Susan Boyle - At home with a global phenomenon
“I watched the Britain’s Got Talent audition with my brother at home. He cringed when I swivelled my hips. But after I sang he said, you could get a really good reaction to this. And I said, well, we’ll see. The next thing there were these shouts and bang bang bangs at the door and I thought, what’s going on here? I opened the door and all these kids were there, screaming their heads off. Every window in the street was lit and everyone was out. And that was before the cameras came.”
There aren’t many people who, half way through a rundown of their personal history, can stop and say with confidence, regardless of who they’re talking to, ‘..and you know the rest’, but Susan Boyle can and, with quiet, coquettish pride, often does. The era of X Factor, YouTube and Twitter has delivered numerous overnight sensations, and many have already been returned to obscurity, but the story of Susan Boyle, two years on from that first legendary TV audition, remains a uniquely compelling modern fairytale.
This isn’t merely because Boyle – the frumpy, weird, middle-aged woman from West Lothian – makes for such an unlikely global megastar. Nor it is down to the breathtaking scale and speed of her rise (14million album sales in 14 months, feted by Prime Ministers and A-list Hollywood stars within weeks of her first appearance on television).
The most gripping aspect of Boyle’s tale is that we can, with a click of a mouse, re-live the very moment of its inception over and over again, witnessing the instant transformation of a humble, awkward nonentity to a one in seven billion phenomenon. As most of the 300million who have watched the footage on YouTube can tell you, that moment occurs about seven seconds into Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent audition, when the arena audience stop laughing and share a communal intake of breath, the deeply ingrained laws of popular culture are turned on their heads and we are reminded of the sheer pleasure of surprise as Susan Boyle – ping! - becomes a superstar.
Boyle, has become so cosmically symbolic of 21st century popular culture that the first thing that strikes me as I’m greeted by her in her £300,000 ‘posh house’ she bought in her hometown of Blackburn to celebrate being worth more than £11million (“money isn’t important to me” she tells me later) is how unbelievably like Susan Boyle this round smiley woman is.
All the quirks that have become almost mythical traits of the celebrity are there from the moment of meeting, from the giddy outbreaks of minxy hip-flicks and peels of cackling laughter, to that machine-gun West Lothian brogue, usually delivered at great pace and overwhelming volume. Her hearty salutations - “Come on in hen! Yer fine, yer fine!” - are loud and enthused and it’s quickly evident that here at home, surrounded by her all-female entourage of what are evidently genuine friends, she’s in her element.
This house, which she uses mainly as an office or studio, preferring to live in the older, more modest family home less than a mile up the road, is a temple to Boyle’s dizzying success. Fanmail from around the world is piled up in every room. On the walls and on top of her newly acquired grand piano lovingly framed photographs of her parents jostle for position with platinum discs and pictures of her being hugged by heroes like Peter Kay and Gregor Fisher (“I used to love Rab C – I never thought I’d be on it one day!”)
But when we leave the warm bustle of the kitchen, rich with the aroma of the huge pot of winter soup being passed round by her PA – a Blackburn local and age-old friend of the family –she is keen to stress that, while she sometimes gets excited by the gifts of fame, she is strongly aware of the dangers of being ‘swept away.’
“I believe in being very grounded,” she says, suddenly grave as we settle into a quiet side-room. “And my roots lie in the village I was born and brought up in. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to stay here with my friends and my family. It’s very important to keep a sense of who you are, your identity.”
Wise words, the kind big stars often throw out while packing their toddlers up for six months in LA. But Susan Boyle really means them. She understands that for her, it’s crucial she maintains her homegrown connections. She speaks openly about how, from her difficult birth - during which she was starved of oxygen and left with slight brain damage - her parents spoiled their baby (she’s the youngest of nine) and treated her ‘like I had broken wing syndrome; they were very protective of me.’
It’s true at times she still sounds sweetly naive – “I think Piers Morgan is rather beautiful. But he’s a clever man as well, he’s written books and everything” – but she is very sensible about managing her vulnerability and is more aware of the impression she first makes than people might imagine.
“I think the audience at Britain’s Got Talent were laughing at me at first,” she says smiling. “They were saying, who’s that wee wifey in the frock, look at the state of her. I mean, black tights, white shoes, a doily frock and hair like a bird’s nest – come on, I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a catch, was I? When I sang I was too busy concentrating on the song to notice the audience’s attitude change, so at the end I got a very pleasant shock. I was absolutely shaking. I went into a sort of bubble. Then I was excited, I was buzzing – they couldn’t shut me up for the rest of the night.”
She didn’t mind the laughter too much. It was hardly a new experience, since she’d been mocked at other auditions she’d put herself through over the years – including her infamous tribulations at the hands of Michael Barrymore, whose My Kind of People she tried out for five times – and bullied since she was at school, where she suffered at the hands of ‘the big toughies’. “I got picked on because I was a slow learner you see, and I was easily made cry, so they thought, ya beauty, let’s make her greet.”
But she always coped because she was so loved and supported at home by her big Irish family, who bonded over sing-songs (her party piece was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 'I Don’t Know How to Love Her') and collectively treasured ‘baby Susan’. Her mother, who Susan nursed at home until she died, aged 91, four years ago, was particularly keen to encourage Susan’s singing talent. “I sang in the choir at school but only as part of the congregation, I wasn’t really confident to do more. Right from the beginning my mother saw I was very introverted as a kid and she encouraged my singing as a way to bring me out. She still influences me now. I think she’s helping me quite a lot. She’s watching over me. When I was doing Britain’s Got Talent, I thought, well, she sees this all happening and she’ll make it come right for me. And she did.”
Of course it didn’t fall entirely into place during Britain’s Got Talent. Despite her an almost immediate global response to her first audition, she came second in the end to dance group Diversity, then suffered what Simon Cowell later called ‘an awful meltdown’ which resulted with her being treated for a breakdown in The Priory. She doesn’t like to talk about The Priory, but she’s not ashamed of the fear she felt when faced with the onslaught of fame.
“Anybody would have felt fear. It was only natural. When I saw everyone, the amount of people coming in, the rapidity of it, I thought, oh my God, what’s happening here? The speed was frightening. It seemed to spiral and then it got to crazy pitch. The first time I went to America I was met by this huge crowd of people, paparazzi and everything, and I thought God it’s frightening. I did feel under pressure and at times I did feel tired. But you can’t say you don’t want it because you put yourself into the arena. I didn’t hide – I faced it. At the beginning I felt I didn’t have the proper training to cope with it all but now I’ve had a lot of media training and a lot of grooming.”
There are times when the media training kicks in and, alert to the possibility of providing a fiery headline, she reverts to stock phrases, and repeats them until you change the question. Simon Cowell is ‘a lovely man’. Oprah Winfrey ‘a great lady’. She won’t pick a favourite on X Factor, but thinks the standard is very high this year. But for most of the time she speaks with passion – especially on the subjects of her mother, her music or her faith (she knows her mother would have been ‘really proud’ that she sang for the Pope last year, an experience which ‘will stay with me for the rest of my life’
Yes, her life is scarier than it once was, but it’s clear that, all things considered, Susan Boyle is deeply grateful for the changes that have come her way. “I was lonely after my mother died,” she says. “But now, even when I’m touring, there’s always someone to talk to.” Amen to that.
Tuesday, 17 January 2012
Susan Boyle - At home with a global phenomenon | Big Issue