Britney Spears' wax figure has her hair curled by stylist Colleen… (Christina House / For The…)
Britney Spears' head sits on a pedestal on a dressing table in front of a mirror. Her blond hair is mussed, her brown eyes glassy. Betty White stands 10 feet away, wearing a blue dress and looking a bit lost. Her back is turned on Angelina Jolie's bare torso, as if trying to ignore it.
"Betty and Britney are off the floor today, but they'll be back tomorrow," says Colin Thomas, the manager of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in Hollywood, pointing in Britney's direction. "She needs her hair done. And her toes."
Thomas stands in a secret antechamber in the back of the museum called "the Studio." It's where wax sculptures go for repair when ardent fans damage them, which happens frequently. Like a ghoulish morgue, the room is filled with errant heads, arms and torsos as well as stacked bins of replacement hands, drawers of acrylic eyeballs and teeth, boxes of jewelry and racks of replica shirts, dresses and shoes.
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Since the museum thrives on illusion, the curtain is rarely pulled back on the inner workings of the Studio, where three artists labor in anonymity amid the debris of beeswax body parts and the pungent chemical scents of hair spray and oil-based paint.
Wax work is a niche vocation, perhaps because there's something unsettling about sitting in a room filled with eerie humanoid replicas that are at once incredibly familiar and remarkably foreign. If you stand in the center of the Studio and pivot slowly around, taking in Conan O'Brien's head, his mouth like a rictus, Justin Timberlake's face, its flesh half peeled off, and all those stacked body-less limbs, it's easy to experience a panicked sensation.
Located next door to Grauman's Chinese Theatre at Hollywood & Highland, Madame Tussauds Hollywood draws more than 500,000 visitors and unveils four to five new celebrity figures a year. Two new ones are coming this month: "Jailhouse Rock" Elvis Presley and E.T., the first on Wednesday and the latter on Oct. 22. In the case of living celebrities, the launches are performed with the celebrity standing next to the sculpture — often seeing it for the first time. Reactions vary from spooked to elated.
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"Some people kiss themselves," says Neil Linssen, the manager of creative studios development for the West Coast. "It's really the only opportunity a person has to do that."
Since Madame Tussauds prides itself on letting guests touch its statues (other wax museums keep them behind velvet ropes), the cost associated with celebrity figure maintenance is enormous: $3,000 on fake eyelashes alone; Forrest Gump's box of chocolates gets replaced at least 60 times a year (the crew eats the chocolates first).
Justin Bieber's visage is the most molested, and Bob Hope's the least, according to the maintenance team, which in addition to Linssen is composed of Colleen Sluss, head of celebrity coifs, and Phillip Carr, who specializes in skin tone and pretty much anything from the hairline down. Most studio artists hold advanced degrees in art, cosmetology or sculpting, as do these three in that order.
"Bieber gets kissed and the lipstick stays," says Thomas. "His belt gets unbuckled by over-zealous girls."
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Once, in a meta example of artifice mimicking life and vice versa, Bieber came into the museum with his friends wearing a baseball cap and none of the fans intent on posing for photos with figures of their favorite stars even noticed him. In another, Michael Jackson visited Madame Tussauds in Las Vegas and whispered to Linssen that he wanted the jacket his figure was wearing. It was red with gold-fringed shoulders.
"I said that's your jacket, this one is just a replica," says Linssen. "He said, 'I know, but I don't have it anymore.' And then he wore the replica to an awards show."
Hands get damaged the most, so that's why each statue has its own set of replacement hands in stock at all times. Hair is the next most violated feature, says Sluss, who studied at Paul Mitchell.
"I fell into this job," she says. "I never thought about styling wax figures."
"On the bright side, you get no complaints," offers Linssen helpfully.
"But you get no tips either," says Thomas.
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The most difficult hair to maintain is Lady Gaga's, says Sluss, pointing to a reference photo of Gaga — one of nearly 300 that Madame Tussauds takes of each celebrity during intensive sculpture sittings. These require a celebrity to sit with a sculptor for up to three hours while detailed measurements are taken, and pose and expression discussed at length.
"She's kind of like Lady Frankenstein in that photo," Sluss says of Gaga. "She has fabric sewn into her hair and it has metal caging."
Thomas nods, regarding the flamboyant Gaga photo, her hair jutting into the air like an elaborate cream puff.
"Gaga styles her hair for a night, but poor Colleen has to set it for a lifetime," he says.