Why Susan Boyle inspires us: A story like 'a Disney movie'
By Maria Puente, USA TODAY
After a week of unabashed hysteria about Scottish chanteuse Susan Boyle, it's time to pause and ask: What's that all about?
A psychological boost for a world battered by economic calamity? A spiritual moment for millions in search of transcendence? Maybe it's about rooting for the underdog. Or maybe it's just a new reminder of an old truism: You can't judge a book by its cover.
"Susan Boyle is a Disney movie waiting to happen," says church worker Janelle Gregory, 34, of Olathe, Kan.
Boyle, for those who have been unconscious lately, is the middle-aged woman with frizzy hair who has been all over TV and computer screens for days, singing a Broadway show tune while millions wept and shouted and applauded wildly.
Ten days ago, Boyle — 47, unglamorous, unfashionable, unknown — faced down a sneering British audience and panel of judges on Britain's Got Talent, including the ever-sneery Simon Cowell. Then, in an instant, she turned jeers to cheers with her rendition of one of the weepier numbers from Les Misérables. Almost as instantly, Boyle went viral: A clip on YouTube garnered millions of hits (almost 30 million so far, not counting millions more on thousands of other versions on YouTube).
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"All of us reveled in the fact that even in our image-managed world, we could still have the tables turned on us," says Terry Christopher, 40, a computer developer in Phoenix.
For the English-speaking media, still breathless from covering the introduction of Bo the White House puppy, Boyle is cable catnip. Last week, she was on TV from early morning to late night, telling her Cinderella back story (youngest of nine, learning-disabled and bullied as a child, caretaker for her dying mother, never been kissed, singer in the choir, possessor of big dreams) to all who trekked in person or by satellite to her Scottish village outside Edinburgh.
The common refrain in comments about Boyle: I watched her over and over, and I cried and cried. "Every time I watched it, I felt emotional," says Julie Carrigan, 47, a mother of five in Hemet, Calif.
• It's the vindication. "When they were making fun of her, I was getting annoyed," Carrigan says. "And inside I'm thinking, 'I hope she blows them away.' I was so happy when she just let them have it."
• It's the surprise. "If you have expectations of someone, you need to be prepared to be surprised by them," says Paul Potts, the chunky former cellphone salesman who was the Susan Boyle of Britain's Got Talent in 2007 and has since sold millions of records as an opera-and-standards singer. His second album, Passione, arrives in the USA May 5. "It's part of human nature to make judgments based on first impressions, but sometimes we allow ourselves to be misguided by first impressions."
• It's the guilt. Why the surprise? There's no correlation between appearance and talent, says Scott Grantham, 35, a financial analyst in Atlanta. "If she didn't look the way she did, would there be the same reaction? I don't think so," he says. "We make snap judgments based on appearance, and when we see those judgments were premature, we overcompensate by going so far in the other direction."
• It's the shame. Boyle forced people to recognize how often they dismiss or ignore people because of their looks. "Is Susan Boyle ugly? Or are we?" asked essayist Tanya Gold in Britain's The Guardian.
• It's the psychology. "There's an emotional state called elevation, characterized by a warm, glowing feeling, that we get when someone transcends our expectations," says Lynn Johnson, a psychologist in Salt Lake City. Boyle is "an elevator — we want to believe in something higher, that there's meaning in life and that the ugly duckling can become the beautiful swan."
• It's the hope. "She has truly touched my heart and soul and lifted my spirits," says Anne Jolley of San Jose, who describes herself as 47, unemployed, frumpy and "disheartened, disenfranchised, disillusioned and dis-just-about-everything-else in these bleak times." The messages of Boyle, she says, are that "there is hope still in this world; that dreams really can come true; that cynical people can be turned around; that maybe my best years are not behind me after all."
• It's the distraction. With everything going on in the world, "our economy in the tank, my husband and I worried that we will lose our jobs — this was a feel-good/underdog story, and I ate it up," says Lisa Sweetnich, 40, a CPA in Massillon, Ohio.
• It's empowerment. "What are we all crying about?" asked writer Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founding editor of Ms. magazine, in her Huffington Post blog. "Partly, I think it's that a woman closing in on 50 had the courage to compete with the kids — and blew them out of the water."
• It's the authenticity. Unlike most of the contestants on, say, American Idol, Boyle clearly has not been groomed to be a pop star, so she is perceived as the real deal, says Ken Tucker, editor at large of Entertainment Weekly. "People want their idols to be authentic."
• It's the spiritual solace. "We're responding to someone who does not have the packaging expected of us, especially women, and in that moment of recognition, people got in touch with something so soulful and spiritual," says Laurie Sue Brockway, inspiration and family editor of Beliefnet.com. "People felt blessed by that."
For many, it all comes down to ancient wisdom. Rahn Hasbargen, an accountant in St. Paul, cites John 7:24: "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment."
"Never has that verse been explained more dramatically than in the case of Susan Boyle," Hasbargen says.