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The Susan Boyle phenomenon: redefining beauty, grace, and success?

Commentators find deeper meaning in British singer's YouTube popularity.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 21, 2009



London

It was to her elderly mother, sometime before she passed away, that Susan Boyle pledged she would "do something" with her life.

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Two years on from that loss, she honored that promise with a now almost legendary appearance on a British television talent show.

A video clip of the Scot winning over skeptical judges and a cynical crowd with a rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." from the musical "Les Misérables" has been viewed more than 40 million times, making it one of the most popular YouTube videos ever posted.

The youngest of nine, Ms. Boyle is an unlikely global star. Or is she?

She's a middle-aged woman from a village called Blackburn in Scotland's West Lothian region, where she lives alone with her cat, Pebbles. Her unruly hair and spinster image have long attracted taunts from local children, an echo of the bullying she endured as a girl. Several times a week, she serves as a volunteer at Our Lady of Lourdes church, visiting elderly members of the congregation.

The mass media – especially in the United States – are now hugging Boyle close ahead of a second performance (May 23) on the television show "Britain's Got Talent."

Capturing the doubts – and hopes – of millions

But her sudden rise to popularity is prompting many commentators, even those not usually noted for their interest in light entertainment, to find a deeper meaning in her performance.

"Boyle let me feel ... the meaning of human grace.... She reordered the measure of beauty. And I had no idea until the tears sprang how desperately I need that corrective," said Entertainment Weekly writer Lisa Schwarzbaum.

Robert Canfield, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., quotes Ms. Schwarzbaum in his blog where he typically comments on Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.

[Editor's Note: A quote by Lisa Schwarzbaum was incorrectly attributed to Robert Canfield.]

Dr. Canfield says, in response to emailed questions, that Boyle captured "the hopes of a multitude."

Her performance resonates with millions, he says, because "most of us in our heart of hearts have severe doubts about ourselves.

"So when a Susan Boyle appears on stage before a clearly condescending audience in a society that can read class status in every move, the hairdo, the dress, she appears as a loser. And we feel for her. We see how precarious her position is, how vulnerable she is, and we feel for her," he writes in his email.

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