Suddenly Susan: Singer's Town Is Agog

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 20, 2009

BLACKBURN, Scotland, April 19 -- Before fame came to town, before all the satellite trucks and fans that come with overnight stardom, Susan Boyle could walk her world in five minutes.

And she did, daily. She's never had a driver's license, never really needed one in this little cuddle of a Scottish village where she has lived in the same rented house since she was born.

From her rusted green front gate, she needed only her now-famous sensible shoes to get to the store and to her Catholic church.

It's just paces to the Happy Valley Hotel pub, a lively spot with plaid carpet where she has often sat by herself, sipping lemonade at her favorite table next to the dart board, waiting her turn at karaoke.

"We would see her five or six times a day. She walked everywhere. Everyone knows her," said Michelle McCabe, a preschool teaching aide who lives across the street from Boyle in this former coal mining village.

But that was 10 days ago -- an eternity in the digital age -- before she sang "I Dreamed a Dream" from "Les Misérables" on the "Britain's Got Talent" TV show. Since then, the woman dubbed the Spinster Songster by tabloids has become the hottest star on the Web. Video of her performance has been viewed more than 30 million times on YouTube alone.

It's all a bit lost on Boyle, who does not own a computer.

A sniffy publicist hired by the television program now stands guard at her door, trying to control the images feeding the global Boylemania -- and the show's expanding coffers.

Boyle has had offers for movies and record deals. She has talked to U.S. television gabbers Larry King and Diane Sawyer. She reached a rare pinnacle of American culture when Jay Leno put on a wig and dress and did his best Susan Boyle -- and everyone in the audience knew exactly whom he meant.

Even Elaine Paige, the legendary British musical theater star whom Boyle cited as her idol, weighed in Sunday, telling the BBC that perhaps she and Boyle should record a duet. Paige described Boyle as "a role model for everyone who has a dream."

Photographers, standing outside Boyle's home, have offered $3,000 for a single old family photo of her. Clothing designers have called, offering to lavish new outfits upon her -- provided, of course, that their names are mentioned just a wee bit.

"When the Beatles got started, there was no Internet so it took a little longer to become a star," said her brother John, shaking his head at all the fuss while sipping a pint of lager at the Happy Valley.

In a nod to those sepia days when communication happened without an @, old-fashioned snail mail is arriving in a growing torrent, some of it addressed merely to "Susan Boyle, Scotland."

Saturday night, Boyle answered the door at her home, inviting an American reporter inside to have a chat.

She smiled graciously and talked about being surprised at the interest in her in the United States, and of how -- "No, no, no" -- she wouldn't have a makeover, as some have suggested. Then the publicist appeared from the other room and declared that there was a "news blackout."

Boyle, looking surprised, apologized for what she called "the rules" of her new life.

Everyone else in the village of 5,000 continues to talk about Boyle, the biggest thing to happen here since coal. In the Mill Cafe, people talked about how, though she was shy and often alone, she was always friendly. At Val's, where she has gotten her hair cut, they talked about how Hollywood might change her graying curls.

"We're all tired of 23-year-old models trying to sing on TV. Susan is a 47-year-old spinster who, by God, can sing," said Michael Nicolson, 64, the bingo caller at the community center where Boyle has volunteered.

Over at the lawn bowling club, where her rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Whistle Down the Wind" defeated seven competitors in last summer's annual singing contest, there was angst.

Joe Stronach, a bowling club officer who has known her for 22 years, said Boyle, as the reigning champ, is to present the trophy to the new winner this summer.

"But we can only fit 100 people in here," he said, adding that her new fame might cause a stampede.

"She's an ordinary, run-of-the-mill lady," he said. "She doesn't have great looks, but God gave her a wonderful voice."

At the Happy Valley on Sunday afternoon, John Boyle and other friends were also, of course, talking about Susan, underneath signs pasted to the wall congratulating and wishing her luck.

John Boyle said he thinks his sister's "fairy-tale story" has hit a chord because of "all the gloom and doom" in these troubled economic times.

Others said her story resonates because she has overcome adversity. The youngest of nine children, Susan Boyle looked after her mother, Bridget, until she died two years ago at 91. She has never had a boyfriend, and her closest friends describe her as shy and quirky.

They said she has never held a job and has a mild learning disability that resulted from a lack of oxygen at birth. Boyle has mentioned in interviews that local kids have made fun of her, the solitary woman who lives with her cat, Pebbles.

At the pub, the village's social center of gravity, men shot pool at the small table and a half-dozen others sat playing cards. There was debate about why her story seemed to be particularly big in the United States.

"They love rags-to-riches stories," one man said, to the assent of nodding heads.

There was also general agreement that even if Boyle landed a multimillion-dollar recording deal, her life probably wouldn't change much.

"Susan will be Susan. She will never change," said her brother.

With nearly half a century in the village, her friends said they couldn't imagine her abandoning her little patch of the world.

Even so, a lot has changed, they said, noting how she hadn't come into the pub in days. Though many photographers waited Sunday outside Our Lady of Lourdes church across the street, the choir's most famous singer didn't show up.

"She was a typical, ordinary woman going about her business," said David Bonnes after a sip of his beer. "And then she sang one song on television and look what's happened."

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