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The short, plump, 47-year-old spinster who sang on Britain’s Got Talent is now a global sensation

Posted by absnet on 19 April 2009


One moment Susan Boyle was “just another 47-year-old Scottish virgin”, reported the Los Angeles Times. Then came her “stunning weekend musical debut”, recounted AFP, the French news agency. Days later she was an “international singing sensation” with more than 25m hits on YouTube, the video-sharing site, announced the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Now everyone wants a piece of the “dowdy singing spinster” from West Lothian, who dumbfounded the judges and wowed the audience of ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent with her stirring rendition of I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables. Hollywood agents and chat show bookers are beating a path to her door.

“It has been quite a week,” she told The Sunday Times, surrounded by piles of unopened fan mail and besieged by paparazzi at her four-bedroom council house in the former mining village of Blackburn. “It’s been overwhelming, a bit terrifying, but it has always been fun. Most of the time it’s a good laugh.”

Although oblivious to the blizzard of comment in the blogosphere about the disparity between her looks and her voice – Boyle does not own a computer or a mobile phone – she is thrilled by reports that she might appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show: “Put me down for that. My goodness, I’m shaking.” The accolade would crown a series of interviews with television chat shows in America.

In person she is polite and friendly, with a hint of shyness when asked to elaborate on her onscreen confession that she had never had a boyfriend or been kissed: “Oh, I was just joking around. It was just banter and it has been blown out of all proportion. All I wanted to say is that I am single at the moment but I keep waiting. I am not on the hunt. I am happy as I am.” She was saying no more: “It’s personal.”

Until last weekend she lived a self-contained existence alone with her cat Pebbles, listing her hobbies as watching television and reading. She is a volunteer at Our Lady of Lourdes church, visiting elderly members of the congregation several times a week. It seems a far cry from being tipped at odds of 1-2 by Ladbrokes, the bookmaker, as the winner of the UK’s most popular talent show.

In retrospect, Boyle’s coup in Britain’s Got Talent last weekend seemed a little stage-managed. The show’s success owes much to the way the audience is manipulated, switching the focus between the sometimes heartless judges and the desperate contestants, many of whom seem to have been selected precisely because they lack any discernible talent.

Expectations were not high as the third series kicked off. So when a strongman blew up a hot-water bottle and an overweight Greek father-and-son act executed an amusing send-up of Riverdance, they were waved through by a relieved Simon Cowell and his fellow judges Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden.

Then came a man intent on beating the world record of gobbling seven Ferrero Rocher chocolates in a minute. Pathetically, he managed only four. A unicyclist was buzzed off for falling off. So far, so bad.

The stage was set for Boyle who, by her own admission, is fat and looked “like a garage”. Newspapers later depicted her as a “hairy angel” and a “frumpy woman” possessing “frizzy hair”, “several double chins” and “eyebrows you could knit into a jumper”.

The sniggers began when Cowell asked Boyle rhetorically why her ambition to be a professional singer had not worked out so far. They grew in volume when he asked whose success she would like to emulate. Her answer – “Elaine Paige, somebody like that” – nearly brought the house down.

Boyle could hear the raucous jeers: “I knew what they were thinking. I saw people laughing and I knew they were laughing at me. But I thought, well, they’ll soon shut up when they hear me sing. And they did.”

In fact, they didn’t. After Boyle delivered the first line of the song without a false note, they were so delighted to be wrong-footed that their applause drowned out most of the remainder. Meanwhile, the judges’ jaws had dropped and their mouths described perfect circles.

The Chicago Tribune was moved to report: “Some question the authenticity of Cowell’s and other staffers’ stunned reactions. Others ask whether her voice is really good or just ‘good, considering’.”

To establish the truth, millions of people replayed the clip on YouTube. Any doubts were banished when someone posted Boyle’s sultry, languorous version of Cry Me a River, recorded for a 1999 charity CD – another revelation.

One of those who saw the ITV clip was Demi Moore, the American actress, whose confession via Twitter, the social networking site, that the Scotswoman had made her “teary” threw the entire US media and blog-ging apparatus into top gear.

Tearfulness became the order of the day. “What are we all crying about?” Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the author, mused on The Huffing-ton Post blog site. “What is it about this woman that touches us so deeply?”

Partly, Pogrebin reasoned, it was “the age thing”; a women of nearly 50 who “had the courage to compete with the kids – and blew them out of the water”. People were also “weeping for the years of wasted talent, the career that wasn’t, the time lost”.

In Britain, stung by Boyle’s remark that people shouldn’t judge others by appearance, the mood was one of self-mortification. It was not Boyle who was ugly “so much as our reaction to her”, Tanya Gold wrote in The Guardian.

Whether Boyle should enhance her looks became the subject of anguished debate. Holden made a plea to the newborn star not to succumb to a makeover by Cowell, her fellow judge, who wants to sign her up to Sony and predicts a No 1 album. According to Holden, “she needs to stay exactly as she is because that’s the reason we love her”. Others pointed out that such whimsy would be detrimental to carving out a West End career.

Boyle conceded that she might consider a makeover later on: “For now, I’m happy the way I am, short and plump. I would not go in for Botox or anything like that.”

She was born on June 15, 1961, the daughter of Patrick, a storeman at the British Leyland factory in Bathgate, and Bridget, a former shorthand typist. It was a difficult birth and Boyle was starved of oxygen for long enough to suffer mild brain damage. At school she was diagnosed with learning difficulties and became a target for bullies.

Boyle forgave them: “They always do that with someone who is quiet. They are nice to me now.” Her background of bullying echoed that of Paul Potts, the shy, mobile phone salesman turned opera tenor who won Britain’s Got Talent in 2007 despite his unprepossessing looks.

Boyle was the youngest of nine children and found sanctuary in her close-knit religious family: “I was a cheeky little girl at home. You had to fight your corner in a family the size of ours.” She could sing from an early age, but it was not until she was 12 that she started singing in school productions and in the choir.

She left school with few qualifications and got a job in the kitchen of West Lothian college while enrolled in several government training schemes. She never dreamt seriously of a singing career – it was something she did for pleasure – but she was inspired by hearing professional singers on stage, notably a production of Les Misérables at the Playhouse in Edinburgh: “It took my breath away.” She attended Edinburgh Acting School and appeared in the Edinburgh Fringe.

In 1999 she auditioned for My Kind of Music, a now defunct ITV talent show, but was too nervous to impress: “I was shaking so much I could hardly sing.” She got through it but never made it on to television. She was not ready: “Now it’s different. I do feel ready.”

Boyle had given over much of her adult life to being a full-time carer for her ailing mother, relinquishing her last

paid job as a community worker. Bridget encouraged her to take part in singing club competitions across West Lothian, for which she won numerous trophies. Boyle also sang karaoke in the local bars.

After Bridget’s death, aged 91, two years ago, her daughter did not feel like singing any more. But when she heard about the regional auditions for Britain’s Got Talent she recalled her mother’s advice and decided to start enjoying life again: “She was the one who said I should enter Britain’s Got Talent. We used to watch it together. She thought I would win.”

People have been “very kind” in their praise, but she acknowledged that she has much to learn about being a diva: “This is all very new to me. I went to bed one night and woke up in the morning to a group of about 30 children outside chanting my name.”

Her next appearance on the show is not until May. In the mean time she is staying silent about her future and whether a record deal might be in the offing: “No comment. You’ll have to watch the show.” Of one thing she is sure: if she takes the winner’s prize of £100,000, it will be spent on her family.

However, she is taking nothing for granted: “It’s early days. I’m taking baby steps at the moment. I don’t want to change that much.”

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