The elevator doors opened to a ninth-floor party room where the lights were dim, pop music was pumping, and Ariana Grande was staring right at me. Feeling underdressed, I avoided eye contact, but everywhere I looked was A-list stars: Kate Winslet standing about 20 feet in front of Leo (I guess she did let go, Jack); Kris Jenner at the bar; and Morgan Freeman in a far corner like he was avoiding someone or preparing for a scene. In the center of the room was a sparkling fountain, which if you looked up, had Katy Perry, god bless her heart, attached via headpiece to the chandelier, spinning around as only Katy can.
There was something off about all these celebrities, though, and I don’t mean they were on psychedelic drugs. They were all standing so still like we were playing the Squid Game version of “Red Light, Green Light.” If a bullet hit them, though, it wouldn’t reveal flesh and bone, but wax and fiberglass.
Madame Tussauds NYC is one of 26 Madame Tussauds locations across the world—10 in Asia, eight in Europe, seven in North America, and one in Sydney—and the next stop on my adventure to fall back in love with New York via tourist attractions. I had only visited the museum once before, so it was time to say “hello” again to the incredibly life-like wax figures of superstars across music, TV, film, and time. The museum chain could have easily been part of the “Museum of Ice Cream” craze of the last decade, simply just providing colorful backdrops for selfies, but its origins date back centuries and have a much more morbid origin than ice cream.
Born in France, Marie Tussaud (an actual person) studied under her doctor-uncle in the act of wax sculpture, and what started as a tool for his anatomy studies shifted to wax portraiture for the wealthy. Marie’s first wax figure was of Voltaire. Somewhere along the way she cozied up to French royalty at exactly the wrong time. Her head was shaved for the guillotine, but she was spared at the last minute to “death masks” for the revolution of those with less fortunate fates.
Of course, tourists don’t really care about that. They want a picture with Bad Bunny, and frankly, I did, too. I felt giddy at the GLOW party, where there were A-listers fake-milling about while a handful of tourists took pictures. I “met” RuPaul, who was about my height, and Mother Monster Lady Gaga, who all but disappeared in her pin dress and pink hairbow, was guarding the restrooms. A Kardashian I had to Google was there, too, and at least one other star I couldn’t quite place. It’s less embarrassing to not know someone’s name when they are an inanimate object. I used the occasion to get a good look at Justin Bieber, who looked dapper in a black suit.
With these wax figures, you get that little rush to the brain that someone’s face is really close to you, but don’t have the vulnerability of being perceived in return like staring at a front-facing, close-up video on social media. I was actually settling for the ghost of you.
From there, I entered the Broadway area, where the star power takes a dip. Andrew Lloyd Webber was playing the piano and staring at me a little bit creepily when I walked in. Rooms devoted to Cats and Phantom of the Opera followed. The singing Cats wax figure had a light projection that made it look like her lips were moving and singing “Memory,” and in the room with the Phantom, Christine was conspicuously missing, but her very loud voice was singing for him, as instructed.
In the hall of film legends, blonde Marilyn was holding down her white skirt over a subway grate, brunette Audrey was enjoying a continental breakfast at a table-clothed table, and Bruce Willis had blood splattered on his face from saving lives. Robin Williams and Nathan Lane were around the corner in their The Birdcage drag, which made me a bit emotional. I’ll never meet Robin, but my dumb brain for was able to combine all the data I had from interviews, movies, and now his body shape in space to imagine what his company might have felt like.
In the broadcast TV area, Wayne Brady, Jimmy Fallon and someone from sports welcomed us into their studio. I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know who everyone was.
“Will you take my picture?” a solo tourist in front of me asked.
“Of course!” There’s a certain comradery between tourists, always willing to help make another vacationer’s vacation memorable or at least photographable.
“Do you know who she is?” I asked after snapping the pic of her sitting on a stool next to the daytime TV star. The tourist was silent. She turned around and looked at the sign.
“Wendy Williams!” she read and said.
I passed through a hall of politicians under a white rotunda, who’d never stand next to one another due to death or differing politics (which lead to death). The current POTUS and VPOTUS were flanking an Oval Office desk I sat at, while Obama and Trump were standing on either side of a podium, allowing the photographer to crop which period of history they’d like to focus on.
I thought the museum could be a kind of haunted house just as I turned to the horror section: a sudden burst of steam caused me to scream, and a lovely British woman behind me to confess: “scared the shit out of me.” I continued, at a brisk pace, passing Regan from The Exorcist mid-flight above her bed, the large clown Pennywise smiling in the corner, and The Nun, her face distorted with open mouth like a demon, until I escaped to create my own grotesque horror.
To make a figure, a celebrity sits for hours when hundreds of measurements are taken or in the case of the deceased or measurement shy, a team does a lot of research. The bodies are built with fiberglass, skin is wax, and layers of acrylic paint, makeup and human hair, lead to your selfies with The Rock and Stephen Colbert. The process of making your wax hand is simpler.
There were several round, steel drums in what looked like an ice cream cart, but should a greedy child shove their hand in they’d find hot wax not a creamy treat. After signing a waiver that you might lose a hand in the pursuit of a third, your hand is placed in an ice bath to numb it. Then, you have to choose your hand’s position and keep it that way throughout. The middle finger isn’t allowed, but the shocker is, as well as the peace sign, “A-OK” and couples make a “duo” where their wax hands are holding which is so cringe and I would so do it so I was grateful to not be in a relationship. (I chose to pose like a wizard holding an orb, which looked a lot like not choosing a position). Your hand goes into the hot wax once, twice, three times, while the attendant wipes off any stray wax teardrops on your fingertips. Then, you’re dunked in a color of your choice—I chose red—polar plunged again, and dried off. The entire process is surprisingly meditative, and I could see it easily popping up at a modern spa or on your TikTok as a way to combat ADD and depression. Getting the hand off is a whole other matter: like a clingy lover, your wax hand wants to stay on your hand, so the attendant and you play tug-of-war to be degloved. The opponent in this case was Nancy, who has made thousands of hands over the course of seven years and won the battle with ease. The result is a one-of-a-kind, hollow red wax mold of my right hand that now stands now on my desk like it’s reaching up from being buried under work.
I was told the museum would take an hour, but I had spent two and had barely made it halfway through. I think I spent too long with the placards— each wax figure had a placard with a quote from the person, fun facts, where they were born, and when they’re portrayed in the wax figure.
“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” (Ernest Hemingway) “The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.” (Lucille Ball). “I’m not intimidated by lead roles. I’m better in them. I don’t feel pressure—I feel released at times like that. That’s what I’m born to do.” (Morgan Freeman). “You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” (Robin Williams.)
Something about being in the company of so many people with different approaches to life and ways of entertaining and being struck me. These huge ideas and makers and doers came from bodies with similar hardware to everyone else. I felt lucky to be in a city that had curated these wax figures of figures who have altered the world.
Before I got too earnest in my reflection, my handler offered to sneak me backstage into their studio. I didn’t realize there was a studio on-site, where a team of four hair, make-up and costume designers and stylists are charged with the debut and maintenance of the hundreds of sculptures.
“That’s how they arrive,” she said pointing to a light brown, coffin-like crate standing in the hallway.
A door opened to a studio that felt like the hair and makeup wing of a TV or film set. Costumes lined the wall and there were drawers of eyeballs and teeth. An employee was hard at work putting eyelashes on the missing Phantom’s Christine, who was beheaded before him on a table. Anderson Cooper’s head was waiting in the queue —apparently, his hairline needed some work.
“Do you ever talk to them?” I asked him.
“They’re usually not nice words.”
In addition to launching new figures, the studio team is charged with the upkeep of current ones. Three-hour daily walk-throughs help them spot the normal wear and tear on the figures and the more spectacular vandalism. Most patrons are well-behaved, but occasionally, a monster descends. One kid poked the eyeballs of each figure while his mother watched, others snatch eyelashes, and apparently, someone had beef with P. Diddy, which they took out on the wax figure in lieu of an attack that would create a lawsuit.
“A picture of them and a bullet is probably the cheaper option,” the man who had to fix the damage suggested.
How does a figure come to be? Some celebrity teams pitch their clients, others politely decline offers, and guests can vote for their faves. I playfully soft-pitched a figure of my own—it’s hard not to imagine your own wax figure among these: which hall would you be in? What would your quotes and fun facts be? Who would take pictures with you? Which part of your face or body would you be most self-conscious of?—to which the studio team was as silent as a wax figure.
A core memory of mine takes place at that very Madame Tussauds over a decade ago. On a high school art trip, my first time in New York City, we visited the house of wax which had an American Idol exhibit. Simon, Paula, and Randy wax figures were judges, and a rotating option of karaoke tracks allowed guests to have their moment in the spotlight. My classmates passed it over, but I lingered and put on Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated.” I sang it only to the wax figures, living my fantasy when another school group of kids came in. I froze like a figure myself. They could have laughed, perhaps they should have, but instead, they gathered around me, tourists helping tourists with their dreams, and cheered along.
I’d have never remembered this or gone back to Madame Tussauds if not for this tourist attraction experiment, and I only feel like I’ve dipped my toe into the hot wax of this fascinating cultural phenomenon, this centuries-old art practice, a fascinating sociological study of celebrity, fame, life, death, and humanity. But above all else, I think Brad Pitt and I would be fast friends. I got a vibe from being near his wax figure, and I don’t feel the need to interrogate my conclusion any further.
Zach Zimmerman is a comedian, writer, and author of TimeOut New York’s “Pretend I’m A Tourist” column. A regular at the Comedy Cellar, Zach has appeared on The Late Late Show with James Corden and had a debut album “Clean Comedy” debut on the Billboard Top 10. Zach’s writing has been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and The Washington Post; and Zach’s first book Is It Hot in Here? (Or Am I Suffering for All Eternity for the Sins I Committed on Earth?) (April 2023) is available for pre-order now.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.