why is our fascination with celebrities so powerful that we will pay £29 and more to see them even in replica? "You don't get the privilege to see them live," said a guy manning the photo desk – one of the many opportunities the attraction uses to squeeze even more money from you. "This is the closest opportunity you have: a wax figure."

I don't think the photo desk attendant realised how sad these words sounded. But it was the exact sentiment offered by many of the people I interviewed. "You know you're never gonna see them in real life," said Catgana, who had come from Belgium with her friend Soraya. She thinks it's good to see how short Tom Cruise really is. Does the whole thing make the celebrities seem more human, I wondered, or more untouchable? More untouchable, she said. In that case, is it healthy to pay so much to make celebrities seem even more unlike us than they already are?

When I asked the spokesperson whether Madame Tussauds could be accused of having become too commercial, she responded as though I'd asked a different question: "Madame Tussauds London gives guests the chance to experience life behind the celebrity curtain. We entertain visitors with dazzling, lifelike celebrity doubles that they can get up close to in a way that wouldn't be possible anywhere else.' Having walked around the entire exhibit, I had no idea I'd experienced life behind any curtain, celebrity or otherwise.

"Some people cry," said the employee who guards the model of Dwayne Johnson – which, unlike the vast majority of the wax figures, is cordoned off behind gold poles and maroon ropes. When she was working in the musicians room, she saw a girl weeping on the floor. "Oh my gosh, are you OK?" she asked. Her friends reassured her: she was fine. She was just crying because she was so happy to have seen the wax models of One Direction.

harry styles madame tussauds
Photo: WENN Rights Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Unlike the early 19th century, the period in which the sculptor Marie Tussaud's work became popular, the subject of what celebrities look like presents zero mystery: we can google them; we can see them in intricate detail on the big screen; and, thanks to scuzzy magazines, we can be kept abreast about their latest pimple saga. Isn't it funny that, despite all this, we remain intrigued? "I don't think it's funny," said another employee. "I think people love it."

"I feel like the reason people want to come here is because they're intrigued as to what celebrities look like," she continued. When I asked the spokesperson if she could explain the phenomenon, she wrote about "that human fascination with wanting to see how tall someone is".

But that cannot possibly be it, surely. This multimillion-pound business cannot be about people wanting to check, in person, whether Eddie Redmayne is 5'11" or 6".

We have, of course, forever been fascinated with the rich and famous. Even monkeys have been shown to prefer looking at photos of dominant, powerful members of their group to having a drink. The seemingly unassailable appeal of Madame Tussauds proves that this captivation shows no sign of waning.

It is the attraction's sheer audacity that separates it even from the most fleeting celebrity meet-and-greet: however much a celebrity charges the public to see them, there is a thrill inherent in the knowledge that their body and yours are temporarily united in space and time. At Madame Tussauds, people are paying money to see not celebrities, but objects shorn of all the traits that might make a celebrity worth seeing: their charisma, their body, their personality (even the beating heart they have installed in the Tom Hardy waxwork cannot hide this fact).

But perhaps this is an important and unspoken element in the whole saga: the waxworks at Madame Tussauds have neither flaws nor imperfections. In a sad way, you can draw a straight line between their success and that of increasingly realistic sex dolls. Madame Tussauds offers visitors the chance to see the people they most admire with none of the inconvenient consequences that flesh and bone present. They are a snapshot in time, immaculate forever. Whether or not you think they are creepy, they are immaculate nonetheless.

@OhHiRalphJones

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