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Waxing insignificant

Madame Tussauds makes us celebrate fame rather than the famous

At the London headquarters of Madame Tussauds, the only place in the world where bloody decapitations and exacting facsimiles of Brad Pitt’s ass are presented as family entertainment, strange and gruesome spectacle is the norm. And yet even by its outlandish standards, the museum’s recent unveiling of a new Amy Winehouse automaton was surreal.

While the troubled singer skipped the event, her parents were happily in attendance. Joking with reporters, beaming with procreative pride as they posed for group-hug portraits with their gorgeous wax prop daughter, they seemed to hardly notice the genuine article’s absence. Was their scabby, haggard real daughter too sick to put in an appearance? Too traumatized by her status as England’s favorite tabloid prey to celebrate her new role as life-sized set dressing for glamor-hungry rubes? Who cares, whatever—Mom and Dad were not going to miss this photo op!

And, really, can you blame them? Wax Amy is hot—with a freshly laundered, recently fed allure the real version simply cannot match. Who wouldn’t want to pose with her? Who wouldn’t like to hijack a little bit of her fetchingly inanimate charisma? “We just said we’re going to take this one home with us and send the real one back,” Papa Winehouse quipped to a reporter, graciously putting into words what everyone else in the room must have been thinking. With wax Amy, there was only glamour and smiles and that magnificent, lustrous beehive. Real Amy, with her blotchy face and ratty hair, would have spoiled the mood, a party crasher at her own party. Or to put it another way: Fame may be everything to us now, but the famous? They’re actually pretty disposable, even if they happen to be your own daughter.

That this scene played out at Madame Tussauds made perfect sense, of course. A virtual-reality pioneer when it opened in 1835, it established slack-jawed gawking as a viable alternative to the coffeehouse intellectualism that the rise of the printing press had spawned. It rescued the most important events of the day from the abstract quicksand of broadsheets and periodicals and rendered them as striking, purely visual phenomena. It presented history not as a stack of dusty books and the occasional illustration, but rather as Marie Antoinette’s disembodied head on a stick, dripping viscera as bright as rubies.

Like the daguerreotype and other early forms of photography that were just starting to appear around that time, Madame Tussauds made the world outside one’s field of vision seem far more visceral and immediate than it ever had before, and the people populating it far more important. It laid the groundwork for a celebrity-driven culture and helped popularize the idea that fame, once the by-product of notable achievement, was a notable achievement itself, our ultimate value, in fact. Within the walls of Madame Tussauds, where only the ability to arrest one’s gaze mattered, murderous fiends were suddenly the equals of kings and statesmen. Any publicity, it turned out, was good publicity.

From the very start, however, Madame Tussauds was built upon a paradox. On the one hand, it suggests, celebrities are so extraordinary the rest of us will pay money just to see them. On the other hand, how extraordinary can they be, really, when their presence can be suitably simulated by a wax dummy wearing too much blush and a really nice toupee? Long before digital piracy, long before Rolex knock-offs, Elvis impersonators, Andy Warhol’s soup cans and the Xerox Model A, Madame Tussauds had shown us that a copy was just as good as the real thing.

And sometimes even better. “There are no bodyguards or velvet ropes here, you can get as close as you want to our stars!” the Madame Tussauds websites exclaims. So go ahead and get interactive! Fondle Brad Pitt’s specially crafted “squeezable buttocks”—that’s what it was made for! Pluck one of Nicolas Cage’s incredibly realistic-looking chest hairs—they make great souvenirs! Bury your face in Jenna Jameson’s fake fake boobs! Hold your nose and point your finger at Hillary Clinton like she just farted!

Unless, of course, you happen to be, say, Amy Winehouse, or some other celebrity. In that case, simply stay at home, knock back some Scotch and a few Nembutols and rue the fact that in the 21st century, stars aren’t really stars anymore—instead, they’re merely extras in the Flickr photos of anonymous nobodies.

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