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Susan Boyle: What Did They Know, and When Did They Know It?

I’m not one of those bullies who looked at Susan Boyle’s audition on "Britain’s Got Talent" and went, “Harumph! She’s nowhere as good as Elaine Paige, whoever that is, how dare she aim so high.” Though I did later learn from Letty Cottin Pogrebin in one of Huffington Post’s multitudinous articles on Susan’s triumph that […]

I’m not one of those bullies who looked at Susan Boyle’s audition on "Britain’s Got Talent" and went, “Harumph! She’s nowhere as good as Elaine Paige, whoever that is, how dare she aim so high.” Though I did later learn from Letty Cottin Pogrebin in one of Huffington Post’s multitudinous articles on Susan’s triumph that Elaine is “the First Lady of the British Musical Theater.”


I cried each time I watched the audition, just like Demi M and Patti LP, and even teared up when I was only thinking about it.

But the backlash has begun, and not wanting to miss out on a trend (e.g., I joined Twitter two years ago but barely posted till I found out everybody else was), I’ve  revisited the questions in the back of my mind from the start:


Were the audience putdowns edited in later for effect? Did the judges know in advance they had a star on their hands and played it for all it’s worth?

In search of the truth, I followed Drudge’s link to Susan Boyle Is Not a Very Good Singer, Calm Down Everybody at Mirror.co.uk, where blogger Rob Leigh says she was off key. Not so, argue commenters who swear they have perfect pitch.


Drudge also led me to Maureen Callahan’s New York Post rant, Why Is No One Suspicious of Simon Cowell’s Latest Creation, where the closest she gets to proof of shenanigans is her reasoning that “there is the profound desire for this entire thing to be authentic, which in and of itself suggests that it probably isn’t.” 


But I wasn’t looking for opinions. Was it a setup or not?

At MovieLine.com, Kyle Buchannan’s Enough Already With This Susan Boyle Thing charges, as if he knows for sure, that the producers “wildly stack the deck emotionally for her  trotting Susan out and editing her as though she…hasn’t already survived at least 10 audition rounds in front of the show’s creator/producers, one of whom is the head judge, Simon Cowell.”

Kyle goes on about “weirdly mixed in catcalls and ADR’d skeptical laughter” and that “shot of some girl rolling her eyes, and if you know reality TV at all, she definitely rolled her eyes at that exact moment and not some other moment during the four hours of taping that the producers just spliced in to kickstart their segment’s narrative.”

The show doesn’t hide that it’s edited. Interview clips are pre-recorded by necessity and, according to Wikipedia, 2007 "BGT" sensation Paul Potts’s audition performance of Puccini’s "Nessun Dorma" was cut poorly enough for a detail-oriented opera fan to tell.


But as much of a surprise as Paul’s voice was to the audience, there were no winces before they heard him sing, no titters — just a condescending grin from  judge Piers Morgan, an impatient sigh from Simon as the music begins and no  expectations whatever on third judge Amanda Holden’s face. A moment later Paul sings, Simon perks up and a star is born.

After Paul’s emotional win, someone with the handle SSH left a long comment at One Man’s Blog about signs of artifice in his sudden rise. He thought it odd that Paul was accustomed to the tuxedos of the opera world yet dressed decidedly down for his audition. That he presented himself as a simple mobile phone seller whose only childhood friend was his voice, when he had studied opera in Italy (and, according to Wikipedia, performed in front of Luciano Paverotti) with £8,000 winnings from an amateur competition.


SSH watched and rewatched Paul’s videos for inconsistencies and found them. Flown to New York for the "Today Show," Paul passed over the first part of Meredith Vieira’s question, “I know you haven’t had formal training … ” and answered the rest ("So how did you learn to sing like this?”) evasively. “Um,” said Paul, “(unintelligible) I’ve just always sung.”

SSH also accused Paul of being in on a ruse with Simon, the cynical talent packager who “knows that both talent and emotion sell.” Maybe we’re skeptical because we’re unused to giving our hearts so quickly.

On "Weekend Edition," Scott Simon asked Paul pointedly, “Were you a mobile phone salesman singing opera or an opera singer who was just selling mobile phones for a while?”


Paul said the former. “I’d never done singing professionally … I did it in my spare time. So my career was selling mobile phones.”  He wore a $70 suit on "BGT" because, after dealing with health problems, “it was all I had money for at the time.”

Sure, BGT producers learned from their experience with Paul and were ready when Susan fell into their laps. They’ve made no bones about what they’re after.  In a clip that follows Paul’s audition, Simon says, “I like shows where somebody isn’t a professional, has a talent, isn’t aware of it, has a normal job — and then you see something else.” Something that can’t be manufactured, even by him.


Susan takes that appeal, that “little lump of coal … that is going to turn into a diamond” touch judge Amanda has talked about, to the next level. Paul keeps his emotions in check. He’s still in his thirties.

Susan twirls her hips, blurts out that she’s a virgin at 47 1/2 and then takes it back as a joke when interviewers on two continents press her on it. In the Huffington Post, Mark Blankenship claims, “Boyle could have been presented as a winner from the very start, but that would’ve ruined the drama." Since he doesn’t mention having access to more footage of her than the rest of us saw, it’s unclear how he knows that. Or maybe he thinks makeup and a blowdryer would have done the trick.



Piers Morgan was perfectly plausible on Larry King when he apologized to Susan that, at the end of a long day with “lots of terrible auditions … we thought that you were going to be a bit of a joke act, to be honest with you."



The only elements of importance that could have been staged are the ridicule by the audience and the distain by the judges that form the perfect setup for her triumph. If the young woman at 1:24 in the YouTube video rolled her eyes over something else she found worthy of ridicule, why hasn’t she come forward to defend herself against the hatred spewed at her in comment after YouTube comment? 


If any of the judges had known what to expect from Susan, could they really have pulled off both the condescending attitude beforehand and the thrill at her turnabout? And why would they need to fake it when the reality can be achieved with a minimum of planning?

They’ve got an organization in place. No need to waste the stars’ time on endless preliminaries. Wikipedia says there are pre-auditions in front of producers weeks before those chosen for the show are sent out, as Movieline’s Kyle notices, “in front of a large audience with swooping crane shots.”


A man named John, whose daughter tried out for "America’s Got Talent" this
year in Chicago, wrote that after hours of waiting, he and his daughter were led to a small room where someone ran a camera, someone else manned the CD player and a young woman served as judge.


“She told us that the producers would look at all of the videos and that we would be contacted in one to eight weeks if we were to receive a callback.” It can’t be that different in Britain. Surely behind-the-scenes producers can be trusted to know who the talented contestants are without spoiling the suspense.


Susan is real. Her story is real. Fans are still watching Susan videos, Paul Potts videos, Kate and her doggie dancing partner Gin videos from the 2008 competition — they’re watching everything from "Britain’s Got Talent" they can get their eyeballs on … over and over again.


Susan’s role model, Elaine Paige, wants to do a duet with her. The Oprah invitation has been extended and accepted. "BGT" Judge Piers has asked her out for a romantic dinner with roses, wine and kiss … and if that’s not enough enough Susan for you, there’s Susan-Boyle.com, where it’s all Susan all the time.

The economy is still tanking. The high seas are still dangerous. Prospects for most of us aren’t rosy, and Levi Johnston should be giving diaper money to the Palins but isn’t. Susan has cut through all that. And if Simon Cowell benefits from her success, we’ll just have to put up with it.


Sondra Lowell is the inventor of the Film Sleepy genre, movies that put the audience to sleep. Her first feature, "WebcamMurder.com," follows fictional yet unimaginative lifecasters who spend their time on webcams 24/7. Her second feature, Sublime Crime: A Subliminal Mystery, is the first entirely subliminal mystery in history.


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