Susan Boyle: a dream come true

Unknown Scottish singleton Susan Boyle became one of the most talked-about people in the world this week after a brief TV appearance. How?

Susan Boyle's Cry Me A River recording unearthed

More on Susan Boyle and Britain's Got Talent

Her appearance on ITV1's reality show Britain's Got Talent lasted just a few minutes, but that was long enough to propel 47-year-old amateur singer Susan Boyle to instant global fame. From Japan to Denmark to the US, the clip of the Scottish charity worker's spine-tingling performance of I Dreamed a Dream from the musical Les Misérables last Saturday night has electrified viewers. As of last night, the clip had been seen by more than 26 million people on YouTube, with the number jumping from 1 million to 5.5 million in just one 24-hour period alone, making it the most watched video on the site globally this week. A further 2.3 million have viewed the video on the Britain's Got Talent website, while on ITV1 and its digital spin-offs, more than 11 million viewers have now seen it. Boyle has been the most talked-about subject on Twitter all week, with users in a multitude of languages raving about her. Even Hollywood actors Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore - who between them have more than 1.6 million followers on Twitter - have got in on the act, with Kutcher posting a link to the clip and writing: "This just made my night." Moore replied: "You saw it made me teary!"

Boyle is not on Facebook and has never heard of Twitter. In just a week her life has been turned upside down. She has found herself at the centre of an international media frenzy, with television crews and journalists from around the globe descending on her small home town of Blackburn in West Lothian.

A team from US television broadcaster CBS has been interviewing drinkers in her local pub while a CNN crew travelled to the town to talk to Boyle for the prestigious Larry King Live show, which airs today. Boyle has even been invited on that ultimate harbinger of fame, The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Just a week ago, Boyle was an unemployed charity worker living alone with her cat Pebbles and, as she informed TV viewers, had "never been kissed". Now Simon Cowell says she will have a US No 1 album.

In the last few days Boyle has given more than 60 interviews, but seems to be still free of media savvy and professional coaching; her short and curt answers a mark of her no-nonsense approach to life.

"It has been a really hectic week, all go," she said last night. "I didn't expect this kind of reaction. It was weird to begin with, but I like the attention and I could get used to it. I am taking it all in my stride."

"This is completely unprecedented," says Andrew Llinares, executive producer on Britain's Got Talent. "We have had big responses in the past, but we have never seen anything on this scale before. People love an underdog and she is the ultimate underdog."

The youngest of nine children, Boyle suffered oxygen deprivation during birth, resulting in learning disabilities. "I come from a musical family," she says. "It has always been there, from my father down. Singing is always something I have done. It has been in my blood since I was 12 and took part in school productions and shows."

She attended Edinburgh Acting School and has appeared in the Edinburgh Fringe. She recorded a charity CD of Cry Me a River in 1999, of which 1,000 copies were pressed. She also had a previous brush with television, appearing on Michael Barrymore's ITV show My Kind of People, but unlike others - such as Charlotte Church, who were plucked to stardom after appearances on other shows - nobody came knocking for Boyle.

"I did My Kind of People for fun," she says. "I also sang locally but things had quietened down."

Boyle decided to audition for Britain's Got Talent after taking some time away from singing to care for her mother, who died in 2007 aged 91. Paul Potts, the mobile-phone salesman who won the first series of Britain's Got Talent and went on to become a global opera star, was her inspiration.

"I had a bit of a rest after my mum died, but I had seen Britain's Got Talent on TV and thought I would have a go," she says. "Paul Potts was really good. He was an inspiration to a lot of people and I thought I would take my chances."

She attended the Glasgow audition in October, before being sent for a second audition in front of Cowell and his fellow judges - actor Amanda Holden and former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan - and a live audience. "I was very nervous," she admits.

Standing in front of the blazing television lights and a crowd of 3,000, many of whom were simply waiting for her to fail because of the way she looked, Boyle introduced herself. To raised eyebrows from Cowell and Morgan and stifled laughter from the audience, she said her ambition was to be a professional singer like Elaine Paige. As she began to sing their expressions changed; cynicism was replaced by whopping, broad smiles and the wiping away of tears. She finished to a standing ovation.

"I expected people to be a wee bit cynical," she says. "But I decided to win them round. That is what you do. They didn't know what to expect. Before Britain's Got Talent, I had never had a proper chance. It's as simple as that. You just have to keep going and take one step at a time and one day you will make it. You just don't give up."

The nearest comparison is with Potts, who is described as the most successful British reality TV star, with his debut album One Chance selling more than 3.5m copies and hitting the No 1 spot in 15 countries. However, it took five months for Potts's YouTube performances to hit 30m views.

PR svengali Max Clifford, who represents Cowell but has so far had no direct involvement with Boyle, says he has never seen anything like it. "The Paul Potts thing took time," he says. "It happened here and then it spread gradually over a few weeks. This has happened in a few days."

This speed is testament to the new technologies that have become more mainstream since 2007, namely YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

While technology has helped spread the word, it is the message behind Boyle's performance that prompted it in the first place - the fact that an ordinary woman in her late 40s without movie-star looks can still get a break and make her dreams come true.

If the messages on Twitter are anything to go by, then Boyle's against-the-odds story and voice have struck a chord with millions worldwide in a time of economic gloom. "And in the news today, stockmarkets surged to pre-Sept highs as Susan Boyle returns optimism and inspiration to the world over," one read. Another: "Just became the 11,324,212th person to cry watching the Susan Boyle clip on YouTube."

Clifford says it also has something to do with people having to challenge their own assumptions and prejudices. "It is a bit like the Paul Potts situation," he says. "You see this little fat guy with terrible teeth come on stage and he is going to sing Nessun Dorma. You think it is going to be embarrassing but he opens his mouth and the whole audience changes. It is one of those magical moments which we as a nation love.

"Susan's story - her mother's death and her devotion to her and also never having had a boyfriend or been kissed - and the way she looks also helps. It tugs on everyone's heartstrings. Then she opens her mouth and everything changes. It is a dream come true."

There has been some help behind the scenes. Clifford admits Cowell was raving about Boyle weeks before her audition even aired and his support - and that of others connected with the show, which also has a hit American spin-off involving many of the same people - meant audiences sat up and listened.

"People had their cards marked," Clifford says. "There was no question people were on to her. Simon [Cowell] was talking to me about her weeks ago. He said you have got to see the first episode. As soon as I saw it I could see it had all the ingredients."

Within days, US networks were demanding interviews as were media organisations from as far afield as Japan, Denmark, Canada and Australia. The clip was played on TV stations around the world, appearing on everything from New Zealand current affairs show Close Up to NBC's Today Show, where it moved host Kathie Lee Gifford to tears. Even the venerable Washington Post, more used to breaking high-powered political scandals, published a front-page story on her.

Clifford says that Boyle's appeal is her naturalness and that you won't suddenly see her given a makeover.

"All the conversations I have had with Simon who runs and controls things is to just let her be herself. This isn't about spin or a PR creation, it is a natural phenomenon. That is the lovely thing about it. If you are sensible, you respect that."

"She has potentially got a huge career ahead off he," Clifford says. "The sky is the limit. These internet hits could transform into millions of sales. If there is an album out in the next few months, you are talking about a bestselling album worldwide."

Among Boyle's growing band of fans is singer Patti LuPone, who first sang I Dreamed a Dream. "It made me cry. Susan has so much courage and pluck," she told American TV host Diane Sawyer, who had just interviewed Boyle live from her living room.

Boyle watched her performance last Saturday with her brother. "I kept seeing the mistakes," she says.

For now, Boyle is preparing for her next appearance on the show, which she is odds-on favourite to win before the second audition programme has even aired. She is keeping quiet about what her next song choice will be, although says she has been practising. But tonight, she will take a break from all the madness that has suddenly surrounded her to once again settle down with her brother to watch the show.


Leigh Holmwood

The GuardianTramp

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