Susan Bennett, a 64-year-old Zumba-loving Atlanta suburbanite, shocked tech geeks, over-connected teens and men attracted to the sound of her digital voice when she revealed this month that she is the original voice of Siri, the iPhone persona who helped Zooey Deschanel identify the sound of rain and Samuel L. Jackson find organic mushrooms for his risotto. She has a storyline on “The Big Bang Theory” and makes the seemingly far-fetched premise of Spike Jonze’s upcoming film “Her,” about a man who falls in love with the voice of his phone’s operating system, not so unbelievable.
“More than anyone else, Siri was the voice of the new digital age,” says Robert J. Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “As communication became more and more text- and picture-based, Siri actually talked. She was comforting, maybe a little seductive, and immediately recognizable — and she penetrated every corner of the culture, from late-night comedians to sitcoms. The fact that her futuristic machine-voice was actually generated by a living, breathing human being is fascinating for obvious reasons.”
Bennett’s disclosure, first made to CNN, has sent the thin-framed voice-over artist on a media whirlwind, compelling her to secure a publicist, an agent and even a Twitter handle (@SiriouslySusan).
Since you’ve come out as Siri do people say, “You get me lost all the time”?
I’ve had very few complaints. I’ve had emails from people saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry I’ve been cursing at you all these years.”
You’ve said you didn’t get around to using Siri right away. Why?
It was a timing thing. I had just bought the iPhone 4 when the 4s came out. And to tell you the truth, it took me awhile to become adjusted to the fact that I would be speaking to myself and answering myself. It was a little creepy to begin with.
Do you remember the first thing you asked yourself?
I don’t. But I have asked Siri certain questions about the fact that we’re related and she refuses to admit it. She ditched me.
Do you get free iPhones?
No, I do not. I have a new iPhone 5s and I have to say, the OS 7 is a bit of an adjustment for me. That’s the great irony of the voice of Siri. I’m not technical at all. I’m constantly passing it over to my son and saying, “Fix this for me.”
Apple’s new iOS 7 mobile operating system comes with a new incarnation of Siri (and option to select gender). Do you feel a sense of loss now that there’s a new voice in town?
An audiologist emailed to say, “I think that’s still you. They’ve just manipulated the voice more.” So I think I’m still in there a little bit. I’m what they call Siri classic. As time goes on, I think there are going to be lots of voices, which I think is nice. Not everyone is attracted to the original Siri voice.
But there were also tons of guys who were super-attracted to the Siri voice. Have people told you about that?
Oh, yeah. A bunch of friends say, “You should do a naughty Siri app.” Though Apple would definitely not like that.
How did you start doing voice work?
I started in this business playing music, singing in bands. When I first came to Atlanta, I was doing a lot of jingle singing. I was the voice of Tilly the All Time Teller. That was my first engagement as a machine. She wasn’t interactive.
What was the process of creating Siri?
The original recordings took place in July 2005 for a text-to-speech company. It was four hours a day, weekdays, for the entire month. The only thing I knew at the time was that my voice would be used in phone systems.
Did they have you read dictionaries?
I read sentences that were specifically created to utilize the greatest combination of vowels, consonants, diphthongs, syllables in the English language. A lot of them were nonsensical sentences and phrases. Then the über-brain went in there and picked out the different sounds and put them back together and they created their own sentences. The process is called concatenation.
Talk about why you’ve come forward now.
Many of us voice-over people really enjoy our anonymity. I have a nice, quiet life. It took me a long time to make the decision to come out of the voice-over booth. I just wanted a chance to finally say, “Yeah, that was me!” And it really would be fun to get into more creative voice work. I always wanted to do a cartoon.
How were you able to stay anonymous for so long?
Most people do not pay attention to the voices they hear all day long. You’re bombarded with sound, from morning to night. And my regular speaking voice doesn’t sound 100% like Siri. My voice was simply the basis. I’m the human component of Siri.
You’re still freaking me out with every sentence you speak.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry.