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What it takes to be a Madame Tussauds wax figure (pictures)

Ever wonder how the famous museum's artists manage to create such eerily accurate, life-size celebrity models? We're here to spill the wax.

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Gina Scanlon
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Studies in wax

Earlier this year, the wax versions of Scarlett Johansson and Nicki Minaj debuted at Madame Tussauds New York. But the process of cloning an Avenger or hitmaking Barbie in wax isn't easy. In fact, it's pretty friggin' complicated...and technical.

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The whole ball of wax

From initial sitting to press launch, a typical Madame Tussauds figure takes about four months to make, requires a team of around 20 skilled artists, and costs £150,000, or roughly $212,500. (That's just over AU$324,000 for those of you Down Under.)

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Getting the blessing

The first step in completing a celebrity wax figure is getting permission. Believe it or not, some celebrities have expressed no desire to be immortalized and touched by tourists years after they're dead.

Then comes the consultation, where the waxwork team meets with the subject and they discuss the position they'll need to pose in during the modeling process.

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Set in wax

Once that pose is chosen, it's set: Recent Tussauds visitors have been caught groping the new figure of Minaj, who is in a crawling position similar to one seen in her video for "Anaconda." After the museum learned of the visitor behavior, it changed the layout of the Minaj display, but not the statue itself.

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Sitting...and sitting

The fundamental process of making Madame Tussaud's wax creations hasn't changed since its inception. The subject sits for up to 200 measurements with hand-held instruments. Then photographs are shot from every angle to ensure their portrayal is 100 percent accurate.

The eyes, hair and skin are all color matched from samples, so the team has a thorough reference to work from.

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Clay first

A metal armature is constructed to support the clay mold for the head, which is then built up using meticulous detail. The head alone can take from four to six weeks to sculpt.

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Sculpting: Two-person job

A second person is required just for sculpting the body, which can take up to five weeks.

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Plaster molding

plaster cast is created from the clay sculpture, then melted wax is slowly poured into the mold to avoid air bubbles. After 50 minutes, excess liquid wax is removed to leave a hollow head.

The process is roughly the same as it was 200 years ago.

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Not all wax

The heads are constructed from a beeswax mixture made in Japan. The bodies are made from fiberglass.

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Uncanny eyes

After the head is finished, the artist inserts the figure's hand-painted eyeballs. The eyes are acrylic, to give them a natural shine.

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They even have veins

Red silk threads are added to the eyes for more realism.

(The Madame Tussauds team's choice of figures reflects those celebrities their visitors want to see, based on regular polls and feedback. By popular demand, the boys of Smosh were recently immortalized after the museum was bombarded with requests to turn them into wax figures.)

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Insertable teeth

The teeth are also acrylic and are made as a separate piece before being inserted into the wax head.

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Little (or a whole lot of) makeup

Skin coloration can also take up to five days because it requires layering to create the translucent effect of real skin.

The amount of paint (up to 10 layers) depends on skin color and depth. The artist builds up the highlights and lowlights using a two-brush technique and a tapping motion to give an airbrushed-looking finish to the skin.

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All too real

All details, including tattoos, freckles, moles and makeup, are then painted on.

The layering of skin pigment is part of what makes a statue (like this one of acting superstar Benedict Cumberbatch) look so realistic. And irresistible.

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A little like hair plugs

Real human hair is individually inserted into the wax, including the eyebrows and eyelashes.

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Glam squad for statues

The hair is cut and styled to match the desired look...

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Or not

Unless, of course, there is no hair.

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Not so fast!

Before the statues (including this wax Han and Leia) can debut every day, at least two maintenance teams inspect and primp them.

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The original Madame Tussaud

Even the origins of the wax museum are fascinating...and a little disturbing. The woman behind the museum was born Marie Grosholtz, who later married Francois Tussaud. Marie was imprisoned in Paris during the French Revolution, and to prove her allegiance to the winning side, she was forced to make "death masks" of executed nobles, including the king and queen.

In 1794, she inherited Dr Philippe Curtius’ wax exhibition, and the rest is history.

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