Taking Another Look at Susan Boyle, One Year Later

Given the way she surprised the world, it seems fitting that Susan Boyle was born on April Fools’ Day (1961). Many of us watched the April 2009 YouTube clip of her stunning performance during “Britain’s Got Talent’s” semi-final competition, as well as the resulting media frenzy. Reporters and pundits focused largely on her appearance and “ugly duckling” success story.

Now that a year has passed, what has happened to this 49-year-old Scottish woman with an amazing voice?

Her November 2009 debut album “I Dreamed a Dream” topped the British charts in the first week and soon became the best-selling CD around the globe.(1) It broke all pre-order records on Amazon.com and sold more than half a million copies in each of its first five weeks of release. By March 2010, listeners had bought more than 8.3 million copies worldwide.(2)

Critics suggested that Boyle’s popularity was just a fad, but the naysayers were wrong.(3) She has continued to thrill audiences even after she was voted second place in the May 2009 final competition of Britain’s “Got Talent.” Her television special, “I Dreamed a Dream: The Susan Boyle Story,” featuring a duet with English musical theater star Elaine Paige, aired on December 13, 2009, attracting ten million viewers in the United Kingdom and ranking as the highest rated US television special in the TV Guide Network’s history.(4) It is a testimony to her popularity that, in May 2010, a Time magazine poll named her the seventh most influential person in the world, 14 places above Barack Obama, who received one fifth of her votes, and 57 places above French President Nicolas Sarkozy.(5)

Despite her popular acclaim, many pundits continued to portray Boyle as a helpless female whose unexpected success would ultimately lead to her downfall. The headline on the March 8, 2010, issue of People magazine, for example, proclaimed: “Susan Boyle, Fragile Star. Is Fame Hurting Her?”

The American press has been particularly enamored with her rags-to-riches story. She grew up in a working class family, the youngest of ten children born to Bridget (a shorthand typist) and Patrick Boyle (a miner and singer). Her parents were immigrants to Scotland from County Donegal, Ireland.(6) Bridget Boyle was 47 when she gave birth to Susan, who was briefly deprived of oxygen and later diagnosed as having a learning disability.(7) Susan told reporters she was bullied as a child and nicknamed “Susie Simple” by her school classmates.(8) She hails from the small town of Blackburn, West Lothian, about 20 miles from Edinburgh, Scotland. Her rapid rise to fame put Blackburn on the map. In the weeks following her win of the semi-final talent competition, journalists flocked to Blackburn and hounded Boyle for a story. They noted that she had lived in her parents’ home her entire life and suffered depression upon losing her 91-year-old mother, who died in 2007, after a debilitating illness. Reports that Boyle had a learning disability led many to assume that she was crazy, ditzy or mentally unstable. Many journalists and bloggers quickly characterized her as a homely, eccentric, middle-aged woman, who just happened to have a spectacular voice.(9)

Boyle became an instant media sensation when the episode of “Britain’s Got Talent” aired on April 11, 2009, thrilling the studio audience and over ten million television viewers with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Misérables.”(10) The YouTube clip of Boyle’s performance quickly became one the top-five most watched Internet videos.(11) YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were crucial in facilitating Boyle’s rapid rise to fame. On the day following the performance, the YouTube video became the most popular article on Digg.(12) Within a week, Boyle’s appearance on “Britain’s Got Talent” had been viewed more than 66 million times, setting an online record, while on Wikipedia her biographical entry attracted nearly half a million views. By March 23, 2010, her video had been watched over 347 million times.(13)

Boyle’s rise to stardom violated gender stereotypes and cultural assumptions about women performers. Her full figure, modest dress and natural face and hair (little make-up, eyebrows not plucked, short, tousled, graying locks) led many to assume she couldn’t possibly sing. Because of their presuppositions about her worth, based on Boyle’s appearance, viewers were astonished by her vocal talent. The media storm and popular reactions to her “ugly” and “frumpy” demeanor (words that journalists and bloggers often used to describe her) reminded us that women in the limelight are still judged, first and foremost, by their looks. The Guardian journalist Tanya Gold wrote that the difference between the critical reactions to Boyle and the more neutral response to Paul Potts in his first “Britain’s Got Talent” audition reflected societal expectations that women should be both good-looking and talented, while male vocalists are more likely to judged on their singing abilities. Despite her observation, Gold still described Boyle in the same way that thousands of other journalists had done, as “small and rather chubby, with a squashed face, unruly teeth and unkempt hair. She wore a gold lace dress, which made her look like a piece of pork sitting on a doily. Interviewed by Ant and Dec beforehand, she told them that she is unemployed, single, lives with a cat called Pebbles and has never been kissed.” Gold went on to ask: “Why are we so shocked when ‘ugly’ women can do things, rather than sitting at home weeping and wishing they were somebody else? Men are allowed to be ugly and talented. Alan Sugar looks like a burst bag of flour. Gordon Ramsay has a dried-up riverbed for a face. Justin Lee Collins looks like Cousin It from The Addams Family. Graham Norton is a baboon in mascara. I could go on. But a woman has to have the bright, empty beauty of a toy – or get off the screen. We don’t want to look at you. Except on the news, where you can weep because some awful personal tragedy has befallen you.”(14)

Journalists and Internet bloggers commented endlessly about Boyle’s bushy eyebrows and “dowdy” appearance. When Boyle walked out on stage for the “Britain’s Got Talent” competition, the eye rolls and snickers of audience members (as well as the reactions of the three celebrity judges, including the arrogant and patronizing Simon Cowell of “American Idol” fame) clearly signaled that they thought she was a joke. However, the audience broke into cheers and wild applause as her voice resonated through the performance hall. Simultaneously enchanted with her singing and disturbed by her appearance, writers described Boyle as a “hairy angel” and virginal “spinster,” a 48-year-old woman who lived alone with her cat.

Journalists went crazy in their characterizations of Boyle as the quintessential undiscovered talent who became a star. Contestants are thoroughly screened before they perform on Britain’s “Got Talent,” but most commentators failed to recognize the premeditated scripting of the event. Mark Blankenship, pop culture critic for The Huffington Post, was one of very few who noted that the producers of the show must have anticipated the potential responses to Boyle – they deliberately presented her in a manner that would encourage viewers’ negative reactions, based on her appearance and thereby enhance the element of surprise and delight when she began to sing.(15) When asked about the incessant focus on her looks, Boyle told Times reporter Melanie Reid: “Modern society is too quick to judge people on their appearances. There is not much you can do about it; it is the way they think; it is the way they are. But maybe this could teach them a lesson, or set an example.”(16) Reid noted that assessing public figures, particularly performers, primarily on their appearance is a very gendered phenomenon and that Boyle’s success offered women viewers an alternative to the culture’s obsession with female beauty: “Boyle is the ugly duckling who didn’t need to turn into a swan; she has fulfilled the dreams of millions who, downtrodden by the cruelty of a culture that judges them on their appearance, have settled for life without looking in the mirror. This is a huge constituency and it is weary of being disparaged. Women need an avenging force like Boyle. No matter how brave, strong or resourceful they are, they get punished for not being glamorous; for being ordinary; careworn. At best they are treated as if they are invisible, at worst they are regarded as freaks. Which is what the TV audience did with Ms. Boyle until she started to sing.”(17)

Boyle’s performance gave female viewers the hope that women could actually be celebrated for their skills and talents, regardless of their looks. Pundits touted Boyle as the “underdog,” using the double entendre to describe both her singing and her appearance.(18) Boyle offered people, especially women, a glimpse of a possible alternate reality in which women are valued for their abilities and contributions, rather than their physical beauty.

Cowell instantly seized the opportunity to turn her success into a financial profit, offering her a contract with SyCo, his media company, as well as producing a TV special, “I Dreamed a Dream: The Susan Boyle Story.”(19) When all the fame and notoriety began taking their toll, Boyle again came under public scrutiny for her reaction to the constant bombardment by reporters. She could not leave her home to visit a friend, shop or attend church services because of the swarm of paparazzi outside her door. According to media reports, when she was overwhelmed by the invasion of her private life and pressure to win the final competition, Boyle became emotional, crying, “throwing up, not sleeping and generally feeling the weight of the world’s pressures on her.”(20) Journalists and bloggers began reporting that Boyle’s behavior was erratic and emotional. The day after the final competition for Britain’s “Got Talent,” she checked in to the Priory Clinic, a private psychiatric facility in London.(21) While there was extensive media attention given to Boyle’s stay in the mental health clinic, there was less interest in the fact that Boyle left the clinic five days after her admission and then participated in the upcoming “Britain’s Got Talent” tour.(22) Despite exhaustion and health concerns, she appeared in 20 of the 24 dates of the tour and was well received in major performances in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dublin and London.(23)

Not long after her first public “meltdown” in a hotel lobby, two of the three “Britain’s Got Talent” judges who had been so enthusiastic about Boyle began reformulating their reactions. Simon Cowell told reporters that he “made mistakes” in dealing with her, commenting that, after she placed second in the final competition, “she didn’t know how to deal with not winning.” Amanda Holden stated that she had “predicted Boyle’s meltdown,” as if she had known from the start that Boyle would never make it as a star performer. Her reactions to Boyle’s success seem hypocritical, particularly since Holden has radically altered her own appearance to conform to the beauty standard, dying her hair blonde and wearing lots of makeup and shorter, tighter dresses. Holden exclaimed, in a type of meta-commentary during one of Boyle’s performances, “I was so nervous for you, I’ve bitten all my acrylic nails off!” However, in August 2009 Holden appeared on the British television show “Chatty Man” as a Boyle look-alike – with a fuzzy wig, gold-colored dress and facial hair – poking fun at her less than four months after her teary-eyed reaction to Boyle’s performance on Britain’s “Got Talent.”(24) As she mimicked Boyle, she joked about her appearance and said she looked like a man, commenting, “I think (Susan) looks a bit like Eddie Large facially, or Piers Morgan with a wig. That’s obviously why she loved him [Piers Morgan], because they always say you fall in love with someone you end up looking like.”(25)

Why does Boyle’s story matter now? The descriptions of her rise to fame drew on a familiar US cultural theme: despite any other attributes and skills, a woman’s worth is still based largely on her appearance. Women who are white, coiffed and stylish, young, slender and demonstrably heterosexual are more apt to achieve public recognition for their talents. For female performers, a failure to conform to the beauty standard is often conflated with a lack of artistic ability. It wasn’t long after her “Britain’s Got Talent” debut that Boyle got her first “makeover.”(26) Her graying hair was dyed chestnut brown, her eyebrows were shaped and plucked, she wore make-up to her public appearances and her wardrobe became more stylish. But despite her attempts to conform, her transformation was the subject of public scrutiny and critique and everything she did to alter her appearance continued to be fodder for debate and critical review. When commentators weren’t focusing on her hair, weight, or attire, they speculated about her mental and emotional stability in typically gendered ways, characterizing Boyle as the lonely, unstable, frightened spinster who couldn’t possibly cope with public recognition.(27) Recently, journalists have commented on her insecurities about her own talent, particularly her fear of losing her recording contract.(28)

Despite all the conjecture and assumptions about her looks and her psychological stability, Boyle has become a successful and internationally acclaimed vocalist. Since her debut on Britain’s “Got Talent,” she has performed at world-class venues, including a February 2010 performance at Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival and an April 2010 guest appearance with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo.(29) She has been invited to the White House to give a private performance, asked to sing for Pope Benedict XVI during his 2010 visit to Scotland, and there is speculation that she may join the London cast of “Les Misérables” (as the character Fantine) for a 25th anniversary production.(30) The release date for her second album is November 29, 2010, and the album is now available to preorder. Boyle’s stunning success reminds us that women, particularly everyday women from working-class backgrounds who aren’t considered “attractive,” are capable of great things. She also reminds us that cultural attitudes and stereotypes about women still need to be challenged and altered before women will be valued fully for their talents and voices, rather than their looks.

Footnotes:

1. Nathan, Sarah. “Boyle’s at No. 1 … and the Biggest Debut Star of All.” Daily Mail, 30 November 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

2. Broke Amazon.com preorder sales record: Serjeant, Jill. “Susan Boyle Breaks Amazon.com Presale Records.” National Post, 18 November 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010. Half-million CD sales in first five weeks: Caulfield, Keith. “Susan Boyle Spends Fifth Week At No. 1 On Billboard 200,” 30 December 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010. Sales top 8.3 million copies worldwide: “IFPI Publishes Recording Industry in Numbers 2010,” 28 April 2010, retrieved 16 June 2010.

3. See, for example, “Susan Boyle Dismissed by Opera Veteran,” 18 May, retrieved 16 June 2010; and Dreher, Rod. 21 April 2009, “The Annoying Susan Boyle Craze,” retrieved 16 June 2010.

4. Ten million viewers in the UK watched the television special: Plunkett, John. “The X Factor: More than 19M Watch Joe McElderry Win.” The Guardian, 15 December 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010. “I Dreamed a Dream: The Susan Boyle Story” was the network’s most-watched TV special in its history: Hibberd, James. 14 December 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

5.Boyle Beats Obama in ‘Most Influential’ Poll.” 2 May 2010, retrieved 16 June 2010.

6. Harris, Gillian. “She Who Laughs Last – Songstress Susan Boyle.” Times. 19 April 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

7. Clarke, Natalie. “‘They Called Me Susie Simple’, but Singing Superstar Susan Boyle is the One Laughing Now.” 17 April 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

8. See, for example, the description of Boyle as “frumpy,” “plain,” “quirky,” “eccentric” (all in one sentence): Reyes, Robert Paul. “Susan Boyle Makes It To ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ Finale.” 25 May 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010. See also: Thomas, Liz. “Middle-aged ‘Hairy Angel’ Wipes the Smile off Britain’s Got Talent Judges’ Faces.” 10 April 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

9. Shenton, Mark. “Producer Mackintosh ‘Gob-Smacked’ By Boyle’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’; Song Is YouTube Hit.” 15 April 2009, retrieved 19 April 2009.

10. Eisinger, Amy. “Susan Boyle Is Most Viewed Video on YouTube; ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ Clip Viewed 120 Million Times.” 16 December 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

11. YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were crucial to Boyle’s fame: Holmwood, Leigh. “Boyle: A Dream Come True.” The Guardian. 18 April 2009, retrieved 19 April 2009. The YouTube video of Boyle became the most popular article on Digg: Mudhar, Raju. “Never-kissed Singer an Instant Web Star.” 15 April 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

12. “QueenZ.” “Never Judge a Book by Its Cover-Amazing Singer Susan Boyle.” 12 April 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

13. The 100 Million Views Club, Susan Boyle. 23 March 2010,
http://www.visiblemeasures.com/search?query=Susan+Boyle, retrieved 16 June 2010.

14. Gold, Tanya. “It Wasn’t Singer Susan Boyle Who Was Ugly on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ So Much as Our Reaction to Her.” The Guardian. 16 April 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

15. Blankenship, Mark. “Two Reasons Susan Boyle Means So Much to Us.” Huffington Post. 16 April 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

16. Reid, Melanie. “Susan Boyle Redeems Us from Superficiality.” Times online. 18 April 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

17. Ibid.

18. See, for example, this blog entry in which the author jokes: “Boyle, a right dog, er, underdog, when she entered the Britain’s Got Talent show last year, wowed an audience of millions with her stunningly-sweet singing voice, if not her distorted features, and brought even brought a lump to my throat.” “Susan Boyle Voted Best-Looking Woman In West Lothian.” 8 June 2010, retrieved 16 June 2010.

19.Simon Cowell Will Offer Susan Boyle a Record Deal.” 1 June 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010. See also, “Susan Boyle Documentary for the US & UK.” 29 November 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

20. Chu, Henry. “Susan Boyle’s Star Turn Leads to Hospital.” Los Angeles Times. 2 June 2009, retrieved 3 June 2009.

21. Jamieson, Alastair. “Susan Boyle Could be in Priory Clinic for Weeks, Says Doctor.” Daily Telegraph. 3 June 2009, retrieved 24 May 2009.

22. Schmidt, Veronica. “Susan Boyle Leaves the Priory.” Times online. 5 June 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

23. Balfour, Josie. “Susan Boyle Live Performance.” Edinburgh News. 17 June 2009. See also, “Touch and Go as Boyle Joins Tour.” BBC News. 13 June 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

24. Tan, Michelle. “Simon Cowell ‘Made Mistakes’ with Susan Boyle.” People online. 21 June 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

25. Holden stated she was excited for Boyle, “Britain’s Got Talent Results – Susan Boyle Makes It To Finals!” 24 May 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010. A few months later, Holden satirized Boyle’s appearance: Blackburn, Jen. “Ho-ho or No-no? Holden is SuBo.” The Sun online , retrieved 16 June 2010.

26. Katz, Gregory. “Susan Boyle Makeover: She Dyes Hair, Wears Designer Clothes.” 24 April 2009,
retrieved 16 June 2010.

27. See, for example, Bruce, Sarah. “Susan Boyle’s Family Fear the Fragile Singer Will Have Another Emotional Breakdown Because of Her ‘Crushing’ Loneliness.” Daily Mail online. 22 February 2010, retrieved 16 June 2010. See also, Cusimano, Kathryn H. And “Susan Boyle Sucks Thumb and Cries After New York Performance,” retrieved 16 June 2010.

28. “Susan Boyle Reportedly Afraid of Losing Record Label.” Examiner online. 2 June 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010.

29. Boyle performed at Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival, retrieved 16 June 2010. Boyle’s performance with the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo, retrieved 16 June 2010.

30. Boyle invited to sing at the White House: Jamieson, Alastair. “Susan Boyle to Sing for Barack Obama on Independence Day, Says Her Brother.” The Telegraph online. 3 June 2009, retrieved 16 June 2010. Boyle invited to sing for the Pope: Ormsby, Avril and Mike Collett-White. “Susan Boyle Expected to Sing for the Pope.” Reuters online. 10 June 2010, retrieved 16 June 2010. Boyle considered for a role in “Les Misérables”: Viscount, Melissa. “Susan Boyle, Les Misérables to team up for 25th anniversary show,” retrieved 16 June 2010.