Susan Boyle: Famous In An Instant

Susan Boyle, 47, unemployed contestant on Britain's Got Talent performs on the show.
Susan Boyle, 47, unemployed contestant on Britain's Got Talent performs on the show. (Courtesy of TALKBACK THAMES/SYCO TV )
Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Correspondent
Monday, April 20, 2009; 2:00 PM

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.

All it took was an appearance on "Britain's Got Talent," and YouTube top pick up the video, which instantly went viral, for Boyle to become a worldwide sensation.

Mary Jordan, Washington Post foreign correspondent, traveled to Blackburn, Scotland, the small village where Boyle lives, and was online Monday, April 20, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss how life has changed for Susan Boyle and the town she's from.

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


Mary Jordan: Hello and welcome. I'm just back from Susan Boyle's hometown of Blackburn, Scotland, and happy to take your questions.


Woodbridge, Va.: Please tell me this sweet lady is not going to barraged by stylists, designers, waxers, hairdressers and makeup artists? She is wonderful just as she is. It's wonderful to see a REAL woman win people over with her charm and talent than by how she looks. I hope she stays true to herself.

Mary Jordan: Already, clothes designers, stylists and makeup artists have offered their services and at least so far, Boyle has declined. She told me "No, No, No" to a makeover.


Cleveland Heights, Ohio: I guess I'm just a contrarian on this, but so what that she has a great voice?

Everyone has cast this story as some sort of inspirational thing, when really, it just reveals a very ugly side of all of us. To think this is uplifting almost de facto means that you believe that a plain looking woman in plain clothes from a small town can't have talent, and that's pretty awful.

All this whole thing has shown to me is that lots of people assume that you need to look and act a certain way to be talented. There's lots of people who have a great voice like hers, so the story basically boils down to "wow, a non-beautiful person can sing, and now she's famous." That's pretty sad.

Mary Jordan: You raise a good point and many agree. Even Susan Boyle herself has pointed out that society places too much emphasis on looks. I think many people are moved that a woman who barely left her village and doesn't drive has become a global star after mustering the guts to try out for a TV talent show.


Arlington, Va.: It just seems like this is all too perfect. Are we all going to be in on a joke soon? is this all just a setup?

Mary Jordan: There is no evidence to suggest that Britain's Got Talent faked this whole thing though I know there certainly are many skeptics. Hard to imagine that such a lucractive show would risk destroying its reputation with a hoax.


San Francisco, Calif.: Didn't this whole thing already happen with Paul Potts a few years ago? I mean, I understand that Ms. Boyle is a bit more eccentric, but why has she exploded so much more than he did? They both fit the mold of superficially unattractive, surprisingly good singers that shock the judges and audiences with their performances.

But I've watched clips of both of them, and he's much more talented (a subjective judgment, I know). Any ideas why she has all this attention when a very similar thing happened on the same show before? Paul Potts Britain's Got Talent (YouTube)

Mary Jordan: Paul Potts was a huge hit, too. He now sings on world tours and been seen by millions on YouTube. But Susan Boyle has topped him as an internet sensation (though it is still not clear that she will win this TV show contest, as he did. There are many theories about what is feeding Boylemania. Many like that she is a middle-aged woman, not a young airbrushed celebrity. Others like the underdog part of her story. Some have even told me she reminds them of a relative with a great voice who never got a chance to make it big.


Arlington, Va.: Very shortly after the YouTube video went viral, the Daily Record found a recording of Susan Boyle singing 'Cry Me a River' -- and it's even better than her audition on 'Britain's Got Talent'. How really novice is she? And do you think Simon Cowle knew about this recording before she sang for the telly?

Mary Jordan: Thanks for mentioning that song. We will post a link to it. That recording was done for charity nearly 10 years ago. Susan Boyle did have a local voice teacher who told us he taught her for several years, but the classes stopped several years ago in part because her mother got very sick and she was taking care of her. So clearly she has had some training. But until a few weeks ago, she was singing in the local lawn bowling club and at karaoke competitions in her local pub. No one in town thought of her as a professional singer. I don't know what Simon Cowell knew about her background.

_______________________ Audio Recording: Cry Me A River (YouTube)


Crofton, Md.: Another article stated that she is no longer going about her usual routine; the local pub, church and stores. Is she scared to go out now? I'd hate to think of her trapped in her home. I imagine it's surrounded by photographers now. Does she want this all to end so she can go back to her life or is she loving the attention?

Mary Jordan: I think the fame has come so suddenly she has barely had time to realize what has happened. The day after the TV show aired, she went to church and got a standing ovation and loved it. She has repeatedly said she "won't be lonely anymore." When I spoke with her briefly Saturday she seemed genuinely touched at the interest in her in America. But as the days go on all the attention and the photographers and disruption to her routine must be hard.

Her older sister came to help her Sunday and take her out of her house. She will need some good friends at her side.


Washington, D.C.: So now what? What does Susan do now? Make an album? Keep singing in church? What happens when all the media/people/fans leave?

Mary Jordan: The next step is to see if she wins the Britain's Got Talent Show. There is another 12-year-old boy from Wales who is also a show-stopper. But win or not, she will clearly be recording songs. Many of her neighbors says she hasn't sung her best yet. She loves "My Heart Will Go On" from the Titanic and songs from "Cats" and "Evita."


Brooklyn, N.Y.: There are many reasons why Susan Boyle has become a worldwide phenomenon.

First, she inspires anyone to pursue a dream or challenge that was seemingly unattainable. She inspires the belief that everyone can be extraordinary. She inspires the belief that those trod upon by small portions of society can eventually be loved and embraced by everyone. She inspires faith in our fellow human being to be able to see past a veneer and appreciate real talent. She's inspired us to believe that life can change dramatically on a dime and has reminded us about the great things that can happen in life. And she's done it at a time of great cynicism and despair in the world.

I would have loved to meet her just to say thank you.

Mary Jordan: Well said. I talked to the local mailman who is delivering letters to "Susan Boyle, Blackburn, Scotland" -- no further address needed -- so if you wanted to write to her I am sure she would love it. Her brother told me he thinks part of the reason so many are interested in his sister is that she "is a nice story amid all the gloom and doom today."


Arlington, Va.: How big is Blackburn?

Also, can you estimate the number of tourists/reporters, etc. that have converged upon the town?

Thanks so much for doing this chat!

Mary Jordan: Blackburn has 5,000 people. Probably a couple hundred photographers and reporters have come in to town since this began 10 days ago. The village, surrounded by some pretty hills and rural land, is about 20 miles west of Edinburgh. The coal mines closed in the 80s but the pictures of the old miners are in every home.

_______________________ Britain's Got Talent featuring Shaheen Jafargholi, a 12yo boy from Wales. (YouTube)


Stockholm, Sweden: Frankly, I think her voice, while good, is being overrated because of her looks. But then again, I live with a soprano, so I may be spoiled.

Mary Jordan: If you heard my husband sing you would know that I am not the slightest bit spoiled! Maybe it's people like me who are watching YouTube.


Burke, Va.: What do people do for a living in Blackburn, Scotland? Sounds like a "Waking Ned Devine" kind of place.

Mary Jordan: There is a huge distribution center for a grocery chain nearby and a small industrial park. There are a few shops and schools. Many of the people, including Boyle, have Irish roots. They came over to work in the mines and now have taken other jobs in construction and distribution. It's a friendly place where no one passes by without saying hello.


Burlington, N.C.: I always thought I was such a big, tough guy. Being in construction for 35 years tends to make you a bit "tough." But, for the first time, I cried a river when I watched Susan sing. I found myself comparing her voice to what I would expect angels to sound like and praising God for her talent. I am not a church-going man but consider myself spiritual, even more so after watching Susan sing.

My question is this: Does Susan realize that her voice may have this kind of spiritual impact on some people?


Brian, the ornamental plaster man

Mary Jordan: Many people have been struck emotionally by her. I am not sure how much she realizes this. But I do know that her friends say that her passion in life is singing. She is shy and likes to be alone yet can get in front of a microphone and belt it out in front of a crowd. A friend who has known her for 22 years said, "The bigger the audience, the happier she is." She usually sings in front of a 50 or so people, so if a big audience is what she likes, she must be mighty happy now.


Silver Spring, Md.: Shout out from a fellow SJA alum for your wonderful article and amazing career!

I can completely understand why she is so technically advanced without the benefit of training. From experience, I can say that singing in the Catholic Church exposes you to some of the most beautiful and complex music in the world. Church musicians are also forced to use only their instrument to communicate to the congregations, as they play a supporting role to the Eucharist.

I hope that she can find a place on the London stage. Theater is another place where skill can triumph over stylish looks and a youthful appearance and she seems to be drawn to it.

Mary Jordan: Hello fellow Clevelander!

I think Susan Boyle would love to be on stage. She said Elaine Paige was her idol. Now, Paige has asked her to do a duet with her. Maybe she will introduce her to the West End, too.


Devil's advocate: What's so WRONG about expecting Susan Boyle to slim down a bit, get a more attractive wardrobe and makeup, and above all get those hideous brows waxed? If she wants to be in show biz, that's part of the price of doing business, and soon she'll be able to afford a makeover. I'm not advocating cosmetic surgery to the point that she's no longer recognizable, but I bet if she were really honest (instead of saying what she thinks people want to hear her say), she'd admit that she'd like to get glammed up just a little.

Mary Jordan: I think Susan Boyle should do what Susan Boyle wants. Many people feel better when they get their hair done and maybe she will, too. I think what many people are objecting to is the idea that on TV you have to look a certain way, and that her handlers might tell her what she has to look like.


Mary Jordan: Thank you for all your great questions. There were many, many more I couldn't get to but no doubt we haven't heard the last of Susan Boyle. Many thanks, Mary


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