By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
The transformation of Susan Boyle from a bashful Scottish villager with a lovely singing voice into an Internet star, U.S. media fixation and real-life Cinderella story brings with it a discomforting question. It's a query that usually is not broached in polite conversation because Americans like to pretend that appearance doesn't matter.
Should Boyle have a makeover?
The politically correct answer: Only if she wants one.
The honest answer: Yes.
Now that Boyle has become famous -- and her fame portends a financial windfall for someone, if not her -- the decision is no longer merely a reflection of her desires. Indeed, the wrong decision has the capacity to unravel the centuries-long tradition of fairy tales. In other words, of course Susan Boyle should have a makeover. Isn't that why fairy godmothers were created?
The debate over the makeover is argued in the media against the backdrop of an entertainment industry that regularly churns out moderately talented performers who are propped up by their extraordinary beauty or sex appeal. Occasionally, these singers are blessed with natural good looks, but mostly, they have been transformed by a small village, personal discipline and a good deal of money. Magnificent singers are also aesthetically polished so they adhere to the cultural standard.
As a result, even amateurs know they need to have a certain sizzle to succeed. Look no further than "American Idol" for evidence of what is required. The Idolettes are styled by professionals, and the judges regularly comment on their appearance, noting whether they look like the kind of stars they aspire to be. The "American Idol" success stories are filled with makeovers from Clay Aiken to Fantasia, from Carrie Underwood to Jennifer Hudson.
As a culture, we don't just want to be successful, we want to look the part as well. Success is beautiful -- literally.
All that self-made beauty doesn't come easily. At worst, makeovers lead to aesthetic bullying by would-be Svengalis or to unhealthy decisions. In our dark moments of envy, we think of those dewy faces and taut bodies as a matter of nips, tucks, injections and good lighting. That might be part of it, but they also come with a significant amount of hard work: the daily runs, the rigorous diet, the Pilates, the yoga, the obsessing. Looking good -- entertainment-industry good, that is -- requires the willingness to spend incredible amounts of time, energy and money in the pursuit of beauty. The result is a fan base that admires the result, yet spends no small amount of time deriding the narcissism necessary to look that way.
Then along comes Boyle, who steps into the spotlight, tweaks our cultural ambivalence about appearance, and wows folks with her talent. And the public flat out goes nuts. Bonkers. People got teary-eyed and goose-pimpled. Boyle would not be mesmerizing if she were not an ugly duckling. Her success is fueled by the fact that everyone assumed she was going to be a loser because she looked like the standard version of one as defined by the collective archives of movies, TV and literature.
Boyle beat the system that rewards the drop-dead gorgeous 10s and ignores the 3s and 4s. And people love her for that. Her rough-cut curls and sensible shoes make them feel virtuous. If she should decide to take designers up on their offer of free flattering frocks, avail herself of a smart new haircut and vigorous eyebrow arching, would she ruin the fun being had by her millions of fans?
The point of a proper makeover, however, is not to look like someone else but the best version of yourself. This is not a recommendation for an "Extreme Makeover," but rather the Tim Gunn or "What Not to Wear" version. Those are the kind of transformations in which the recipients spend a little time figuring out precisely why they've been squeamish about trying to achieve their personal best. Just before her triumphant performance on "Britain's Got Talent," Boyle said she wanted to be a professional singer, but no one had ever given her the chance. It was a reasonable comment, but it also had the ring of passivity to it. What held Boyle back for so long?
Some people argue that if Boyle gets a makeover, she will have lost the very characteristics that made folks love her, that made them believe that fairy tales can happen to ordinary people. Boyle has charmed millions, in part, because she comes across as unpretentious and pleasant. But she's hardly Everywoman. She's an odd duck, a bit of a loner. She's a character. And she's living out a fairy tale.
Transformation is always part of a good story. Cinderella didn't go to the ball in hand-me-downs. She went looking her best in a glorious gown and won the heart of the prince. The ugly duckling becomes a swan.
The tale of Susan Boyle will not be complete until the shy spinster blossoms. Those who have been entranced by her story so far should let Boyle's fairy godmother finish her work.