Susan Boyle: Her sadness -- and our shame...
Published 03/06/2009 | 00:00
'Britain's Got Talent' runner-up Susan Boyle is paying the price for instant fame, and we should look to ourselves for the culprits.
Who feels ashamed? Who wants a detox? Who's ready for a Campaign for Real Life? When Susan Boyle first took part in Britain's Got Talent, she became an international sensation overnight. Tens of millions of people have watched her on YouTube (apparently more than watched Obama's inauguration). She has been invited on to the Larry King and the Oprah Winfrey shows.
Paparazzi have camped outside her door. There are thousands of articles, tens of thousands of blogs about her. There's a Susan Boyle fan site. You can buy a Susan Boyle T-shirt.
She's now known as SuBo (every celebrity has to have a logo). She seemed a symbol of authenticity -- in a world obsessed with appearance, here was a 47-year-old woman who wasn't pretty, wasn't skinny, wasn't groomed and glossed and plucked and tweaked and manicured and waxed and styled, but who seemed "real".
She walked out on stage, opened her mouth and -- my God, how astonishing -- this woman had a nice voice. The judges looked taken aback and moved, the audience became hushed.
I watched Susan Boyle on YouTube and afterwards I dearly wished I hadn't -- not just because of the sheer humiliating ugliness of a spectacle where celebrity judges patronised a dumpy, unmarried, middle-aged woman, where the audience tittered and gave derisive wolf-whistles and where she compliantly wiggled her hips while everyone seemed shocked and delighted and a bit embarrassed that even the unbeautiful can have talent, but because from the very start it was so obviously a fake, a set-up.
The "surprise" -- that someone looking like her could win -- was just another clever construct. Those gasps of theatrical delight and surprise and those crocodile tears were just part of the show. This is not real life, this is a drama -- a nasty, demeaning drama, with a vulnerable, unprepared, star-struck woman at its centre and media-savvy judges licking their lips.
People call reality television and the cult of celebrity just good harmless fun. This wasn't harmless. I never saw anything else of Susan Boyle, though I did manage by some mysterious osmosis to pick up several facts about her. She was deprived of oxygen at birth and so suffered from learning difficulties, she was bullied at school, she was a virgin who had never been kissed, she had looked after her mother for most of her life, she had a cat. All of these facts served the narrative that we were being spoon-fed and were gobbling up: that she was Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty; that the poor may inherit the earth, and that dreams may come true.
And because we live in an age of extreme volatility, sentimentality and instant gratification, it was no surprise that the hapless woman who was one day an inspiration to all of us ordinary people had to be taken down a peg or hundreds. Sentimentality can quickly turn to viciousness and anger. So, she swore! She wasn't the greatest singer in the world after all! In the weeks between her initial triumph and coming second place in Saturday's final, she was praised, pilloried, mocked, adored, demeaned, dismissed and never left alone. She had what so many crave: fame. Beware what you wish for.
It probably wasn't in the script that she should come second -- although even that made a kind of sense, because she had already had the worldwide celebrity after her first victory. In the public mind, there was nothing else to be got from her and her story was over. And it wasn't in the script either that, after she had left the show, graciously praising the winners, she returned to her hotel where she was found suffering from what is being called "exhaustion'' and was admitted to hospital where you can be fairly sure that she will not be left in peace.
However, even this small human tragedy can be easily turned by those so adept in the manipulation of individual stories to fit the required narrative. In fact, it makes it even more gripping. Yes, she collapsed under the pressure, an ordinary woman battling her way heroically in an extraordinary world, but you can be pretty sure that soon, brave Susan will be back -- and just in time for her album and autobiography (released before Christmas).
And after that, we will all forget about her. Our attention will move elsewhere. She will be yesterday's story -- a barely remembered casualty devoured and spat out by our celebrity addicted age.
However, it is not just Susan Boyle who is damaged by such ugly episodes, but all of us. Freud should be alive now, to see us living in this pseudo-therapeutic nightmare, where reason, politics and old-fashioned privacy have been drowned out by a poisoned language of feeling, instinct, empathy and pity.
On a show like Britain's Got Talent, it's actually nowhere near enough to have talent; you have to have a story. You have to be on a journey. You have to have suffered (suffering makes you heroic) and you have to be redeemed (redemption gives you that essential happy ending).
You have to be able to cry and to make others cry. Oh that lovely, lovely feeling when you don't actually have to do anything to feel good about yourself -- you just have to watch a frumpy spinster with imperfect teeth and wild hair singing 'I Dreamed a Dream' and all those warm feelings will well up in you.
When British Prime Minister Gordon Brown heard about Susan Boyle's collapse, he phoned the judges of Britain's Got Talent and spoke to Piers Morgan and Simon Cowell to make sure that she was all right.
That's very reassuring. But he would have been attacked for being unfeeling if he hadn't. It seems impossible for politicians not to get sucked in to the mob hysteria of a cultural event.
Politics -- which should be about reason, ethics and debate -- has been dragged into the swamp of emotions.
These dreams that come true on our television screens are false dreams which feed unreal hopes. Achievement is not a gift bestowed on us by the fairy godmother of celebrity.
It is the eventual, partial reaping of what you have painstakingly sowed and nurtured. It requires hard work, patience, endurance, the ability to fail and keep on going.
Happiness doesn't come in the slip-stream of instant fame. There are no magic wands in life and the story of Susan Boyle, which was sold to us as a fairytale come true, now reads like a lesson in sadness and shame. Her sadness and our shame.