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

June 1, 2009 |  2:54 pm


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