She has been watched by more than 20.2 million people (and counting) on YouTube, Twittered about by Demi and Ashton, praised by Patti LuPone, admired by the bloggerati, snapped by the paparazzi, swarmed by camera crews, interrogated by reporters and restyled, sort of, for American television.
But now Susan Boyle, the middle-aged church volunteer whose soaring performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” on a British talent show last week turned her into the world’s newest instant celebrity, at youtube.com/watch?v=9lp0IWv8QZY, is trying to catch her breath.
“All the attention has been quite an upheaval, and she is quite tired,” Miss Boyle’s brother, John, told reporters on Thursday outside her tiny pebbledash cottage in tiny, previously unexciting Blackburn, Scotland. “I have taken her away to let her have some peace and quiet before the next round.”
“The next round” refers, of course, to “Britain’s Got Talent,” the “X-Factor”-style competition in which the unglamorous, unfashionable Miss Boyle, 47, confounded a multitude of stereotypes by unveiling her gorgeous singing voice last Saturday night. Part of the joy of watching her performance was seeing the obnoxious, smarmy grimaces disappear from the faces of Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan, two of the show’s judges, and seeing the audience shift, in an instant, from tittering condescension to open-mouthed admiration.
Miss Boyle is unmarried (and unkissed, she told the program), has no job, lives with her cat and has until now sung mostly in her local church. But she has become a heroine not only to people dreaming of being catapulted from obscurity to fame but also to those who cheer her triumph over looks-ism and ageism in a world that so values youth and beauty.
Her life has changed irrevocably. The show has provided her with a publicist, whose job is to run interference and field basic questions, like, Is Miss Boyle available for an interview? (No is the answer.) But though the storms are gathering, they will have to gather in a contained manner for at least the next month. “Britain’s Got Talent” is still in its early stages, where the judges pick contestants from regional auditions, and Miss Boyle’s next chance of appearing does not come until May 23, the semifinal round.
Nor, according to the contract that all contestants sign, may Miss Boyle speak to potential managers or begin negotiating, say, a recording deal until the show is finished, said Sara Lee, the publicist.
Miss Boyle’s revelatory performance brings to mind one from the series’s first season, in 2007. That time, Paul Potts, a tubby, dentally challenged, cripplingly shy Welsh cellphone salesman walked onstage and, looking as if he were about to cry, announced that he wanted to “sing opera.”
The judges sighed and smirked. But then Mr. Potts burst forth into a soaring rendition of “Nessun dorma,” the aria from Puccini’s “Turandot,” forcing them into a quick re-evaluation and astonishing the equally skeptical audience. Mr. Potts’s audition clip has now been viewed more than 43 million times on YouTube, at youtube.com/watch?v=1k08yxu57NA.
He went on to win the competition, sell two million copies of his first album, embark on a worldwide tour and inspire Prime Minister Gordon Brown to declare that he proved that “Britain really does have huge amounts of talent.”
Mr. Potts had had a small amount of training and experience. Miss Boyle’s apparently complete lack of formal training fits more purely into the archetypal talent-competition narrative: Unknown From Nowhere Reveals Extraordinary Gift and Stuns World.
Miss Boyle’s performance has been significant, too, in that it has unexpectedly provoked a debate about prejudice against the not so young and not so beautiful. The contradictions in the situation seem encapsulated by the fact that the third “Britain’s Got Talent” judge, Amanda Holden — who is lovely, 38, artfully put together and seemingly unable to move her face to register surprise — said that Miss Boyle should resist submitting to a Hollywood-style makeover.
“I won’t let Simon Cowell take her to his dentist, and I certainly won’t let her near his hairdresser,” she told The Daily Mirror. “The minute we turn her into a glamourpuss is when it’s spoilt.”
Miss Boyle certainly seems like a media naïf: she is “lacking in the whole conventional-pop-star-persona thing” is how Talia Manzo of MTV News described it on the music network’s Web site, mtv.com. That is refreshing, too, providing a welcome corrective to the familiar parade of slick self-publicists. She has been giving the briefest of responses to questions about herself, not venturing beyond Michael Phelps-style “I take it in my stride” and “I can only do my best, like everybody else” remarks.
This week, her hair newly curled and her brows newly plucked, she appeared stunned, wooden, nearly monosyllabic and barely able to open her eyes when she was a guest on “The Early Show” on CBS. It was only when she began to sing “I Dreamed a Dream,” a capella, that she looked at the camera, and her personality seemed to flood into her.
In a blog on The Huffington Post, the feminist writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin said that she had e-mailed multiple copies of the original YouTube clip, with the subject line “Ageism Be Damned,” to the people on her “Women’s Issues” e-mail list. Many of the women who saw it, she said, wept as they watched.
“I’d wager that most of our joyful tears were fueled by the moral implicit in Susan’s fairy-tale performance: ‘You can’t tell a book by its cover,’ ” Ms. Pogrebin wrote.The audience and judges “were initially blinded by entrenched stereotypes of age, class, gender and Western beauty standards,” she added, “until her book was opened, and everybody saw what was inside.”