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

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

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.

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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.

"We can see in her an objectification of what we fear about ourselves. So when she comes forth with that voice, that music – as if we have discovered Judy Garland at the age of 47 – we are thrilled. She's going to make it, we think. She's going to win (!). And we unconsciously invest ourselves in her achievement."

Is Boyle like Obama?

Patricia Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University in New York, likened Boyle's story to the election of Barack Obama in an op-ed piece for Britain's Observer newspaper headlined: "I know those sneers. I've heard them too."

"Boyle's ability to up-end conventional preconceptions is akin to what the 'black is beautiful' movement of the 1970s tried to accomplish: a debunking of surface-based biases in favour of deeper commitments to fairness, intelligence, courage, humility, patience, re-examined aesthetics and the willingness to listen," wrote Professor Williams.

"Dismissing her – or anyone – based on careless expectations about what age or lack of employment supposedly signify is the habit of mind common to all forms of prejudice."

The Times of London asked Boyle, given how much importance the entertainment industry places on appearance, might she succumb to pressure to have a makeover?

"Maybe I'll consider a makeover later on," she told the Times with a laugh. "For now I'm happy the way I am – short and plump. I would not go in for Botox or anything like that. I'm content with the way I look. What's wrong with looking like Susan Boyle? What's the matter with that?"

The Simon Cowell Factor

One of Boyle's fellow Scots, Alison Kennedy, a writer and comedian, says that some cynicism has also emerged around her meteoric rise and who might profit by it. But it's focused on Simon Cowell, judge, producer and creator of "Britain's Got Talent." Yes, the same Simon Cowell on "American Idol."

Mr. Cowell stands to make a lot of money from Boyle, who he has predicted would have a No. 1 record in the US.

Nevertheless, Ms. Kennedy adds: "People are still pleased for her, and it's clear that she has a particular talent. People are fond of her, even if they are not fond of Simon Cowell."

All eyes are now looking to Boyle's May 23 performance on the talent show, which promises the ultimate winner – the opportunity to perform in front of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

Elaine Paige, the singer whom Boyle has said she would like to emulate, has also suggested the two might one day record a duet.

In the meantime, Boyle herself has told reporters camped outside her home that she is "taking it all in my stride."

"It's all been complete mayhem, like a whirlwind going like an express train. I never expected all this attention. It's been indescribable and completely mad. But I could get used to it," she told the Observer.

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