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The Scot Heard Round the World
Unknown and Underestimated, Contestant Wows on TV and Web

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 16, 2009

LONDON, April 15 -- Before YouTube, Twitter and Simon Cowell, Susan Boyle's angelic voice might never have been heard outside of parties and church services in her tiny Scottish village.

But now, thanks to a digital flash flood in the media age, the 47-year-old unemployed woman who claims to have never been kissed is suddenly a global sensation.

Last weekend, the frizzy-haired, squarely built Boyle walked onto the stage of "Britain's Got Talent" to barely suppressed snickers from the audience and skeptical eye rolls from Cowell, the unfailingly caustic judge on both "American Idol" and the British TV show.

The audience laughed mercilessly as Boyle did a saucy hip wiggle and said she'd like a chance to prove she could be as good as Elaine Paige, a legendary singer often called the first lady of British musical theater.

Those present were clearly prepared to howl.

Then Boyle opened her mouth. And within the first few bars of "I Dreamed a Dream," from the hit musical "Les Miserables," the audience was standing and applauding. The judges pronounced themselves shocked and impressed with Boyle's soaring vocals, and millions watching knew they had just seen a rare gem of a moment on live television.

"Without a doubt this is the biggest surprise in three years of this show," said one judge, Piers Morgan.

"Everyone was laughing at you -- no one is laughing now. Susan Boyle is not just a good singer, she's a fantastic singer. Someone whose stunning range, tone and delivery is worthy of comparison to anyone," Morgan said.

Somewhere out there in the couch-potato universe, American actress Demi Moore and her husband, Ashton Kutcher, were watching. And they, naturally, Twitter.

Within minutes Kutcher flagged the performance in a tweet, saying, "This just made my night." Moore told the couple's huge digital following that Boyle's voice "made me teary."

Between the huge television audience and the endorsement of the Hollywood Twitterati, Boyle went viral on YouTube. More than 9 million people have watched her on the site.

Bookmakers say she is now favored to win the popular TV talent contest and perform at a Royal Command Performance attended by members of the British royal family.

As Boyle left the stage after knocking the world's socks off, Cowell told her she could return to her village "with your head held high."

She has indeed gone back to Blackburn, her home about 20 miles from Edinburgh in West Lothian, Scotland, where children are now clapping as she walks into stores and television crews from around the world have begun rolling into town.

As details of her life emerge, Boyle's story only becomes more unlikely. The youngest of nine children, she lives alone with her cat, Pebbles. She spent years taking care of her mother, who recently died, and she lives in a government-subsidized home.

She always wanted to sing in front of a large audience, but mostly she just sings in church.

On Easter Sunday, the day after her television debut, Boyle -- dubbed "The Woman Who Shut Up Simon Cowell" in one headline -- received a standing ovation when she went to Mass.

"We let out a wee bit of a cheer for her. We are quite proud of her," Boyle's parish priest, the Rev. Ryszard Holuka, said in a telephone interview.

He added that Boyle is a "quiet soul."

"At gatherings and anniversary parties, she'd stand up and give a song," he said. "She never flaunted her voice; this is the first time it's been publicly recognized."

Charles Earley, a neighbor who has known Boyle for 20 years, said it's a stunning turnaround for a "shy, solitary person who is suddenly somebody."

In a news release Tuesday titled "Susan Boyle Goes Global," Tom Kerr, a civic leader in West Lothian, said "tributes from across the globe are flooding in" to Blackburn, a village of 5,000 that is now "firmly on the map."

All the adulation has come with a tinge of guilt. On Internet sites where Boyle's story has been endlessly churned over, much of the discussion centers on how people initially expected nothing from Boyle because of her decidedly unglamorous looks.

Many have said it was a poor reflection on both the live audience and others watching that they were surprised when a "frumpy woman" turned out to have the "voice of an angel."

Boyle herself has noted the issue but seems to be unfazed.

In a British newspaper interview, she said she entered the contest at the behest of her late mother, who urged her to "take the risk."

She said it was "a bit of a shock" to see herself on television, and she thought she looked too fat -- "like a garage."

"Modern society is too quick to judge people on their appearances," she said. "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."

Special correspondent Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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