Marie Tussaud (Grosholtz before her wedding to Francois Tussaud in 1795) was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1761 and studied with Dr Philippe Curtius, a physician skilled in wax modelling. In 1777, Tussaud created her first wax sculpture — of the philosopher Francois Voltaire. She was imprisoned during the French Revoution, and on her release, modelled ‘death masks’ of prominent victims, which were held up us “as revolutionary flags and paraded through the streets of Paris”.
She inherited Curtius’s vast collection of sculptures after his death in 1794, and exhibited them across Europe before finally settling in London in 1835. She opened a museum on Baker Street, where her most famous exhibit was the ‘Chamber of Horrors’, which displayed gruesome relics of the French Revolution.
Following Tussaud’s death in 1850, her grandsons moved the museum to its current site on Marylebone Road. In 1940, the museum was struck by a German World War II bomb, which destroyed 352 head moulds.
Who is chosen?
There are no clear guidelines for selection. The selection committee, which has the creative director and a few other senior members of the Madame Tussauds museum on it, has over the years chosen filmstars, politicians and businessmen for a place. On several occasions, the museum has conducted online polls, asking people to choose from a shortlist of candidates — in August 2014, the committee asked for a choice among Priyanka Chopra, Katrina Kaif and Deepika Padukone. The shortlist is prepared after extensive research, including speaking to visitors.
Sometimes a trust or cultural organisation approaches the selection committee directly, and presents an aspirant’s “contribution to the world”, like members of the Bhupen Hazarika Cultural Trust did in 2012.
While announcing the decision to display Modi’s wax statue, museum spokesperson Kieran Lancini had said that “he is a hugely important figure in world politics, a position supported by his place in the top 10 of Time Magazine’s Person of the Year List 2015”.
Madame Tussauds’ studios make 40-50 figures annually, though the number can sometimes go up to 100. Some 10-12 figures are launched in London. Each figure takes a team of Madame Tussauds artists four months and costs around 150,000 pounds to create.
Besides London, the museum has branches in 11 cities — Amsterdam, Bangkok, Berlin, Hong Kong, Shanghai, New York, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Washington DC, Vienna and Blackpool. A New Delhi edition is slated to open in 2017.
Creating the figure
The wax figures are created at Merlin Studios in West London. The chosen person attends a four-hour ‘sitting’ with the museum’s team where pose, expression and the image of the figure are discussed and detailed measurements and photographs are taken.
The sculpting process takes 10-12 weeks — 6-8 for the head and 4 for the body. A steel and aluminium armature — essentially a skeleton — is bulked up with newspaper padding and held in with thin, flexible steel wire. The body is built in clay around the armature, using photographs and measurements taken at the sitting, as well as press pictures and videos as reference. Allowance is made for the way the clothes will sit on the hard fibreglass body surface. Hair is sculpted in clay to help obtain the likeness and maintain the right proportions, but this is removed before the head is moulded, so that a correct skull shape can be achieved.
A ‘piece mould’ of the head is made using fine quality plaster to reproduce the surface of the clay, which is then cast into a beeswax and Japan wax mix. The main body, which will ultimately be clothed, is moulded in plaster with Hessian-backing and steel reinforced rods, then cast into resin and fibreglass.
Teeth, eyes, hair
An impression of the teeth is taken on a silicon mould, which is then cast into dental acrylic. Each tooth is processed and coloured individually and finally polished and set in a pink plate. It takes 4 days on average to make a set of teeth. Stock glass eyes are compared to the person’s own, and life-size colour transparencies are taken during the sitting. The experts then reproduce the exact inner, middle and outer iris and sclera colours. Each eye is painted with watercolours with fine red silk thread used to create the veining lines, and the whole structure is cast into acrylic. It takes 10 hours to make a pair. A small sample of hair taken at the sitting is sent to hair specialists for an exact match of colour, curl and texture. Hair is inserted strand by strand in the direction of its growth, using a special needle. It takes approximately 6 weeks to insert a full head of hair. Once inserted, the hair can be cut, styled and washed repeatedly. Eyelashes, eyebrows and body hair too are inserted.
Colour and clothes
Oil paints are used on the wax ‘skin’. The paint is built up in layers to create realistic skin colour and texture. The figure can be sponged in water without the colour washing out. Fibreglass bodies are painted using enamels and acrylics. It takes approximately 5 days to colour a head; 2 to colour the hands. Most people donate their own clothes for their wax statue, else the museum sources it from the subject’s tailor or retail brand.
A 41-year-old German man decapitated Adolf Hitler’s wax figure at Madame Tussauds’ Berlin branch in 2008. In January this year, Hitler’s statue was removed from the London branch following protests. Last year, American singer Nicki Minaj’s statue at the Las Vegas museum was vandalised by a fan, who also took some “inappropriate” pictures. Statues of many prominent personalities have been criticised by tabloids and on social media for being poor likenesses. However, not many subjects have themselves complained publicly.