Blood, Hot-Wax and Hustle: The Origin Story Of Madame Tussaud

Blood, Hot-Wax and Hustle: The Origin Story Of Madame Tussaud

Meet the Woman Who Created an Industry out of Misery.

CultureJune 08, 2022

Society loves to fixate on celebrity fuck ups as the recent ordeals of Will Smith and Johnny Depp will attest.  In the past, however, such cancellation did not mean a loss of Twitter followers but a loss of life. Nowhere was this more true than during the French Revolution where, amidst the carnage, clout-minded Marie Tussaud saw a chopped head as an opportunity waiting in wax.

Marie Tussaud was born in France where she learned the art of wax modeling at a young age. While she worked as the royal art tutor at the Palace of Versailles, things were getting tense in the real world where common folk toiled while the elite guzzled wine and leeched off the tax system. By 1789, the political, economic and social tension exploded in revolution and anyone associated with royalty was viewed as a threat to the New Republic. This included Tussaud.  

Soon the heads started to roll, literally. The newly invented guillotine efficiently decapitated thousands of political rivals and provided entertainment for the gawking mob. In a macabre twist of fate, Tussaud found her skills in waxwork as a way to avoid the blade when she was tasked with collecting the still warm heads of the most prominent stiffs to make wax death masks. In her memoirs, Tussaud said that she “sat on the steps of the exhibition, with the bloody heads upon her knees, taking the impressions of their features.” These included former royal friends like Marie Antoinette.

When the blood lust subsided, Tussaud flexed her business savvy by touring Europe with her growing collection of life size wax-figures and the public was hooked. In an era before photography, this was the only way common people could gaze upon the likenesses of cultural heavyweights like Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin. A common sentiment at the time was that you were not important until your face was captured in Tussaud’s wax, thus making her the TMZ of Enlightenment-Era Europe. 

In 1835, Tussaud set up a permanent museum in London, the first of its kind. It flourished for over a hundred years until it was bombed during World War 2, destroying many of original waxworks.  Still, her legacy lives on every time a slack-jawed tourist scores a selfie with a glassy-eyed Justin Bieber or Pope John Paul II.  Smash that like button for the damsel of decapitation, the OG of influencers: Madame Tussaud and her empire of wax.