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Critic's Notebook: Susan Boyle, easy fame and mental health


News flash from across the pond: Becoming an overnight sensation can be hazardous to your health.

You would think the legacy of Princess Di would have left a more permanent imprint about the hazards of celebrity, but no. First 10-year-old Hollie Steele was flash-fried by the spotlight, then Susan Boyle, whose brush with fame literally put her in the hospital (or “in hospital” as the English inexplicably put it).

Both were competitors in “Britain’s Got Talent,” a nationally televised talent show designed to pluck virtuosos out of obscurity and launch them into the stratosphere of fame and fortune. Just as if that were a good thing. It was the template for “American Idol,” except participants are not limited to singers and Simon Cowell, a judge on both shows, is much, much nicer. (Does he just hate Americans, do you think?)

For those who live under an actual rock, Susan Boyle is the Scottish woman who showed up at auditions this spring in black stockings, white shoes and very unfortunate hair only to blow everyone away with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” She quickly became the most-watched clip on YouTube and instant pet subject of every media bloviator in the world. Boyle met the Queen and Oprah and soon found herself dogged by paparazzi and deconstructed daily by bloggers, which is as clear a definition of fame in 2009 as you’re going to get.

So in a way, it’s not terribly shocking that, after coming in a surprising second during the show’s final round, Boyle apparently collapsed from nerves and exhaustion. It takes most stars years to get to the hospitalized-for-exhaustion-stage, but that’s how crazy this Internet age can be. Even the prime minister quickly got on the horn to express his dismay.

Meanwhile, spurred on by Boyle’s out-of-nowhere fame, “Britain’s Got Talent” had served up an even more unlikely nascent star: Little Hollie Steele, an ivory-skinned pixie who came out in a tutu, warbled here way through “I Could Have Danced All Night” and made her eyes very wide when she told the camera all she wanted was to be famous.

Really, Hollie? Have you never heard of Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears? Have you never heard of Susan Boyle?

As luck would have it, Hollie burst into hysterical tears during the semi-finals when she, being, you know, 10, forgot the lyrics to “Edelweiss.” In one of the more cynical decisions on record, the producers of “Britain’s Got Talent” decided not to cut to a commercial when Hollie broke down, instead chronicling every squirm-inducing moment as she hid her face in her hands, reached for her mother and then began crying afresh when she was told she couldn’t start over.

So what’s the takeaway? I mean besides the final collapse of the myth of British stoicism. How about the myth of the overnight success?

The entertainment business is built on it -- the idea of the young girl discovered at a lunch counter or a singer found on the street corner. It’s the American Dream, Concentrate — one minute waiting tables, the next minute accepting the Oscar. Except, of course, it seldom happens that way.

Behind virtually every new star who bursts onto the scene out of “nowhere” there’s an actor or writer or singer or dancer who has been working his or her butt off for years. Going to auditions, taking classes, submitting drafts, doing the summer rep, taking the tiniest gigs, all to hone his or her craft and, just as important, prepare for the life of a performer.

All of which is tedious to watch or even contemplate, which is how the “overnight” myth got started and why shows like “Britain’s Got Talent” or “American Idol” or even “Survivor” and “The Hills” are so popular. How much more fun to bypass the dreary business of preparing for your profession, leapfrogging to fame courtesy of the television audience.

Sounds great except it takes preparation to be famous too. Preparation and often an entire staff: the bodyguard, the publicist, the driver, the lawyer — those in the public eye often require a literal wall of trained professionals. More than that, they have to acquire the ability to distance themselves from their media persona, to be able to hear their name screamed over and over and still remain calm, to survive the onslaught of praise and criticism.

It isn’t easy, and many people fail. People who have been in the business for years still find themselves screaming at photographers or getting sucked into some Internet feud.

So what chance does some poor woman from a Scottish town that is still described as a series of villages have? Or a 10-year-old girl who admits she has a heavy accent when she talks but when she sings she “sounds very posh?”

At least with “American Idol,” all the participants know what they’re getting into — the term “idol” is all about the fame. Talent, well, talent is different. Talent is something you have; fame, as Susan and Hollie now know, is something you try to survive. And it helps if you have a little time to get used to it.

-- Mary McNamara

Comments () | Archives (5)

Okay, all these articles and comments I've read keep referring to Hollie bursting out in tears during her semi-final performance. Have we all be watching the same thing? Since when has one been able to "cry hysterically" without shedding a single tear, red rimmed puffy eyes and a runny nose? That was the most pathetic attempt to gain sympathy I'd ever witnessed. She had best stick to singing because she's a terrible actress. The little girl who lost her semi-final, Natalie Okri - now that was a real display of emotion with real tears (her face actually got wet!) and Shaheen's tearing up when the judges voted to keep him in over the other contestants who he had become friends with was genuine and real as well. Hollie was plainly rehearsed.

And why does everyone assume that Susan broke down because she lost? The woman hasn't had a moments peace since April 11th and especially in the week leading to the final was under enormous pressure from her fans, the media and herself. So what if she lost her cool and mouthed off at the reporters nipping at her heels, she is only human after all. So she's gone to a clinic to get some much needed rest and try to make sense of the last seven weeks now that the pressure is off. I guess it would have been more acceptable for her to go to rehab for drug or alcohol addiction because that seems to the "in" thing to do, rather than a private hospital for emotional fatigue.

From a UK site:

The 48-year-old, who suffers from learning disabilities as a result of being starved of oxygen at birth, became an international sensation after her first audition was televised on April 11.

Mencap, the learning disability charity, said the makers of Britain's Got Talent should have provided Boyle with extra support.

"Anyone who shoots to international fame would need support, whether they have a learning disability or not, but if you have a learning disability you would need extra help in dealing with the new situations that Susan found herself in. From the reports we have seen, that bit of extra support would probably have helped her through," a spokesman said.

Why do we watch auto racing, or tractor shows? Just to see cars go in circles? Or for the crashes/blowups?
You see, it draws in more ratings if pressure causes the human equivalent -- crashing (forgetting the lyrics), blowing up (temper offstage), breaking down (into tears) -- same as auto racing, audiences get into that stuff.
This is a rare chance to profit off sensationalism, with sky-high ratings, and huge profits, at the expense of real people.
Go ahead, eat it up. There's a reason they kept the cameras on the little girl and zoomed in as she wept -- this is big-time way to get huge ratings.
The camera commits a sort of virtual rape on the psyche of the girl -- and audiences gleefully watch, feeding their latent predatory instincts, whipped into a frenzy by the trashy sensational media, to great financial profit of huge money-loving corporations.
I have little doubt that, at this rate, in 100 years there will be live cannibalism on TV.

The fame was not easy. She tried and tried and tried before. The world was closed to her and ignored her partially because we didn't know about her. It is not mental health that is at issue here. The media which doesn't want to admit, that they are culprit here, looks for some other explanation. It is not mental her of the Great Singer. It is media ability to destroy people and not being ever punished for this. The problem is that people working for media are lifeless themselves and are set to destroy everything what has some life in it - either by"improving" it or by "insinuating" or by "provoking" or by any other terrible method. I consider myself relatively stable, yet I would not survive that treatment coming not only from so called "tabloid" but from sources considering themselves, well, better. Not unlike BBC or LAtimes. The fact is they don't know what they are talking about. If any of us was talked and wrote about in such a way we would not be able to recognize ourselves either in those articles, comments etc. As a result we would be confused and lost. Specially if we didn't have anybody close (but a cat) to bring us back to ourselves. Susan Boyle was not and is not what the media describe. Yet by writing those insidious comments and repeating things lime it is mental health issue (again only to escape responsibility for their murderous behavior) they destroy the real person.

OH LOOK!!! The top selling debut album of all time!!!!!!!!

You small minded biggoted people.


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