Sunday Column: What do we want Susan Boyle to do next?

UPDATE: Between writing this column and it being published yesterday, Susan Boyle had a make-over of sorts…..Here’s how she looks now with her hair dyed and her brows mowed:

And here’s how she looked before……

Susan Boyle does not want a makeover thank you very much. Or botox.  After her performance on Britain’s Got Talent was viewed by more than 50 million people via Youtube, the 47 year old Scottish woman with the big voice and the bigger eyebrows has eclipsed First Puppy, Bo Obama, as the feel-good story of the year.

But why? Why are we getting teary when we watch that clip? Why are we sending it to our friends and discussing it at work and over dinner? Why are there 2.1 million pages on the Internet about a talent show contestant?

For those without broadband, you need to understand that Susan Boyle is not your average pop star. When she walked on stage for her audition, it was all sneers and jeers from the audience and the judges (apparently, looking ordinary makes you an acceptable target for cruelty…who knew?) The judges asked a few condescending questions and Susan answered them chirpily. Cue eye-rolling. Then she began to sing and stuck it up the eye-rollers. As one judge marvelled afterwards, “That was my biggest surprise in three years of this show”.

Yes, Susan Boyle has a magnificent voice. But there are plenty of people with magnificent voices and they’re not out-rating Barack Obama’s victory speech on youtube. They’re not making us cry. Why is the world suddenly so obsessed with this ordinary looking woman and her extraordinary voice?

The short answer is this: Susan Boyle is not hot. Men don’t want to have sex with her. Women don’t want to look like her. Talented? Enormously. Hot? Not a bit. And until she opened her mouth, this made her invisible in two deeply superficial industries: pop music and TV.

We’ve become accustomed to celebrities with no discernible talent or visible occupation whose sole accomplishment is hotness (hello Nicole Ritchie, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Victoria Silverstedt etc). But someone who’s talented without being attractive?  Well gosho, where do we file her? The answer, it seems, is under ‘Teary and Uplifting’.

People who look like Susan Boyle don’t appear anywhere in pop culture. Outside pop culture, they aren’t merely invisible, they’re ridiculed. Watching her entrance, it’s disconcerting to see how unperturbed she is by the laughter. Maybe it’s because she’s used to it. You see, Susan Boyle has been laughed at all her life.

In all the breathless coverage of the Susan Boyle phenomenon, there have been some poignant moments.  During an interview with a newspaper last week, two local boys from her village came knocking at the door to ask for an autograph. “I don’t know why you need this,” she says good naturedly, scribbling her name on a post-it note. “You’ve known my name all your lives.”


What she doesn’t mention is that she’s used to local kids knocking on her door. Before she became famous, they’d run away before she opened it. Sometimes they’d hide in the bushes, taunting her with names like ‘Susie Simple’. This has been happening since she was a little girl. The youngest of 10 children, it was a difficult birth for her 47-year-old mother and deprived of oxygen, Susan suffered slight brain damage.
‘I was born with a disability and that made me a target for bullies” she told the Daily Mail. ‘I was called names because of my fuzzy hair and because I struggled in class…words often hurt more than cuts and bruises and the scars are still there.”
Five years ago, I was in the audience when another unlikely singing sensation made news. Casey Donovan was an overweight 16 year old with dreadlocks and facial piercings who surprised the Australian Idol judges and won the competition.

I was hoping she’d win. The runner-up, Anthony Callea, was always going to have a successful career. He already looked like a pop star. He was marketable. Casey however was not, not on the surface and pop music is all about the surface. Her first single was swept to number one on a Susan Boyle tide of ‘Isn’t she refreshing!” and because, like Susan, Casey’s voice was stunning.

Everything fell apart soon after. The public, who had voted for her despite or perhaps because of her unlikely image, were fickle. Our unspoken expectation was for a Cinderella makeover. Fame and success would transform her, right? But when she didn’t lose weight or remove her piercings, when she continued to look and act like the ordinary teenager she was, the novelty of a different-looking pop star wore off fast. The marketers and managers walked away, her record label dropped her and she’s struggled ever since to resurrect her career. She’s only 21 so there’s still plenty of time but it’s a story worth remembering.

What do we want from Susan Boyle next? For a while, we want her to stay the same. The unruly eyebrows*, the lopsided hair, the dowdy clothes. But will we – and she – be able to resist the lure of a makeover? Will we buy her album? Will we still feel teary when the marketers turn her look into a ‘look’?

“Maybe I’ll consider a makeover later on,” she laughed to The Times. “For now I’m happy the way I am — short and plump. I would not go in for Botox or anything like that. I’m content with the way I look. What’s wrong with looking like Susan Boyle? What’s the matter with that?”

* But wait! Look! It’s happening already……here are Susan’s new eyebrows:

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