Susan Boyle, the middle-aged Scottish youngest of nine, who does not have a job and spent most of her adult years caring for her late mother, sang on a television show last week and has now become a worldwide phenomenon. She does not have a computer and had never heard of YouTube, but her video clip on that site has been watched more than 37 million times. And now she even has a fan page.
She has a lovely, clear voice. And the song she sang, “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables,” seemed to define the moment, filled with hope and longing in spite of all obstacles. But what has made her a sensation is the overall surprise of her. My favorite part of the video clip is when the three judges admit that they had judged her based on her sensible shoes, thick brows, and general country bumpkin aura. (Simon pretends that he knew all along she was going to blow everyone away but even he is almost undone by her.)
We all love underdog stories. I think the reason we love Susan Boyle and weep at her performance is not that she surprised us as much as that we would all love to have that moment of triumph over expectations, of being seen for what is most special about us.
Now, inevitably, there is the debate about whether she should change. I imagine the women’s magazines are going crazy right now, their tweezers and highlight foil shaking in their hands, perishing to do a makeover.
The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan says she needs one.
Now that Boyle has become famous — and her fame portends a financial windfall for someone, if not her — the decision is no longer merely a reflection of her desires. Indeed, the wrong decision has the capacity to unravel the centuries-long tradition of fairy tales. In other words, of course Susan Boyle should have a makeover. Isn’t that why fairy godmothers were created?
I usually agree with Givhan, who I think is brilliant about fashion, culture, and semiotics. But this time I am not so sure. She is quick to reassure us that she does not mean Nip/Tuck and Botox.
Boyle, who steps into the spotlight, tweaks our cultural ambivalence about appearance, and wows folks with her talent. And the public flat out goes nuts. Bonkers. People got teary-eyed and goose-pimpled. Boyle would not be mesmerizing if she were not an ugly duckling. Her success is fueled by the fact that everyone assumed she was going to be a loser because she looked like the standard version of one as defined by the collective archives of movies, TV and literature.
Boyle beat the system that rewards the drop-dead gorgeous 10s and ignores the 3s and 4s. And people love her for that. Her rough-cut curls and sensible shoes make them feel virtuous. If she should decide to take designers up on their offer of free flattering frocks, avail herself of a smart new haircut and vigorous eyebrow arching, would she ruin the fun being had by her millions of fans?
The point of a proper makeover, however, is not to look like someone else but the best version of yourself. This is not a recommendation for an “Extreme Makeover,” but rather the Tim Gunn or “What Not to Wear” version. Those are the kind of transformations in which the recipients spend a little time figuring out precisely why they’ve been squeamish about trying to achieve their personal best.
I have no problem saying that this is Susan Boyle’s personal best and that her apparent comfort with herself as she is (did she actually plaster the contestant’s sticker on her chest?) is as appealing as her singing. If the audience thinks of Susan Boyle as an ugly duckling, it isn’t she who needs a makeover. It is us.