Susan Boyle: Changing fame -- Mark Harris discusses the hype and what celebrities could stand to learn from the singer

By Mark Harris
May 01, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

Susan Boyle: Changing fame

Studios can hype ”huge” openings when 10 million people show up for a movie’s first weekend. Networks can cheer when 15 million watch a series. But these days, the truest watercooler moments in entertainment tend to happen between us and our laptops, and the amazing story of Susan Boyle is one of those rare instances where something seems to have captivated every demographic, however briefly, at the same time. By now, you know all about the unsung, unplucked 48-year-old whose performance of ”I Dreamed a Dream” is not just an Internet sensation but, with YouTube viewings alone soaring past 120 million, a worldwide phenomenon. Whatever your take is on the hysteria, you have to love the fact that a woman nobody had heard of a month ago is the biggest deal around.

That said, let me add grinchily that I hate almost everything about the Susan Boyle video except for Susan Boyle. Did such a sweetly unexpected blossoming of talent really have to be amped with the cheapest, most manipulative editing techniques known to man? As soon as Boyle sang her first beautifully performed notes, was it really essential to cut to that boob backstage who jabs his finger at us and scolds, ”Yez didn’t expect that, did yeh? Did yeh!? No!”? (Just shut up and let her sing!) Are we supposed to applaud those grandly patronizing judges, who all but said, ”We thought you were dumpy-looking and therefore not worth our attention, but now that we know you can sing, we think the fact that you’re dumpy-looking is fun.” All topped off by Simon Cowell, in creepy-condescending-flirty mode, telling her, ”You are a little tiger, aren’t you?” and when she shakes her head no, insisting, ”You are.” Ewww.

The recent outcry that Boyle shouldn’t get a makeover because that will make her less ”real” follows along those lines. This ”You mustn’t change a thing” nonsense is coming from people who, despite their smug sermonizing that Boyle has taught us never to judge a book by its cover, are doing exactly that. They’re treating her like an adorable pet hobbit, not a person. Don’t they know that people who are belittlingly praised for their inner beauty also like to look good? Yes, even us commoners.

Nonetheless, did I watch and rewatch and re-re-rewatch the video? You bet. Even with those wobbly low notes (admit it, you heard them too), she tore the roof off. But my favorite part came just before she sang, when Cowell asked her, ”What’s the dream?” Her reply: ”I’m trying to be a professional singer.”

That’s all. Not ”I want to be famous,” but ”I want to make a living doing something I love.” How wonderful to see someone so gifted who only wants to work. Right now, any number of entertainers seem gripped by a mini-epidemic of tone-deaf self-absorption. Billy Bob Thornton, now a ”musician,” recently had a ludicrous on-air tantrum because a Canadian interviewer dared to mention he’s also a movie star. (I saw Mr. Woodcock and The Astronaut Farmer, and Billy Bob, don’t worry — it shouldn’t be an issue for much longer.) Chris Meloni and Mariska Hargitay are now in a renegotiation with Law & Order: SVU, because apparently $350,000 per actor per episode is just not enough to do the hard work of not giggling while saying things like ”We think your daughter was part of an Internet prostitution ring at Hudson University.” (I instinctively hate siding with management; on the other hand, you call that labor?) And Ashton Kutcher, someone who is, if nothing else, expert at staying famous, is striving to amass more and more followers for his tiny, transient Twitter thoughts. ”Followers.” Really, that’s what they’re called. When did Ashton Kutcher become a religion?

Too many celebs live inside what Tina Fey has brilliantly identified as ”The Bubble” — that magical zone in which, because you have everything you want, you start believing that you earned it, then that you deserve it, then that you deserve even more. It’s remarkably out of sync with the mood of the moment. The triumph of Susan Boyle isn’t a victory over youth culture or looksism, both of which are alive, well, and financed by our consumer dollars every week. But it is a big win over the arrogant sense of predestination within The Bubble. Boyle lives outside it, like most of us. Wouldn’t it be great if she gets to do what she loves anyway? I don’t even think we’d mind if she got rich and famous in the process.