Susan Boyle: What happened to the dream?

In one incredible year, Susan Boyle has gone from obscurity to global superstardom. But, as her family and friends reveal, it has come at a cost, while serious questions are being asked about the very nature of shows like Britain's Got Talent

Has anybody ever become as famous as quickly as Susan Boyle? On 11 April 2009, she was known only to her friends and family in the small town of Blackburn, West Lothian. Ten days later, the video of her audition on Britain's Got Talent had been viewed 100 million times.

It was the kind of global celebrity it took the Beatles years to achieve, Madonna, perhaps, a decade or more. Even Osama bin Laden wasn't entirely unknown before 9/11. It's a kind of fame that hasn't happened to anyone ever before. Not on this scale. In this way. This was something of a whole new order: a new kind of fame created by new forms of communication, a throwaway item made for TV that travelled as far and wide as the web would take it, and Susan Boyle, a 47-year-old, unmarried woman from a former mining town in rural Scotland, was its first test case.

It's Britain's Got Talent time again. This week sees the live finals and then, on Sunday, it's up for a Bafta. What's more, it's widely rumoured that Simon Cowell, who endorsed David Cameron in the run-up to the general election, will be honoured in the Queen's birthday list. But what of Susan Boyle? What has become of her?

The clip of her audition has been viewed 360 million times, more than any other video in history. Her first album, I Dreamed a Dream, sold more copies than any other album in the world last year. It went quadruple platinum and it's still number one in Australia and New Zealand, as it has been in Britain, the United States, Spain, France, Israel, Portugal and 13 other countries.

But since her last major performance, exactly a year ago today during the Britain's Got Talent final, she's made only a handful of choreographed public appearances. What did happen next? How do you go from being a private person to one of the most recognised people in the world? From being entirely unknown to being voted the seventh most influential person on the planet by the readers of Time magazine, 14 places ahead of President Barack Obama? From living on benefits to being a multimillionairess?

It's an absurd proposition, a bizarre one-in-a-billion confluence of what Jeff Jarvis, the digital commentator, calls "old media meeting new media and creating something we'd never seen before and couldn't even imagine. It was a crossover moment. And she's the edge case". For Susan Boyle, it's also a day-to-day reality.

She's all this, a new media case study, a corporate profit engine, an academic object of inquiry, a figure of admiration, and also ridicule, famous across the globe, and actually still a person too, still living in the same small town.. Blackburn, just off the M8, is equidistant from Edinburgh and Glasgow but a world apart from either. A mining town whose mines closed decades ago, it's a close-knit place with two well-attended churches and a solid working-class identity; post-election, Labour posters still festoon the streets (the local MP was returned with an increased 11,000 majority).

I'm not really expecting to find Susan Boyle here. I just want to talk to her friends, her neighbours. I've been told she's recording her new album. I assume she's in London or Los Angeles, but in fact she's not just still living in Blackburn, she's still living in the same house: the grey, pebbledashed council house that she shared with her mother until she died, the only evidence of international celebrity being a teenage boy in a beat-up Honda who's parked outside her gate.

When I go to ring on her bell, he leans out of the window and announces that he's from "Clockwise Security". The whole thing is faintly absurd. Susan Boyle is one of the most lucrative recording artists in the world, after all, but then BoyleWorld is in many ways a strange, absurdist universe where the normal rules of physics don't apply. That the source of Sony Music's potential 2010 profits is sitting inside a semi-detached on a council estate guarded by a teenager who looks like he failed the screen test for Trainspotting is in some ways no more than you'd expect.

It's easy to forget that Susan Boyle didn't actually win Britain's Got Talent in the end – the dance group Diversity beat her into second place – and after weeks of increasingly erratic behaviour, she finally suffered a breakdown and spent a short stint recovering in the Priory.

Since being signed by Syco, the Sony-owned subsidiary that handles artists Simon Cowell discovers on his shows, her appearances have been rare. Her management has granted only two interviews to two women's magazines, articles as airbrushed as the fashion shoots that accompanied them. Nobody will even talk to me about her career, not at the record label, nor her management company; nor will Talkback Thames, the production company, talk to me about Britain's Got Talent.

But then driving past the new house she's bought but hasn't yet moved into, half a mile from her old one, I spot a car in the driveway and ring the bell. The car isn't hers, it's a friend's (she still catches the bus when she wants to nip up to Tesco), but she answers the door. The new Susan Boyle, smartly dressed in tailored trousers and heels, her hair neatly trimmed, her eyebrows shaped. And the new house is as smart as she is: a modern, executive-style residence built on a small plot behind the police station with a view over the river and the soft Scottish hills beyond. Smart, but hardly Elton Johnesque. It cost a reported £300,000.

"Do Syco know you're here?" she asks when I tell her who I am. Well, sort of, I say. They've said that I can't interview you, but I just wondered if you'd have a cup of tea with me. Just a five-minute chat. "I can't do anything without their permission," she says and looks slightly panicked. "I can't say anything without their permission. So sorry. Goodbye now. Goodbye."

It's an awkward moment. She looks genuinely alarmed. One of her best friends, who doesn't want to be named, says that her greatest fear is being dropped by Sony. "She's terrified of it. She's always saying, 'What if they drop me? What if they decide to drop me?' And I say, 'They're not going to do that, you're earning them so much money.' But she thinks that as quickly as it came, it all might go again."

It's a reasonable enough fear. In the local history archive, I chat to Sybil Cavanagh, the librarian. She has a box of Susan Boyle cuttings, pages and pages of stories clipped out of papers and magazines, hundreds of them, and tells me about how when the coalmines closed in the early 1970s everyone thought British Leyland would be Blackburn's great saviour. It built a truck and tractor plant, only for that also to close, in 1986, leaving whole estates of crumbling concrete houses, a vast shopping centre empty of shops and a host of social problems it's taken 20 years to sort out.

It's a neat sort of place now, half council, half new-build estates, all with trimmed lawns and carefully tended shrubs. Who was the most famous resident before Susan Boyle? I ask. "Well, there was James Young Simpson, who discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform," she says. "Oh yes and Leon Jackson comes from Whitburn, two miles down the road."

Leon who? I say. It turns out that he won Simon Cowell's other great entertainment vehicle, The X Factor, three years ago. I go to find his mother, Wendy, who tells me he lives in London now. When I speak to him on the phone, he describes to me what life was like as an instant pop sensation inside the Cowell machine. He was 18 when he auditioned and had been singing for just six months. "It was like being in a different life. Some people work towards that for years but it just happened overnight. It was so drastic. And because of my lack of experience in music. And being away from home…"

It was overnight success. And then overnight failure. A year ago, just as Susan Boyle was about to burst on to the world, Syco dropped him: he experienced the moment that Susan Boyle most fears. Leon strikes me as a sensible boy. He has his feet on the ground and he's now writing his own music, has a new manager and a tour coming up this summer. But there's still a crack in his voice when he recounts what happened.

"It felt like the end of the world at the time. It was pretty devastating. I don't even know if I was dropped."

How do you mean? "Well, nobody from Syco ever rang me to tell me. I only ever read about in the Sun. That's how I found out."

He's says he'll always be grateful to The X Factor, but for an 18-year-old who'd never lived away from home it was a brutal introduction to the music industry. "I had no control over anything," he says. "But especially not the music. I had independent management, but they were appointed by Syco and we parted ways a couple of months later. It's bizarre. It feels like it was another lifetime ago but it's only last year. Sometimes, I look back and think, did that actually happen?"

Leon Jackson lived the dream and because of it, he's now a professional musician. But from the outside, it's a cautionary tale of what happens when living, breathing individuals are plucked from obscurity and offered everything they think they've ever wanted. In return, they become tiny cogs in a massive, multinational, corporate machine.

It is the dream, though. It's what the world wanted for Susan Boyle and what she wanted for herself. We wanted her to triumph against the world and she wanted to be a singer, more than anything. "And she's proved herself to everybody," says her sister, Mary. "She always said, 'Just you wait. I'll show you!' You can see it on her face in the film. I know that face so well. It's, 'Just you wait!' And she really has shown everybody. I still can't quite take it all in, if I'm honest." Mary is a retired teacher who lives in Whitburn, half a mile from Leon's mum, Wendy, and still wears an expression of mild shock when she recounts the story.

It's an expression I see time and again in Blackburn. "I couldn't get my head round it," says Brian Smith, another neighbour. "There she was live on TV on Oprah. And sitting right across the road from me." One of the most gratifying things, he says, is seeing how the attitude of the kids changed overnight. "They used to taunt her and call her names and throw eggs at her door. And now they cheer her and ask for her autograph."

Whatever else happens, Susan Boyle has transformed her life and she's made a lot of money in the process, well in excess of the £4m in royalties she received with great fanfare from Simon Cowell last year on her birthday. Nobody's sure how much in excess, although it doesn't stop them speculating.

Even Father Ryszard Holuka, the local priest (Susan is a devout Catholic), does a quick bit of mental arithmetic when I tell him she's Sony's biggest-selling artist. "What do you think she gets? A penny a record?" He thinks for a moment. "That's a lot of pennies."

He's right, it is a lot of pennies. "Although I'm not sure she really knows how much money she's got," Gary, the neighbour, says. "Or can put it in perspective. She's bought the new house down the road, but apart from that, nothing. No gadgets, no cars, she hasn't been on holiday. I mean, if it was me… well, I'd be spending, I tell you! But then, I don't really think it's about the money with her."

According to one of her close friends, however, "she still worries about the gas bill. I say, 'Susan, you don't have to worry about that now. You've got money!' But you know, I think she's always going to worry about paying her bills. She's had years of worrying about money and I think it's just in her now".

Until her mother became ill, she hadn't had to manage finances or pay bills. Her sister, Mary, says she'd go round to the house, "and it would be absolutely freezing, she'd have everything turned off, and was too scared to put the heating on, and then I'd ring the gas company and find out she was actually £200 in credit".

And now that she has money? "She's happier. At least she doesn't have to worry about it. But we worry more. It's made her more vulnerable in some ways."

In a pub down the road in Bathgate they worry too. The barman tells me: "She came in and took this huge pile of money out of her bag and began sorting it into piles on the table. And then picking it up and counting it out, right in front of everybody. I went and rang her friend and told her to get down there quick and pick her up."

Mary says: "In lots of ways, it's brilliant, it's made her life better. She's proved herself. But we do worry that someone will come along and try to take advantage of her."

The friend says: "She's not stupid, Susan, not at all. She's read books, she studied psychology and sociology, but she's very trusting. She can be taken in by someone. We've all seen it happen."

As a piece of film, the clip of Susan Boyle's audition is a small masterpiece. Seven minutes long, it's an emotional epic – ridicule, disgust, comedy, shock, astonishment, joy, shame, hope, validation and triumph – they're all there, perfectly miniaturised and shrink-wrapped for an audience with a limited attention span.

It's a Richard Curtis film crossed with The Full Monty, with just a dash of Billy Elliot. All served up in seven minutes. It's no wonder the Americans lapped it up: if there's ever a film version – and negotiations are surely under way – Hugh Grant will play Piers Morgan.

As a piece of theatre, it's perfect, brilliantly edited and satisfyingly complete, but it's predicated on a single ugly truth: the preposterous idea that a homely, middle-aged woman could possibly have talent. She's presented as an archetype we know too well: the sad, deluded fool who deserves the jeers of the crowd, the contempt of the judges. But before our eyes, we see her transformed into that other great narrative device: the underdog who overcomes all odds.

As the Greeks knew, though, the crucial transformation is the one that occurs in us: she doesn't change, merely our perception of her. It's a form of emotional catharsis. As Brian Smith, the neighbour, says: "I don't know how these things work, but I think the producers were pretty clever, weren't they? The way they set it up."

They were, but then this has been Simon Cowell's particular brand of genius. When I ask Thomas Dey, head of media corporate finance at Grant Thornton, to comment on Cowell's power and influence in the broadcasting and music industries, he says: "He's nigh on God. Or at least he's sitting at God's footstool."

The final of Britain's Got Talent attracted the biggest television audience – 17.3 million people – since Euro 2004. In America, Cowell is the highest-paid star on TV – he receives $45m a series for American Idol. Dey says: "He's managed to make himself the critical fulcrum of both television and music in two continents. To come up with a global phenomenon is something quite remarkable. But to come up with two or three is an astonishing feat. And then look at the music. There are all these execs sitting around trying to work out how to make money out of the industry and he's gone and done it, as a byproduct of his main business. He's attributed to be responsible for 40% of Sony Music's profits. These are huge numbers."

He's succeeded because he has "impeccable instincts", according to one veteran ITV executive. "He's demanding. He's tough. He's a perfectionist. But his instincts are spot on. If you compare these shows with entertainment shows of 10 to 15 years ago, they are light years ahead. If you watched one now, it would seem so slow and clunky. What they've done is to take the techniques of narrative drama, of non-fiction storytelling, of drama-documentary, and applied them to light entertainment."

And in the narrative drama that is the Susan Boyle story, we want to believe that there's a happy ending. That Susan Boyle is living her dream. And, of course, the best way of achieving this is to ensure that we have no idea if she is or not. Just so long as she's safely inside the Syco bubble, and we catch the merest glimpse of her airbrushed on a magazine cover, then all is well with the world.

Who wants the truth, after all? Susan Boyle means so many things to so many people. To the religious, she represents the power of faith; to the lonely, she offers hope; to the disadvantaged, she offers inspiration; to academics, she represents a research opportunity; to Sony, she is next year's profits; and to those who believe that they have a talent which has yet to be uncovered, she offers proof: that it is possible, that you can dream, that the impossible might yet come true.

"What I wish is that people could see the Susan I know," one of her friends tells me. "Which is what?" I ask. Describe her to me. "Well, she'd walk in here, now, and she'd just crack a really good joke. She's very funny and that just never comes across."

It's heartening, in many ways, that she has returned to her home village. Gary, her neighbour, tells me: "I'm speaking for the whole community when I say we cannae praise the lassie enough. And we're glad she's here." "Besides," her friend says, "she hates London. Can't bear it. Her management would much prefer it if she was there, it's a headache for them, her being here, but this is where she feels safe. It's where her friends are. It's what she knows.

"It's just a shame that she's not having more fun. She needs to have someone with her who'll do things with her and take her out. She's going to all these amazing places, America and Japan, but I don't get the sense that she enjoys it. She just wants to sing and, of course, these days she hardly ever does."

She's very articulate, I say, in the interviews I've seen. "But she's so controlled. She's told exactly what to say."

There are other dark whisperings. Susan has taken legal action against two of her brothers, John and Gerry, for breach of privacy: they've said many things to many journalists, Gerry in particular, who's a flamboyant serial entrepreneur, including the accusation that her management is failing to take sufficient care of her.

Her management, it should be noted, includes a member of her extended family: Kirsty Foy, a niece, but other members of the family complain that they are frozen out, that their concerns are not being addressed, that John and Gerry are being used as scapegoats. They would like to see someone independent appointed to check what's going on. "But who is going to appoint them? Susan is too scared of upsetting Syco to want to rock the boat," says one relative.

Families are families, they quarrel. And the Boyles are a large Catholic family – Susan is the youngest of nine. As Mary tells me, if they'd had their way, Susan would have never gone to the audition in the first place. "Her brothers told her not to go. And Bridie [another sister] said, 'You're not going to Glasgow by yourself.' And Susan just ignored them and went by herself. Fair play to her. She caught six buses and did it herself.

"If Bridie had been involved, she'd have made sure she was wearing the right clothes, and her hair was done, and would have sorted her out. And if she had done, probably none of this would have happened, so there you go."

What complicates the story of Susan Boyle, the overnight internet sensation, the 47-year-old Scottish virgin, who lived with her mother and her cat, Pebbles, is that she was set up as a figure of fun, but in fact she's somebody who's struggled in her life with particular health challenges.

We know that she has learning difficulties. That when she was born she suffered a lack of oxygen to the brain. That when her mother died, she had a serious bout of depression. We've read this, heard it on the news; what's difficult to understand is how this manifests itself. How vulnerable it makes her. What she can and cannot cope with.

"It's just a wee emotional thing. She can't cope with stress. And she can lose it big time," a friend tells me. "She's got a real temper on her. I've worked with people with learning difficulties for years and I couldn't characterise it. She just has a wee problem with emotions. She can't process them very well."

It's the ultimate irony, in a way, because what made Susan Boyle was the skilful manipulation of our emotional responses. That the video of her audition has been watched 360 million times is testimony to that. But she herself has a problem dealing with her feelings and responding to them appropriately.

This time last year, mental health charities found cause to celebrate in the story of Susan Boyle. Here was somebody with learning difficulties who'd triumphed anyway. And then came her breakdown.

Was she exploited? It would be abhorrent to ban people with disabilities or mental health issues taking part in TV shows, but "she didn't appear on that show by luck," says Phillip Hodson, spokesman for the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy. "All programmes screen. You are 'cast' by producers. They choose particular characters who will resonate. It's not a question of banning people from appearing, just thinking about the consequences of how you choose them. And then how you treat them. She is somebody with a mixture of problems and you have to ask, has appearing on the programme made her more vulnerable?

"Should social services be involved? I'm being only half-serious, but it's not just poor people who are at risk of being exploited or abused."

But at least Susan Boyle had a positive response from the audience. Many of the contestants on the Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor, particularly in the early rounds, are there, it seems, to be laughed at and jeered. Alyn James, a 60-year-old retired dentist from Neath, appeared on Britain's Got Talent two weeks ago and his experience is the flipside of the Susan Boyle affair. He's the anti-Susan Boyle. Like Susan, he's been singing for years and, like Susan, he decided to enter the auditions knowing that his age was against him, but hoping that his talent might shine through anyway.

Alyn got through the first round of auditions and had been invited to come back for the televised auditions. He had high hopes and chose a song called "Can't Catch Every Train on Time". He wrote it about a friend who committed suicide, he told the judges. Only then he discovered she was still alive.

But there was no Susan Boyle outcome for him. He's set up in the same way as her. An older contestant, from a small town, with less than pop star looks. The judges look askance at his stories, as they did at Susan's confession that she wanted to be Elaine Paige. But on this occasion, as on so many others, there is no fairy-tale outcome. Watch the video and you'll see he's buzzed off before he finishes the song. The crowd jeer. Amanda Holden calls it "depressing". And in a scene that was cut, Piers Morgan says to him: "You must have had an unhappy life."

But then, Alyn has. In 1998, he was struck off the dental register and sectioned in a secure psychiatric unit. "Did you tell the researcher from Britain's Got Talent this?" I ask him.

"Oh yes, that was what he was most interested in. We spent an hour and a half on the phone and he made me list all the drugs I've been on. I'm not on any now, but at one point I made Pete Doherty look tame."

When I ask if he thinks he was deliberately set up to fail, he agrees. "I think they have the best and the worst on and I was there to be the worst. I was like that old man who breakdanced last year. I was invited on to be laughed at and ridiculed."

And you had no idea that was going to happen?

"No. Because I know I'm good. I really am. But when I look at my face on the video, I'm so sad; I'm right back there, at that time, when I thought my friend had killed herself. All those emotions came right back up again."

It was cruel, he says. Alyn has been judged to have had serious intent to commit suicide seven times. Did you tell the researcher that? "Oh yes, I went into everything." And when was the last time? "It was a few months ago, after Britain's Got Talent," he says. "Some friends decided to take me to the doctor and I ended up with the crisis team."

A spokesman from Talkback Thames says that: "Britain's Got Talent is open to everyone from any age and any background, be they professional or amateur. We can't discriminate against people if they have had mental health problems or a medical condition."

But what isn't in doubt is that vulnerable people are being put at risk, for the most egregious of reasons: our amusement and Simon Cowell's and ITV's profit margins. There seems to be no mechanism in place to stop them. When I ask Phillip Hodson what can be done, he says: "Somebody needs to die. Basically, there needs to be a Baby P."

Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, tells me that's just a matter of time. "If enough people are subjected to enough stress, then that is a statistical proposition."

What Simon Cowell says, what his publicist Max Clifford says, what ITV says, is that people voluntarily choose to go on these programmes. Nobody is forcing them. An emailed statement from Talkback Thames says: "Everyone has the right to enter a talent competition and the show aims to reflect the broad range of people who put themselves forward."

This is a puerile argument, says David Wilson, a professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, who was a psychological adviser to Big Brother before resigning, "very quickly when I realised what was involved".

"It goes to the whole issue of informed consent. Do these people really realise that they are consenting to be laughed at and ridiculed? I doubt it."

The early rounds of Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor are a circus fairground where we're invited to laugh at the freaks and clowns. As Piers Morgan says in his diaries: "Another day, another collection of socially dysfunctional misfits convinced they are the next Whitney Houston or David Blaine. The warm-up man, Ian Royce, summed it up perfectly: 'We should rename this show Britain's Got Special Needs.'"

David Wilson believes that Sony has a "life-long duty of care" towards Susan Boyle. "She was quite cynically exploited. She had a very sheltered upbringing and was ill-prepared to cope. And the programme-makers have a moral responsibility for her now, for the rest of her life. Who knows what the long-term consequences of what she has been through are?"

Who does know? No one. But then, that's the thing about the Susan Boyle story – it's still playing out and will for a long time yet. It's a story that has the shape and texture of a morality tale; we just don't know what the moral might be.


Carole Cadwalladr

The GuardianTramp

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