Talent trumps all for YouTube sensation Susan Boyle
By By Scott Collins and Janet Stobart
Apr 17, 2009 | 12:00 AM
Less than a week ago, she was just another 47-year-old Scottish virgin.
Now, more than 13 million YouTube views later, Hollywood agents and talk-show bookers are jostling for a few minutes with Susan Boyle, a stocky, beetle-browed woman who would not ordinarily rate a second glance on the street.
"Do you understand what a big deal this is?" Harry Smith asked her Thursday morning on CBS' "The Early Show."
"It 'asn't really sunk in yet," Boyle guilelessly replied from her plainly furnished cottage in Blackburn, Scotland, which had belonged to her now-deceased mother.
It may all add up to only a momentary big deal, but the case of this previously unknown amateur singer is a compelling study in how viral video can lather its subject into frothy international stardom within hours.
On Saturday's season premiere of " Britain's Got Talent," a U.K. show in which " American Idol's" Simon Cowell is one of the judges, Boyle was, from the moment she stepped onstage, perhaps the most unlikely star since Marie Dressler, the frumpy 1930s movie heroine.
Boyle told producers that she was a virgin. "Never been kissed," she confided on-camera. "Shame! But it's not an advert." She invoked as her idol the British musical theater star Elaine Paige. When she stated her age and the audience groaned, Boyle ground her ample hips and blurted: "And that's just one side of me!"
A close-up showed Piers Morgan, another judge familiar to U.S. viewers from "America's Got Talent," wincing.
The crowd seemed to be expecting another colorful character with no discernible talent, in the style of former "American Idol" contestant William Hung.
Amanda Holden, the program's third judge, e-mailed on Thursday: "When she came onto stage the audience immediately started booing and hissing her, based purely on her appearance. She looked a little odd [and] was a bit nervous and searching for her words."
"We were laughing at her," Morgan said in a phone interview Wednesday. "She was someone who seemed to be completely deluded."
Until she started to sing. Boyle, who had some limited previous vocal training and then mostly in church choirs, shrewdly picked "I Dreamed a Dream," a heartbreaking ballad about unfulfilled dreams from the hit musical "Les Misérables." A few bars into the song, as her earthy, pleasing voice took command and soared over the auditorium, the crowd could be heard letting out a collective gasp, then starting to cheer raucously.
"It wasn't singer Susan Boyle who was ugly on 'Britain's Got Talent' so much as our reaction to her" was the title of a piece by Guardian commentator Tanya Gold.
Press and TV analyses since then have examined the unlikely success of her less-than-glamorous presentation, in particular audiences' reaction before and after her performance.
"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," wrote Gold.
But the Internet has already delivered its own verdict on her potential. Boyle's is already the most-watched clip this month on YouTube, more than doubling the total views of its runner-up. Demi Moore has written tweets praising the singer on Twitter, and Oprah Winfrey has reportedly extended an invitation for Boyle to appear on her program.
Even Patti LuPone, the Broadway diva whose version of "I Dreamed a Dream" Boyle closely followed, is a fan. "Susan, you've got pluck, girl," LuPone told Boyle on CBS' "Early Show." Of the YouTube performance, she added: "It was pretty powerful . . . I started to cry."
Boyle's story resembles that of Paul Potts, a shy cellphone salesman turned opera tenor who won the first season of "Britain's Got Talent" in 2007 by belting out a credible rendition of Puccini's aria "Nessun Dorma."
Potts' performance was another online sensation, with more than 43 million views to date. Bullying at school undermined his confidence, he said in interviews. Boyle also told a British newspaper that she was bullied at school for her frizzy hair and for having learning difficulties.
Both performers are classic underdogs, nonthreatening people who, in pursuing long-held dreams, managed to triumph over easily understood disadvantages. While many Americans normally wouldn't be fascinated by a previously obscure contestant on a British TV show, that story is familiar and has particular resonance in this country.
"Americans can be very moved by this sort of thing," Morgan said. "She is Rocky Balboa, if you will."
Indeed, a full range of emotion -- first humor, then shock, followed by warm appreciation and perhaps a dollop of self-reproof for anyone who dares to judge others principally by their appearance -- can be extracted from Boyle's seven-minute clip. And that is what makes her story perfect for the Internet, where short clips rule.
Giving Boyle staying power may prove harder, but those who discovered her are already at work on the problem.
"Our understanding is that Simon Cowell and BMG have already started working with her, to try and get her a deal" in records, said "Early Show" executive producer Zev Shalev, whose staff worked hard to get Boyle on the program. A spokesman for CAA, which represents Cowell, was unable to confirm that information by press time.
In the meantime, Morgan vows to beat his longtime rival Cowell in the race to give Boyle her first kiss.
"In these types of shows, the most powerful tool you can have is what Simon calls the 'likability factor' . . . [Boyle] is someone who is happy in her own skin," Morgan said. "This is someone who's worked [nearly] 48 years to get her shot and, by God, she's taking it."