In these days of internet and reality television, wax work exhibitions seem so old school. And yet, the Madame Tussauds exhibitions around the world still pull in thousands of visitors every year. People, despite being wired 24/7 to all the latest news events, still have the need to get up close and personal with the rich and famous – even if it is only a wax copy of their favorite celebrity.
But I’m not one of them.
Truth is, it never even crossed my mind to visit Madame Tussauds and check out it’s antiquated ‘chamber of horrors’ and stare at wax death masks of the players of the French Revolution. I have no interest seeing and being photographed with royalty. And the likes of Amy Winehouse, Bard Pitt, Kylie Monogue, and Justin Timberlake hold no appeal.
But then I started reading a fascinating biography of the woman behind the exhibition and realized that I perhaps I was wrong to so quickly judge. In Waxing Mythically, Kate Berridge brings Marie Grosholtz, the woman behind the exhibition, to life. It’s a fascinating study - part biography, part history, and part social anthropology – written in an informative and entertaining style.
Even from an early age, Marie was a canny recorder of celebrity culture. Together with her mentor, Philippe Curtius, she helped create exhibits in Paris aimed at bringing ordinary folk face to face with those making ‘headline news’. Covering everything from society beauties and their fashion statements to notorious criminals and their chamber of horrors, their early exhibits showed a clear understanding of people’s voyeuristic desire for ‘glitz and gore’.
They were the Entertainment Tonight of it’s day.
Of course, the French Revolution changed all that. Turning from entertainers to newsmakers, the exhibits began to focus less on glitz and more on gore, displaying death masks (including that of Marie Antoinette) of the recently beheaded.
In fact, it was the enduring popular image of Marie (aka Madame Tussaud) as a young woman cradling a bloody head in her apron that propelled her later success in England.
Some of Marie’s earliest work, including death masks from the French Revolution and the infamous ’Sleeping Beauty’, a breathing likeness of Louis XV’s sleeping mistress Madame du Barry sculptured in 1763, can still be seen at Madame Tussauds in London.
But sadly, that’s not what attracts most people to the exhibit.
Most come, not for the historic exhibit, but for the current exhibits and a photo op with the latest ’waxed’ celebrity.