Why The Hell Do People Go To Madame Tussauds?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 70 months ago
Why The Hell Do People Go To Madame Tussauds?
This is actually just very sweet

The Queen Mother lingers in the wings with the patience of a saint, as the rest of the the Royal Family — all alive at the time of writing — pose for pictures. Whether or not the 'exit' sign by the Queen Mum is intentional (who'll be next to follow her out?), it adds a swatch of black comedy to the tableau — which is then compounded by Diana standing across from the lot of them in an afterlife of her own. She appears detached yet serene; her eyes suggesting she knows something the Royals don't. Even when a woman wielding a selfie stick slides her shoulder around the erstwhile princess, Di retains her eerie composure.

Death, it seems, stalks every corner of Madame Tussauds, and turns up in all kinds of curious scenarios. Jonah Lomu attends his own funeral in an All Blacks kit, a vase of lilies and an actual book of condolences next to him. Down in the Chamber of Horrors, serial killer John Christie is sentenced to death then hanged again and again and again. As the trapdoor slaps opens and Christie takes the drop, a girl screams, covers her face, then starts to giggle.

Death stalks every corner of Madame Tussauds... Jonah Lomu attends his own funeral in an All Blacks kit, a vase of lilies and a book of condolences next to him.

You can write it all off as tasteless and cynical, but then death is how London's world famous waxwork emporium came about. Before seeking her fortune in London, Strasbourg-born Marie Tussaud was forced to make the death mask of Marie Antoinette, along with those of many other doomed aristocrats. After nearly having her own head cut off, Tussaud opted to seek her fortune in London, and by 1835, had her own showroom on Baker Street. The big draw in those early days? The Chamber of Horrors.

Awaiting company: The Queen Mum

Blood and guts no longer pulls in the punters now (other London attractions are dedicated to that) but Madame Tussauds — and this one, rather than the one in Amsterdam or Bangkok or Sydney or Vegas or Wuhan — has become an experience so big, it's on people's bucket lists. "It's something you have to do once in your lifetime," Stephanie, from Switzerland tells us, before going to seek out Patrick Stewart.

Stephanie is not alone in her thinking; we've stood in a queue for a good 40 minutes — Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé belting out Barcelona — before we're finally whisked up in a lift, and spat out into a kind of VIP garden party on pause; Benedict Cumberbatch, Julia Roberts, Russell Brand, Dame Judi Dench and the Beckhams are all here but something's not quite right; not only is there no champagne circulating, someone's let in the hoi polloi, and they're running amok.  

But do people really still get in a lather about the wax likeness of Tom Hanks? Judging by the way they're bounding around the place, yes. Réka from Hungary, in her 30s, is visiting London with her partner, and laughs when asked what brought her here: "Because we love the films." She's here to see "Julia Roberts... and the Twilight... Robert Pattinson," she confirms, then giggles, as if she's about to meet the actual R Pattz.

It's something you have to do once in your lifetime.

Michelle, visiting London from Stockholm, has seen Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. What's been her favourite? She answers without a beat: "Harrods. Second floor."

And why Madame Tussauds? "Why not? It's a thing, right? You have to see it when you're in London.

"Who have I come to see? Erm, Benedict! He's hot. And I think Jennifer Aniston maybe... is Jennifer Aniston here? I hope so. My mum loves her."*

The queue to get in
Treat yourself to an award. You've earned it
We're pretty sure this is Alfred Hitchcock
A strange tribute
The real geniuses, lumped into a corner

In the case of Réka and Michelle — not to mention the older guy posing with all the Bonds and forming a Walther PPK with his hands — there's something rather sweet, if old school, about the idea. But there is a darker side to Madame Tussauds too.

Perhaps some visitors feel that, for the couple of hours they're here, they themselves are VIPs. Not only have they shelled out up to £33 for the privilege, they're ambushed with cameras throughout the experience (Madame Tussauds want you to buy pictures of yourself — somewhat archaic judging by the number of selfie sticks around), and are even encouraged to buy their own 'awards' in the gift shop (it's buy one, get one half price). It must be this sense of entitlement, along with sheer giddy excitement, that creates a grabby, slightly hysterical atmosphere.

One half of a couple insists on having her picture taken with just about every waxwork along the way (and takes her time about it), even though she clearly doesn't know who some of them are; the sight of Shrek causes people to bundle into one another in an attempt to be snapped with a celebrity who wasn't real in the first place; John Wayne cusses through his teeth as he's slapped on the back, rocking back and forth on his plinth; Professor Stephen Hawking is forever damned to have people give him a little push in his wheelchair, as they gurn into a camera. It's as if some are taking their chance to wreak revenge on the celebrity race.

Madame Tussauds becomes its own chamber of horrors.

There's been far worse behaviour reported in other Madame Tussauds; earlier this year in Las Vegas, brain-dead men simulated sex with a waxwork of rapper Nicki Minaj. At times like these Madame Tussauds becomes its own chamber of horrors, and in a society where celebrities are supposed to have a detrimental effect on children, it's interesting to note it's largely adults going hyper here. It's M&M's World all over again.

It took us a while to cotton on that these two were waxworks of celebrities
The Queen's waxwork through the ages: One of the more interesting exhibits
People breeze past this without noticing it
Don't all crowd round at once

Fortunately it's not all so ugly. Madame Tussauds may have evolved into an efficient business, but it's had the sense to keep a sense of history. Some of Marie Tussaud's original waxworks are still on show, while the oldest, a 'breathing' Sleeping Beauty, predates the work of Tussaud herself — it was made in 1765. There are exhibits that demonstrate how the waxworks are crafted (who'd've thought the Queen has done multiple sittings for her own effigy?), while a creaky taxi ride through a very potted history of London is charming enough, and the perfect introduction to the city for kids.

Tussaud herself doesn't get short shrift, appearing a few times on the way around. Whenever she does, it reminds you that a determined little French lady, once on death row, did all this. It may be an uneasy other dimension, it may bring out the worst in some people, but you can't fault Madame Tussauds for being London's most improbable success story.

*Jennifer Aniston does not currently appear at London's Madame Tussauds

Last Updated 17 October 2016

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