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Artist at Madame Tussauds keeps his head while others lose theirs — for repair

Nicki Minaj has lost her head. Literally. (To say nothing of the big hole in the middle of her back.)

At the edge of the table where Minaj’s headless body poses provocatively on all fours, there’s a head that looks like it might be hers, but the skin is several shades lighter than the singer’s lattelike complexion.

But at least Minaj has a body — which is more than you can say for poor Bruno Mars, whose head rests nearby. And speaking of heads, who’s the dude missing almost all of his hair? Lenny Kravitz, that’s who.

Tony Bennett’s visage, meanwhile, perches on an adjacent counter. Half of his face looks quite lifelike, thanks to an extremely convincing paint job; the other half seems pale and pasty-faced, a waxy facsimile. Which is, of course, exactly what he (it?) is.

There are other body parts strewn about this Dr. Frankenstein-style laboratory hovering above the Strip, from Elvis Presley’s hand to Shaquille O’Neal’s arm — the latter complete with armpit hair, painstakingly applied strand by strand.

Welcome to the inner sanctum of Madame Tussauds Las Vegas: the studio.

There, four staff artists repair and refurbish more than 100 wax figures showcased in the attraction at The Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes.

On the top floor, an elevator ride up from the themed celebrity displays, lead studio artist Adam Morey surveys the work tables where the magic happens.

Or, more precisely, re-happens.

Every wax figure on display at the Las Vegas branch of Madame Tussauds — one of seven in the U.S. and 23 around the world — is created at, and shipped from the West London area of Acton. (It takes 20 artists three to four months to create one wax figure, at a cost of $250,000 to $350,000, according to Tussauds officials.)

Once those styled and painted figures arrive in Las Vegas, however, it’s up to Morey and his colleagues to keep them looking their best.

An annual rehab, such as the one for Minaj’s figure — which includes repainting her face and replacing hair, eyebrows and eyelashes — takes about a week, Morey notes.

Notebooks crammed with details from the London creators, right down to the fingernail color, guide the Las Vegas studio artists’ work, he says.

In addition to annual refurbishment, each figure gets a daily touch-up, Morey says.

He arrives at 7 a.m. — three hours before Madame Tussauds opens to the public — to “take care of my friends,” he says. “I touch up paint, I touch up hair, I fix costumes.”

His early-morning patrol “took some getting used to,” the artist admits. But “I don’t mind the upkeep every day.”

Armed with oil paints daubed on a paper palette, Morey uses a paintbrush to retouch the wax figures’ flesh tones. (Acrylic paint is used on the resident Marvel Comics characters, including the Incredible Hulk — who, at 15 feet, is the largest figure at Madame Tussauds.)

A wooden tool enables Morey to smooth out nicks in the wax, he adds. (For its figures, Tussauds uses a mixture of beeswax and Japan wax, a vegetable wax obtained from the berry kernels of an Asian sumac tree.)

The artist also is in charge of removing lipstick smears from such kiss magnets as Justin Bieber and Channing Tatum. (“I’m always taking lipstick off his face,” Morey says as he regards Tatum’s movie-star mug.)

Visitors also are hard on the figures’ ears and fingers, he adds.

That explains the cubbyholes, upstairs in the studio, containing replacement hands organized in alphabetical order, whether Foxx, Jamie, or Jackson, Michael. (Conveniently, former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman’s spare hand comes with an already-attached martini glass.)

An in-house hairstylist, meanwhile, keeps the figures’ human-hair tresses in shape, because “the hair’s really important to the likenesses,” Morey explains.

Certain figures are periodically restyled to reflect changes in their image. Beyonce, for example, is getting a “Lemonade” makeover to reflect her latest album look.

She’s “one of the heavier ones,” Morey notes, because at one time she (it?) “had a mechanical component.” Most of the figures, he adds, weigh between 30 and 40 pounds.

Although Madame Tussauds features plenty of contemporary pop-culture fixtures, the museum’s history proved a more compelling draw for Morey, 43.

A formally trained artist with a master’s degree from UNLV — who also taught there — Morey previously curated exhibits for the art galleries at the Clark County Government Center and the county-run Winchester Cultural Center.

But he had been “trying to come in here for awhile,” Morey says of Tussauds. “I love the history,” which began in 1777 with French wax sculptor Marie Tussaud, who created the images of writer Voltaire, diplomat Benjamin Franklin, even death masks of aristocrats who were executed during the French Revolution.

“I always just wanted to be a part of that,” Morey says.

His art training definitely comes in handy as he faces such day-to-day challenges as retooling a hand — one that once belonged to George W. Bush’s figure — for Hugh Hefner.

In 2017, Madame Tussauds Las Vegas plans a behind-the-scenes area in the museum, so visitors can glimpse the process studio artists follow to keep the stars looking like themselves.

“To me, this job is so challenging as an artist,” Morey says. “It’s such a weird place to work — but in an interesting, good way.”

Read more stories from Carol Cling at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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