Robin Givhan on Susan Boyle's Cinderella Story, Need for a Makeover

Scottish singer and Internet sensation Susan Boyle could complete her Cinderella story with a little help from a makeover.
Scottish singer and Internet sensation Susan Boyle could complete her Cinderella story with a little help from a makeover. (Ho - Reuters)
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Robin Givhan
Washington Post Fashion Editor
Tuesday, April 21, 2009; 12:00 PM

Should overnight singing sensation Susan Boyle have a makeover? Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and Post fashion editor Robin Givhan says "The politically correct answer: Only if she wants one. The honest answer: Yes."

Givhan was online Tuesday, April 21 at noon ET to talk about the Cinderella story of Boyle, and the relationship between appearance and stardom.


Robin Givhan: Good afternoon everyone! Thanks for joining the discussion about Susan Boyle. Let's get to the questions and comments!


Alexandria, Va.: Robin,

I so, so, so disagree with your column today. Not everybody has to be squished into a one-size-fits-all kind of a look - even in "show business." That's the kind of attitude that makes United Airlines launch a witch hunt against people a tad wider than others, when what they should really do is give back the 8 inches of seat width they've taken away over the past few years. I for one am looking forward to whatever look Susan Boyle chooses -- and do NOT want a "fashionable look" forced upon her.

Robin Givhan: Hi Alexandria,

I don't think Susan Boyle needs to be squished into a cookie cutter look.That wasn't the point of the column at all. It was whether she should indulge in or submit to a bit of good styling. she shouldn't try to look like Mariah or Britney or anyone else. She should look like a really good version of Susan. (And I don't think United Airlines is going after folks who are a "tad" wider.)


What held Boyle back for so long? : She was caring for her dying mother, who encouraged her singing, but Susan put her mother first. Pavarotti and Streisand are no raving beauties either.

Robin Givhan: Boyle, if I remember correctly, noted that she was performing on the talent show to honor her mother. I also think people can do more than one thing at a time.

As for STreisand...have you seen how she has transformed over the years? As for Pavarotti, there are exeptions to every rule.


Fairfax County, Va.: I almost always agree with you, but I think you are out of your comfort zone in writing about Susan Boyle. Susan Boyle is famous in part because she is so authentically herself. She already presents herself well, within her chosen look. She is always fresh and clean, poised, neatly dressed and coiffed, in that pearl necklace, with a good quality, conservative dress and flats, and limited make-up.

For an adult woman, comfortable in her own skin, who has chosen this traditional British village appearance to suddenly start wearing colored eyeshadow or high heels or eye-catching accessories would destroy her sincerity and her appeal. She would stop being a unique gem in a planet populated by billions of people, and instead become a run of the mill "wannabe." Please leave her alone.

Robin Givhan: I'm sorry, I don't equate being clean with looking your best. And I also don't think high heels are a necessity for polishing one's image.

One of the things going on here in the enthusiasm over Boyle, I think, is people equating plainness with authenticity. As if putting on a pair of high heels - which I"m not necessarily advocating - is the equivalent of selling one's soul to the devil.


Anonymous: Why should she get a makeover because you think she should? Why shouldn't she do what she wants?

Robin Givhan: Uh, did you read the first couple graphs of the column? Of course she should do what she wants, but that decision ultimately resonates broadly because of her new-found fame.


West Virginia: Why do people always try to change people to the way they think one should look .When in fact I think Susan looked wonderful and very charming and she seems very happy about her self and her style so why is the world jumping on her back and yapping about her looks when her voice was beautiful enough to call her Cinderella. Shame, shame to those who think different.

Robin Givhan: Oh stop tut-tutting. Really? If you saw Susan Boyle walking down the street would you turn around and say, "Wow, she looks wonderful!" I called her Cinderella because she's been cast in a fairytale...the story of the underdog rising to the top.

And the big reason the world was so interested in her beautiful voice is because it came from such plain packaging. Why shouldn't the outward appearance match the voice?


Philly: Okay - SB is a bit frumpy.. but so what! Why a makeover - why not just be happy with who you are. I mean really - as a frump she has over 20 million hits - beats the good looking Obama.

Robin Givhan: How did this become political, for crying out loud?


Washington, D.C.: She was taking care of her ailing mother until a few years ago. A little attention for and to herself may be a welcome gift. I agree with you Robin -- the story of Cinderella is a lovely one.

Robin Givhan: someone who agrees with me!


Washington, D.C.: It would be a shame to try and change Susan Boyle in any way - she is perfect just way she is and does not need to fit someone else's idea of what she should be -- she has the voice of an angel and is such a pleasure to listen to.

Robin Givhan: Why would it be a shame to encourage someone to look their best?


Columbia, Md.: I would much rather hear Susan Boyle sing just as she is now, with the same look, instead of seeing her made up in any way, unless she herself chooses any such change.

Robin Givhan: Hi Columbia,

Part of the appeal of SB is that she's a unique character. But I can't help but sense a certain degree of selfishness in the way people are responding to her. It may be that people don't want her to change because her plainness makes them feel better about themseles.


College Park: "Do more than one thing at a time"??

Robin, I typically agree with what you say, but not this time. I'm not sure if you've cared for an ailing parent, but from experience I can tell you one is fortunate to be able to do much else. It is physically, emotionally, and psychologically draining. I can see why Susan wouldn't have chosen to pursue a singing career at the same time. Just taking care of the house and the parent--their needs, as well as cooking, cleaning, etc. is tough enough!

Robin Givhan: I can only imagine the pressures on someone caring for an ailing parent. However, Boyle's voice did not magically appear in the last few years. When I wondered what might have held her back from going after her dream, I meant over the breadth of her life. She was not raising children, for instance. And while the pursuit of a singing career might have been put on hold because of her recent caregiver roles, I don't think that's a full explanation.


Would You Pay?....: hear Susan sing, whether or not she changed her look? I, for one, would do so in a heartbeat, and my guess is so would others. I think, if she wants to look better, okay, get some advice as you say. But if she's comfortable where she is now, why should she change? We'll buy her CDs and go see her, nonetheless, and she'll stay true to herself.

Robin Givhan: I wouldn't pay to hear Susan sing even if she looked like Mariah Carey. But then I wouldn't pay to hear Mariah sing. Just not my cup of tea.

But there is a reason why some people with brilliant voices never become successful professional singers. You can't deny that when people pay to go to a concert, they like to think the performer has made an effort to be easy on the eys.


Washington, D.C.: I completely agree with you. Both that Susan Boyle needs - and deserves - a makeover and that the naysayers are reflecting their own insecurities.

If Susan Boyle can make it looking like a frump then there's no need for them to think about their own outward appearance.

Robin Givhan: clearly I agree with DC.

i think the rules of the entertainment industry are harsh. so it's understandable that people are thrilled that someone appears to have flouted them. but i don't think that's what's going on here. i think SB is the people's star. not the industry's star. until she's performing on stage at Carnegie Hall, she hasn't altered the entertainment industry one bit. at the moment, she's a lovely novelty.


Falls Church, Va.: Robin I haven't had a chance to read your column yet, but I think I agree with you in premise - what is wrong with getting a mani/pedi and some advice on how to apply your own make up and style your own hair? Nothing wrong with wearing age appropriate clothes that flatter your figure. NOTHING wrong with looking polished and put together.

Robin Givhan: Amen!


DC: I have to say I started reading your column with the point of view express by most people here today, but your article convinced me otherwise. Thank you for making me consider another point of view...that is after all the point of criticism. You did after all, say she should do what she wants.

Robin Givhan: And thank you!


Langley VA: Hi Robin!

I agree with you too, as a small Scottish person.

Susan Boyle doesn't need to become anyone else, but she can enhance who she is, if she wants. I'd have her take care of her rosacea (it's made all the difference to me) and do her eyebrows and tame the frizzy curls (also my problem). I look very much like "me", just with rosacea calm and frizzy hair smoothed into pretty waves. She can do the same, and be even more beautiful than she is now!

Robin Givhan: Hi "small Scottish person"!

I don't think people can discount the effect that appearance has on confidence.


Anonymous: I think the rub here is what qualifies as "looking your best." Is it what YOU think is "looking your best," or is it what OTHER PEOPLE see as "looking your best?"

Honestly, the latter changes based on where and when you are.

Could be she thinks she looks her best as she is right now. (Could be she doesn't think she looks her best as she is right now, and then she's perfectly entitled to do what she sees fit to improve herself.)

I think the flak you're getting is more because you've decided that she couldn't possibly think she looks her best and so she has to change, without any possible room for her thinking she doesn't have to or want to (which would be implied by her saying that she didn't want to submit to a makeover).

Robin Givhan: I think you make a good point that "looking your best" is subjective. however, I think most people would agree that part of SB's appeal is that she doesn't look like the typical glossy entertainer. and i think there are certain agreed upon standards of what it means to look polished. and i also think it's a little bit disengenous to suggest that we can't all agree that SB could look better - without being turned into someone she's not. but as i said, the choice is rightly hers. but it won't be made in a vacuum.


A Lovely Novelty: And that's why people love her - and hate "mean girls" who make fun of people because of their looks.

Robin Givhan: are you implying that i'm a mean girl? heck, if Tim Gunn called me up and said: let me make you better...i'd jump at the opportunity.


Washington, D.C.: Robin, I think people are just talking past each other at this point. Maybe you could provide some clear examples of what exactly you mean by "looking her best"? What would you advise her?

"the story of Cinderella is a lovely one..." yeah, it's also a very old one that's pretty much played out. Wouldn't it be actually more unusual and interesting for her to not have some major transformation? That's what Cinderella was about -- a major transformation. So when you say Cinderella and then say "I just want her to look her best" that sends a mixed message.

Robin Givhan: not a mixed message at all. in the column, i'm explicit about the kind of transformation or makeover i'm advocating. the kind that involves subtle tweaks in hair,makeup,clothes and grooming. no surgery, injections, crazed dieting, etc.

It's the idea that you still look recognizable to your friends, but you're just having your best hair day every day.

What would I suggest? Well I'm no stylist, but she could - we all could - benefit from a flattering haircut, clothes that make the most of our figure, etc.

All that feeds into confidence and the way we're received by others.

As for Cinderella being out-moded... I'd say that's a fallacy. I think huge numbers of women are looking for their Prince, their soulmate, etc. That's ultimately what the Cinderella tale is all about...that and the power of a pair of really great shoes.


Re: don't think people can discount the effect that appearance has on confidence: That's true but here's the thing: Susan Boyle must have LOADS of confidence to have gotten up and sang so clearly in front of such a huge crowd, and on television to boot! She didn't even seem shaky or nervous. The dissenters aren't saying there is anything wrong with being polished or having your rosacea treated, but to suggest that a makeover is a "must" is a little rude. She should absolutely do what SHE wants to do.

Robin Givhan: oh for heaven's sake. i'm not saying she MUST have a makeover. i don't think anyone is suggesting that she be dragged kicking and screaming into a hair salon.

but she certainly shouldn't AVOID a makeover because it somehow implies that she's selling out. and it's not a psychological assault on her to suggest that she could benefit from one.


Arlington, Va.: I think what you are hearing is a public that is fed up with ridiculousness of the fashion/entertainment industries pushing for conformity and trying to convince people they need to spend money on the latest foolish fad (clothing, hair style, life style...). Importantly, the great people in history are original and perceived as out-of-the-box. Susan reminds many of us that true greatness and conformity are usually mutually exclusive.

Robin Givhan: Ok Arlington,

Don't go blaming the fashion industrial complex for all that is wrong with the world. Taking advantage of the creativity of the fashion industry is not the equivalent of giving in to conformity.


State of Dyspepsia: It appears that most of the commenters to your story, and the questioners here, either didn't read, or worse, don't understand what you wrote.

I find your writing clear and evocative and I have no interest in Fashion.

Are people reading only certain passages?

Robin Givhan: I like to think my writing is clear...but people bring their own baggage and point-of-view to whatever story they read. We all take fashion personally. Whether we like fashion or not.


Pavoratti?: Did someone just compare Susan Boyle to Luciano Pavoratti???

Aren't we getting a little ahead of ourselves here? She might not even beat the 12-year-old welsh boy who sings Motown on "Britains got Talent," so maybe we should hold off on the comparisons to arguably one of the greatest singers of all time for just a moment, okay?

Robin Givhan: i couldn't agree more. personally, i'm waiting for that Carnegie Hall appearance..


Contrived: I think her frumpiness was part of the performance. Making her looks as dischordant as possible with her voice is her gimmick. Everyone needs one on those shows.

Robin Givhan: i think it would be splendid if SB turned out to be the savviest marketer of all. perhaps she goes home, slips off her frumpy dress and tools around town in Versace.


Why would it be a shame to encourage someone to look their best? : Because Robin, "looking their best" is not the same for everyone. She might be surprised to find out she doesn't look her best. She might be perfectly happy with her look. Now, if she wants fashion, hair and makeup advice that's one thing. But if she hasn't asked for it, she doesn't need it. What people need is to be happy with their own look. And she seems to be.

Robin Givhan: it's lovely when people are happy with their own look. but people do not live in the world by themselves. they are part of the landscape....don't we all have a duty to beautify the landscape? some people might be happy walking around town in their pajamas, but shouldn't we all try a little harder than that? and yes....i'm channeling my mother.


What Really Counts: I agree, whatever Susan Boyle does next is up to her, and I'm not particularly invested in the decision. But here's what this reminds me of: My mother had a fairly massive stroke last year. One of the best signs we had that she might recover was when she wanted her lipstick again. One of her longtime friends, who has always eschewed makeup, fashion, etc., was rather contempuous when told this, as in, surely my mother had better things to do than worry about her lipstick. To my mind, it was a sign that the mother I knew might be coming back. Caring about your appearance - however you choose to do it - is not an entirely trivial choice. It is a gesture of self-respect, to be the best you can be - however you choose to define that. (And I will add that some of the vainest people I know have similarly eschewed makeup and fashion - there really isn't a direct correlation).

So, again, I'd say it's up to Susan Boyle - but I'd avoid setting up a false dichotomy, much as someone did in Carolyn Hax's chat last week, equating "bridezilla dom" with the use of mascara and the wearing of high hells. Caring about your appearance doesn't mean you're shallow - and ignoring it doesn't mean you're deep.

Robin Givhan: i couldn't agree more. some of the most pretentious and self-absorbed and inauthentic people are the ones will spend hours telling you about why they DON'T wear lipstick and heels.


NoVa: Let her be a woman-shaped woman in sensible shoes and a plain face. Like Camryn Manheim said when she won an Emmy, "This is for all the fat girls"? Let Susan win one for those of us who wouldn't be considered pretty without a transformation from one thing into another. Or to use your euphemism, a "makeover."

Robin Givhan: I dont' think makeover is a ephemism...but anyway. You didn't see Camryn Manheim accepting that Emmy looking anything but glamorous. Yea, she was bigger than a size 2, but she had clearly gone all out into making herself look spectacular.

When Manheim talked about winning one for the fat girls, she wasn't saying and this is for the girls who don't care a wit about how they look.


Why would it be a shame to encourage someone to look their best? : People have different standards of beauty, and I find it offensive to suggest that no one would find Susan beautiful if she happened to be walking down the street.

I think she is beautiful as she is.

Robin Givhan: That is a lovely sentiment.


Robin Givhan: hey everybody...sorry i didn't get to more comments. my computer was moving in slow motion. but thanks for all of your questions.


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