Singing Scottish 'spinster' strikes chord in talent contest
BLACKBURN, Scotland (AP) -- Susan Boyle lives alone in a row house with her cat Pebbles, a drab existence in one of Scotland's poorest regions. She cared for her widowed mother for years, never married and sang in church and at karaoke nights at the pub.
Neighbors knew she could sing, and now -- what with YouTube, Twitter and countless blog postings -- just about everyone else does, too.
Since wowing the judges on the TV show "Britain's Got Talent," the frumpy 47-year-old, who says she's never been kissed, has gained celebrity fans and millions of admirers.
"I did this for my late mother," the unemployed Boyle told The Associated Press at her home in this scruffy Scottish village Thursday. "I wanted to show her I could do something with my life."
And that she did -- as well as showing a thing or two to the show's smug judges, who include Simon Cowell of "American Idol" fame.
When she mounted the stage for Saturday's broadcast, her frizzy gray-tinged hair curling wildly and a gold lace dress clinging unflatteringly to her chubby frame, Boyle looked the antithesis of the American idols Cowell normally anoints.
She was greeted with giggles from the audience and eye rolls from the notoriously acerbic Cowell. The audience chuckled in embarrassment as she wiggled her hips awkwardly.
Then she opened her mouth.
Launching into "I Dreamed a Dream," from the musical "Les Miserables," her soaring voice drew startled looks and then delighted smiles from Cowell and the other judges. The audience leapt to its feet to applaud.
More than 11 million people watched Saturday's show, but Boyle's instant success is due as much to new media as to the power of television, with a clip of her performance posted on YouTube by the show's producers drawing nearly 13 million views. Not to mention the skillful packaging of the segment, a mini-opera of underdog triumph.
In the past few days, Boyle has appeared on TV around the world. Her fans include actors Demi Moore and husband Ashton Kutcher who flagged the performance on Twitter, as well as Oprah Winfrey, who has invited Boyle onto her show. Interview requests have poured in.
To friends and neighbors in Blackburn, a community of 4,750 people 20 miles west of Edinburgh, it was not surprising that the talent of a local treasure should finally be recognized.
"Susan can't help herself. She just sings whenever she can sing," said Jackie Russell, manager of Blackburn's Happy Valley Hotel, where Boyle sings karaoke amid the slot machines and beer-stained carpet. "We weren't surprised by her talent, but we were surprised by the reaction around the world."
Boyle herself seems ill at ease with her newfound fame. At her modest, government-subsidized home Thursday, she seemed more at ease making tea for visiting TV crews than answering questions about her life. She did mug for the cameras, however, crooning into a hairbrush.
"It has been surreal for me," Boyle told the AP. "I didn't realize this would be the reaction, I just went on stage and got on with it."
Boyle's hardscrabble story has only added to the emotional tug of her tale.
The youngest of nine children of a devout Roman Catholic family, she grew up in one of Scotland's most deprived areas, a district blighted by unemployment, crime and social problems. The area has suffered since the local British Leyland car plant shut down in the 1980s.
In an irony not lost on local residents, the Happy Valley Hotel sits on the grimy main street, close to a liquor store and boarded-up shops. "It's a bit of a joke, isn't it... There's nothing to be happy about around here," said Susan Williams, a 23-year-old fan of Boyle's karaoke performances there.
As a child, Boyle had learning difficulties, struggled in school and was bullied by other children. At 47, she still is.
"She is often taunted by local kids. They think she's an oddball, but she's a simple soul with genuine warmth," neighbor Stewart Mackenzie said. "Not many people these days are devoutly religious or would spend their time devoted to their parents to the point they'd find themselves a spinster."
A keen amateur singer, Boyle performed in church choirs and school plays and was a regular on the karaoke circuit in Blackburn and the nearby town of Bathgate. She has said her mother, Bridget, encouraged her to enter "Britain's Got Talent" -- but it was only after her death that she plucked up the courage to do it.
"Everyone here knew she could sing, and we were always saying, 'You should go in for talent competitions,'" Russell said. "She devoted her life to her mother and father, and when her mother died a couple of years ago she realized it was her turn."
On Saturday night's show, the first of a new season, Boyle told viewers she had "never been kissed" and drew smirks from the judges when she said she wanted to be a professional singer like Broadway legend Elaine Paige.
After she knocked their socks off, judge Piers Morgan said her "stunning" performance was "the biggest surprise I've had in three years of this show." Judge Amanda Holden smiled, nodded and clapped. Cowell called her singing "extraordinary."
"I can hardly remember what happened on the night as I had my eyes closed most of the time," Boyle said. "It really didn't dawn on me what was happening."
Her performance has been a huge Internet hit. Kutcher posted a link on Twitter, declaring, "This just made my night," while Moore wrote Boyle's voice "made me teary!"
"Britain's Got Talent," is the sister show of "America's Got Talent." Both are co-produced by Fremantle Media, the company behind "American Idol," and Cowell's Syco TV. It resembles "American Idol" but contestants aren't limited to singing.
Boyle's millions of fans must now wait to see whether she makes it through the next rounds of the show. The chances appear good she might go all the way: Bookmakers have made her the firm favorite, giving a Boyle victory 5-2 odds.
In Blackburn, her neighbors are rooting for her.
"We're very proud of her," said Angela McKenna, 22. "But we can't understand why she didn't at least put a comb through her hair before she went on TV."
Associated Press Writer Jill Lawless contributed to this report from London.