Madame Tussaud's In London -- Something For Everyone in the Family.

Billions of dollars won't necessarily get you into this exclusive club. Adoring fans won't, either. You can't ask to join. You have to wait for a coveted invitation.

Michael Jordan hasn't received one yet. Neither has Leonardo DiCaprio, though rumor has it he might be on the short list. Whoopi Goldberg just got hers recently. Mother Theresa was one of the few who have ever said no thanks. British and European royals have been members for generations as have American presidents and other celebrities, including Bill Clinton, the Beatles, Oprah Winfrey, Muhammad Ali, supermodel Naomi Campbell and soccer great Pele. But so have Jack the Ripper, Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein.

What kind of club is this? Welcome to Madame Tussaud's, Britain's top tourist attraction, where celebrity-watching is a nearly 200-year-old tradition spurred by the French Revolution.

That's right. Young Marie Grosholtz, a well-known wax modeler, was in prison and slated for execution because of her association with the royals. She was given one chance to save herself -- make death masks of the nobles who had been beheaded, including her friends King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Grosholtz had been living at the Royal Court, teaching her art to the king's sister. As a teenager, she had already ``done'' leading citizens of the time, including Benjamin Franklin and the philosopher Voltaire. They are still on display today -- along with the figures of the French royal family and the gruesome heads of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Marie Grosholtz Tussaud brought them to Britain herself in 1802 when she took her growing collection and her two young children on tour. In those days, her wax figures were the only way common folk could get an up-close look at celebrities and royalty.

Mme. Tussaud never returned to France or her husband. After years on the road, Tussaud and her children settled in London, where the wax museum has been open for more than 160 years. You can still see the museum's oldest and most amazing figure. Dating from 1765, Madame DuBarry, Louis XV's mistress, reclines on a couch and appears to be breathing as she sleeps. You can also see Mme. Tussaud's last work -- a tiny woman in her 80s, a self-portrait.

Today, Madame Tussaud's is owned by a huge corporation (it's currently for sale) and draws 2.8 million visitors a year -- more than 120,000 from the United States -- who want to stand beside models of some of the most famous and infamous people who ever lived, from Joan of Arc to Elvis Presley, from Queen Victoria to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is the museum's most photographed figure.

Next year, Americans won't need to wait for a trip to London. Madame Tussaud's will open in Las Vegas. Another is slated for New York's Times Square in 2000.

The appeal is obvious. Even in an era when we can find out anything we want about public figures from television, magazines, tabloids and Web sites, here's the chance to get cozy with historic leaders, royalty and movie stars, even criminals, draping our arms around them and snapping photographs. The figures are so realistic -- from the real hair on their heads down to their fingernails and clothes -- that people forget they're wax.

Women talk to the troubled-looking Diana, especially since her death last year. So many men tried to paw Naomi Campbell Tussaud officials had to put her figure behind ropes. ``They like to see their wrinkles and that they're fatter than they thought,'' said Tussaud representative Diane Robertson.

This is one tourist attraction that offers something for everyone, from sports fans and history buffs (Winston Churchill and Napoleon) to classic movie lovers (Charlie Chaplin, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe) to arts aficionados (Charles Dickens, Mozart and Vincent Van Gogh).

Older kids will love the scary Chamber of Horrors complete with swinging guillotine. Younger ones (skip the horrors with this group) won't know where to look first in the Disneyesque Spirit of London ride that depicts 400 years of London's history. Many London tourists make Madame Tussaud's their first stop, patiently waiting in a line that can wind around the block.

``This was top on the list of what I wanted to see,'' said New Orleans teen Katie Landry on her way out, adding that she wasn't disappointed.

We went behind the scenes to see how the sculptors work their magic, spending six months on one figure. They were fashioning Whoopi Goldberg the day we were there. At the initial sitting (Queen Elizabeth has had 17), senior sculptor Stuart Williamson explained, dozens of photographs and measurements are taken. The body is first molded in clay and cast in wax. Eyes are made individually; human hair is sewn strand by strand. Great care is taken to match the subject's hair, skin tone, even using the same make-up. Often, subjects donate their own clothes. Diana is dressed in one of her evening gowns, for example.

Sometimes, the figures are fashioned without sittings. ``We were advised not to ask for a sitting with Saddam Hussein,'' said Robertson. President Clinton's staff sent measurements and a snip of hair. Chelsea Clinton later brought one of her dad's ties.

The day we visited, the American presidents weren't winning any popularity contests. Everyone was too busy gawking at Diana and the movie stars -- just like real life.


Madame Tussaud's is open every day except Christmas and is close to the Baker Street underground station. Tickets are about $16 for adults and about $10 for kids under 6. You can also get a combined ticket for the London Planetarium next door. Call in London O171 935 6861 to pre-book your tickets and avoid the line.

(c) 1998, Eileen Ogintz. Dist. by Los Angeles Times Syndicate

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