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Who's the Ugliest One of All?

Critics of Susan Boyle Should Look into the Mirror

New America Media, Commentary, Paul Kleyman Posted: May 05, 2009

More than 200 million people have now watched as dowdy Susan Boyle transformed Simon Cowell and fellow judges from skeptics to fans in Britains Got Talent. Along with many in my newsroom, I teared up with the first glorious notes emanating from Boyles plain and squarish face. One might have thought this a triumphant moment for the ugly duckling brooding in us all.

In fact, were she an American Susan Boyle, 48, wouldnt even get to audition for American Idol, since all contestants must be under 30. In the Idol franchise, successful competitors tend to be young, attractive belters of pop tunes.

So one expects Britains Got Talents publicity engine to hype Boyles incongruity for all its worth. Yet, the ugliness seems to live on, not in the self-effacing Boyle, but in ageist, and certainly sexist, disdain so strangely and publicly directed at her by comedians and the media.

Ive seen Susan Boyle, remarked David Letterman in his April 30 monologue, adding, Shes not my cup of tea. His dig came off with unusual flatness after Letterman noted the he and Boyle had appeared on People Magazines list of 100 most important or circulation-stimulating celebrities. Not only did the comic miss the point as badly as an Air Force One fly-by over Manhattan, but as a tea aficionado, Letterman evidently has no taste for fair trade. The premise of such gratuitous derision must be that listeners tend to agree. But agree to what: That someone in the public eye a person who, as it happens, can move ones soul with song -- isnt sexually tantalizing?

Among the odd smattering of Boyle slights glancing off the mainstream medias analogue minds (is there a converter box for these people?), the silliest came in an apparently well-meaning piece on her in the New York Times Sunday Styles section (April 26). Reporter Pam Belluck, I should note, did not have the advantage of an interview with her subject because Boyles contract with the program prohibits contestants from participating in unauthorized media interviews or other performances as long as they are part of the show. So one has to suppose that the Style desks answer was to devote column inches to celebrity psychobabble. Bellucks article is headlined Yes, Looks Do Matter. (A pull-out quote declared, Snap judgments can be wrong, but scientists say theyre only natural.)

The article aptly examines stereotyping. However, one socio-psycho expert Belluck quotes is David Berreby, author of Us and Them, a book about why people categorize each other. As Belluck quotes him, Berreby misinterprets Boyles onstage behavior with unquestioned myopia. The millions who have by now viewed Boyles stunning performance saw her answer the judges inquiry about her age and give them an awkward shimmy.

Berreby, a science writer, psychologically dissects Boyles little dance as sign of her guileless assumption that on such program youre supposed to be kind of sexy and personable, and she got it wrong. The singer, he surmised, triggered contempt for herself by trying to be acceptable and then failing. Wrong? Perhaps, Berreby should check the audio feed on his computer. Apparently, the psycho-pundit heard expressions of audience contempt, while the world seems to have heard thunderous applause for Boyle.

Of course, Boyle shimmied clumsily at the question. Any viewer could see that she knew the answer would draw a negative audience reaction, and she flaunted it.

Boyle clearly knew at least two things: exactly who she was on that stage and -- Berreby seems to have missed her knowing smile just before she began to sing -- that she had, for one more precious moment, a secret. (Cowell, the international producer and expert showman, surely must have set the whole thing up.)

Regardless, what a secret Boyle had. Any lover of fine choral music would not have been very surprised for long. The San Francisco Bay Area, for example, has a thriving culture of modern and classical chorales, often mixtures of local amateurs and a few touring soloists. More often than not the venues for their concerts are in churches. And its common to hear utterly gorgeous voices coming, rising to the rafters from rather ordinary-looking men and women, folks like most of us. Boyle fits right into the thriving tradition of hyper-local arts. Hey, gang, communitys got talent.

Whatever happens to Susan Boyle, may the good-sport humor she displayed serve her well as the talent show progresses. I hope her secret, now out of the Internet bag, will provide her respite from the sometimes ugly trials of celebrity. Whatever else the entertainment world tells her about herself, Boyle can find immediate solace in a way unavailable to those who judge her. She can simply part her lips to envelop herself and millions of others in glorious song.

Paul Kleyman is Associate Director of NAM's Elders Newsbeat

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