Rivkah Writes…

April 28, 2009

Susan Boyle: From Transcendent to Transformed

Filed under: Entertainment,On My Mind — rivkahwrites @ 6:53 pm

Caught between disbelief and wonder, many of us who saw Susan Boyle’s extraordinary performance on Britain’s Got Talent mentally recast her appearance to match her incredible voice. Because, as human beings, our minds aren’t equipped to deal with dissonance – elements that don’t “fit” our value system or embedded set of stereotypes. We want things to be of a piece – so we expect ordinary looking people to have ordinary abilities, and extraordinary looking people, to be extraordinary. The truth, though, is that beauty doesn’t guarantee genius. And, by the same token, genius such as Susan Boyle’s can exist in ordinary packages. Still, most people remain blissfully unaware of life’s delicious ironies, and in the wake of Susan’s performance, their unconscious processes have gone busily to work on the tabula rasa that is Ms. Boyle. As a result, much blogging, twittering, and references to Cinderella, the Ugly Duckling, and God have been devoted to the Susan Boyle “Should She or Shouldn’t She?” makeover debate.


But has anyone noticed, amid the various back and forths, that we’re assuming a makeover would impact only us, Susan’s audience? That the only issue of importance is how we’d feel if Susan’s beautiful voice existed in a more becoming setting? When what we need to consider is that a makeover might have considerable psychological impact on Susan herself?


Think about it for a moment. Susan has spent her life in a small village in Scotland, working as a church volunteer and caring for her mother. Since her mother’s death, she has continued to live alone with her cat, Pebbles. By any standards, Susan’s life to date has been sheltered and she’s lived among people far less concerned with appearances than their American counterparts. Subject this woman now to cosmetic changes of even the most basic kind, and the consequences of suddenly rendering her visible, when she has been mostly invisible, added to the public attention generated by her newly discovered talent, and Susan may find herself bewildered, paralyzed and lost. The impact of transformative change on many people can render them self-aware and questioning about abilities they have previously taken for granted. The impact of transformative change for Susan could turn her effortless gift into a burden loaded with people’s expectations.


Writing in the nineteenth century, Charlotte Bronte also knew a thing or two about the dangers of transformation. In Villette,* she introduces us to Lucy Snowe, a young English governess who cannot risk articulating her emotional desires and needs because her social, physical and economic marginality make it unlikely that she will ever be able to find fulfillment; poor, plain, and destitute, she is considered at best, invisible at worst, ugly and unimportant. At the boarding house in France where she is employed, Lucy is compelled to accept a part in a play to be performed by students. At first reluctant to play her part, Lucy finds that once on stage, she transcends the mediocrity of her everyday self. As actress, she becomes another person, transforming her role and using it as a vehicle for expressing the person she cannot be, the feelings she cannot have, the desires she cannot accept. As with the prospect of a makeover for Susan Boyle, Lucy’s newly discovered talent suddenly renders her visible in a way she has never been before. Yet once the play is over, Lucy decides she will never act again. Why? According to the critic, Tony Tanner,** Lucy realizes that as an individual alone in the world, she can rely only on her self, and therefore recognizes the importance of knowing full well what that self represents, no matter how alien her surroundings or how inviting the new attentions of those that surround her. Consequently, Lucy struggles to keep the core of her personality intact, lest, as Tanner points out, by yielding to the role of actress, she shatters “into a multiplicity of discontinuous and unrelated partial selves which she might be unable to integrate.”


Lucy Snowe has much to teach Susan Boyle. Not about depriving herself of a makeover – we are, after all, in the twenty first, rather than the nineteenth century and no longer burdened by the kind of class system Lucy endured, a class system that would have made the governess feel her differentness no matter how famous she might become. No, Susan Boyle is supported by a network of family and friends who would all be cheering her on as she embellishes the setting that houses her magnificent voice. Nevertheless, the Lucy Snowe example suggests Susan’s most important tasks over the next few months – indeed, the tasks of every person in charge of molding Susan’s image at Britain’s Got Talent – are to keep the core of her personality intact, to maintain the integrity of her effortless gift, to ignore public expectations, and above all, to keep Susan transcendent, even as she is transformed.    



*Bronte, Charlotte. Villette. 1853. London: Penguin Books, 1985.

**Tanner, Tony. Introduction. Villette. By Charlotte Bronte. London, Penguin Books, 1985.




  1. Beautiful post, Rivkah! Surely Susan Boyle isn’t considering the kind of
    makeover you mention! In the UK, they’re far less concerned with
    superficial beauty than we are anyway. Has Ms. Boyle said she’s going
    to have plastic surgery, etc.?


    Comment by Paula B. — April 29, 2009 @ 7:32 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you Paula! I’m originally from England and know all about the indifference to appearance – on the part of ordinary people, anyway. Take that indifference, cube it, and you’ve probably captured the kind of environment Susan lives in, in her remote Scottish village. That’s why, as I mention in the post, even the most basic modifications might make Susan visible in a way that has to be accommodated and integrated with the rest of her personality. It’s just an opinion, after all, but all change is relative; what seems basic to you and me may be huge for Susan.

    Comment by rivkahwrites — April 29, 2009 @ 7:53 pm | Reply

  3. Loved the Villette analogy, Rivkah. I came from a small town in NEW England. One of the joys of living in a small town is that you are always surrounded by people who remind you of who you are when you begin to forget. One of the problems of living in a small town is that you are always surrounded by people who insist upon reminding you of who you WERE when you’re trying to GROW. Susan will make her own peace with who she is, how she looks, and how she SOUNDS LIKE she looks. It takes a lot of courage to live life alone, and I believe Susan has that in abundance. I don’t know about you, but I’m still a 12-year-old when I close my eyes, no matter what I’m wearing or how my hair is done.

    Comment by Phoenix — April 29, 2009 @ 10:24 pm | Reply

  4. Thanks for your insightful comment, Phoenix. I agree that it takes a lot of courage to live alone – but I think the exact opposite is also true – isolation can become a refuge from which the individual can find it hard to extricate him- or herself. I guess it depends on whether living alone is a decision one makes or a habit one falls in to…

    Comment by rivkahwrites — April 29, 2009 @ 10:49 pm | Reply

  5. […] you perform, one of the many who has cast her vote in the “should she or shouldn’t she?” makeover debate, one of the many who watched your final performance on May 30. What an incredibly […]

    Pingback by The Dream Lives On: an Open Letter to Susan Boyle « Rivkah Writes… Blog — June 7, 2009 @ 6:20 pm | Reply

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