DiMaggio, Hemingway, and RuPaul?The newest outpost of the world's oldest waxworks is giving Disney some competition
James Mitchell

Madame Tussaud of London is bringing her lore and gore to New York's 42nd Street. Aiming to get noticed on one of the city's flashiest blocks, architects Ian McGonigal and Frederick Bland designed an 85,000-square-foot multilayered concoction with two exterior glass elevators — the only ones in the city — to carry visitors up and down the façade. They added a second-floor viewing gallery that juts out over the sidewalk, with vistas of both the Hudson and East rivers, and then topped off the building with a colossal hand to hold the 10-foot illuminated sign. "We knew we needed a New York edge," says Andrew Tansley, Tussaud's tweedy executive director, "to give it a bit of humor, quirkiness."

Until 1923, the site at 234 West 42nd Street was occupied by Murray's Roman Garden, a grandiose restaurant adorned with mosaics, frescoes, and a revolving floor. When Prohibition closed Murray's, along came Hubert's Museum & Flea Circus, which succumbed, in 1965, to Peepland, one of Manhattan's seedier peep shows. Now, where Hubert's habitués once ogled Lionel the Lion-Headed Man, Tussaud's guests mingle with life-size replicas of Jackie O., Malcolm X, Prince, Whoopi Goldberg, and Andy Warhol in a new $50 million outpost of the world's oldest wax museum, opened last month.

"We've had sittings with every important royal figure since George III," crows Andrew Tansley, who hopes to establish the tradition with American presidents. Queen Elizabeth has been sculpted 17 times. "She was wonderful," recalls Judy Craig, head of the studio, of the last majestic sitting. "She even lifted her skirt so we could measure her knees."

Some American celebrities invited to be waxily immortalized weren't as receptive. Jack Nicholson was emphatic: "On no account did he want to be included," says creative director Caroline Elliott.

But even without Jack, "Opening Night Party," the first exhibit one sees upon entering, is a lavish, red-carpet gala with mayors and moguls, actors and anchors, gossip queen Liz Smith, and, as centerpiece, RuPaul on the half-shell in the middle of a fountain—think Birth of Venus with a gender-bending twist.

The London Tussaud's has a Chamber of Horrors; New York, it was felt, didn't need one. "In London, if you have a serial killer once a century, fine," says Tansley. "But if you have one every week. . . ." Jack the Ripper may not be missed, however. The wax figures are so realistic that a visitor might excuse himself for stumbling over Travolta's foot or elbowing Arafat. Although each figure costs an average of $45,000 and takes six months to produce, viewers are encouraged to interact—as they do in London, where the most-groped figure is Naomi Campbell's, and Brad Pitt's cheeks need regular touch-ups because they're kissed so often. Guests sometimes go further: notable plunder has included Henry VIII's head, Joan Collins's fuchsia fingernails, and Superman's cape. "French schoolchildren are the worst," gripes Elliott, who has yet to meet New York's.

A few months back, at the Tussaud's studios in West London (where all the figures were made before being shipped in containers to the United States), principal sculptor Stephen Swales is preparing the Duchess of York for 42nd Street. "When you're sculpting clay," he says, fingering Fergie's face on the armature before him, "you always add, in bits and pieces. You don't take away." Every wax figure's head and body begins as clay, and Tussaud's goes through (and recycles) 20,000 pounds of it a year.

A sitting at Tussaud's is more likely to be a standing, a twirling, and a prodding for two hours while being measured by calipers and tape, captured in photographs and on video. "We try to make it as painless as possible," says Stuart Williamson, who had to sculpt New York City's mayor Rudolph Giuliani after spending only 27 minutes with him at City Hall.

Nothing's sacred, not Oprah's cracked lips nor Gloria Estefan's remarkably red knuckles. Tussaud's "portraits," as they're called, are so accurate that every bodily inch—elbow to wrist, mid-knee to iliac crest—is measured and recorded. Eye colors are matched. Teeth impressions are made. "We're not trying to flatter," says Swales. "We're trying to get the reality."

To supplement the photos and measurements, the research department provides background material. Sculptor Jeni Fairey gained insight by reading Michelle Kwan's autobiography; Stuart Williamson listened to Leonard Bernstein's concert recordings while creating a portrait of the conductor.

Swales studies the duchess's mouth. "The hardest thing is getting the smile—those little dimply bits—so that it's believable," he says. "When you're making the smile, you often find yourself smiling—to understand how she feels. This is a cross between science and art. If you think of it as a lump of clay, you're lost."

Woody Allen's clay face wears a bland expression, which is easier for Martin Hamson to work with than, say, Elle Macpherson's, who smiles with her eyes. Hamson is making a 14-piece mold, using the very same process Marie Grosholtz Tussaud did 200 years ago with Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon. He dips a brush into a bowl of wet, creamy plaster and delicately flicks the stuff over Woody's face, applying coat after coat. When it hardens, he'll discard the clay sculpture and bind the interlocking pieces of the mold with rope to hold them together.

Next, over in the casting room, Hamson cooks up the most famous wax on earth—a proprietary recipe with beeswax and man-made resins mixed in for strength. He pours the hot wax through a long tin funnel into the mold. After 30 minutes, the wax is poured out again—leaving a three-quarter-inch wax shell. An hour and a half later, the rope is cut off and the jigsaw pieces are loosened at the seams with a spatula. Molds are kept so that they can spawn more Woodys, Evanders, and Madonnas. (Tussaud's also has spin-offs in Las Vegas, Hong Kong, and Amsterdam.)

Woody's glasses—made with his own prescription—will go on later, when he gets dressed. Tussaud's gladly accepts personal effects, like the camera contributed by Annie Leibovitz and the presidential shirt and tie donated by Chelsea Clinton for the waxy replica of her father.

Past a pile of Spice Girl arm molds and a tray of eyeballs is the hair and coloring room. "We're the receiving end of what comes out of the mold shop," says Sue Day, who's in charge of this bustling salon. While a wax head is produced in 40 hours, the hair can take 140 hours: every strand is inserted by hand, one at a time. Jodie Foster's do is a blend of five shades; Billy Graham's, four. Bruce Springsteen's stubble is not sand; it's hair that has been put in and then shaved. Nicolas Cage's chest rug has been implanted, hair by hair, "growing" in the right direction.

Though Madame Tussaud herself used watercolors as cosmetics, today's makeup artists rely on oil paints, applied in very fine layers to let the wax come through. "With women," says Day, "you've got to believe there's skin under the makeup." And you do. Even Fergie's most delicate veins and freckles can be seen.

Ella and F. Scott Fitzgerald are done. George Washington and Larry King are waiting for their makeup. Ted Turner is having his face washed with liquid detergent. Bill Gates is getting his hair parted. Jackie O.'s in rollers, Dorothy Parker's in hair clips, and Richard Nixon wears a floppy mop of lustrous curls—yet to be cut—that makes him look like a woozy Roman senator on leave from an orgy.

Next stop: Times Square.
Madame Tussaud's New York, 234 W. 42nd St.; 800/246-8872 ; www.madame-tussauds.com; admission $19.95.

Ellen Stern's articles have appeared in GQ, Gourmet, New York, and In Style.