Scottish church lady finds her voice (updated)

0170201bNo one does pack journalism like the Brits, but let me jump in here and give it a try.

You see, the hottest video out there in YouTube land — click here, since the embed code has been disabled — is the amazing performance by one Susan Boyle on the Britain’s Got Talent show, which is kind of American Idol with a wider spectrum of amateurs attempting to show off their alleged talents.

As you know, some of the most popular moments in these “reality” talent shows are provided by ordinary people who are allowed to display their lack of talent, thus earning the snarky wrath of superstar judge Simon Cowell.

So when dowdy, late-40something spinster Susan — no boyfriends, admits that she has never been kissed — walks out on stage, you can see people reacting out in the audience (and the judges too, of course). This lady has been brought out to be shredded before the nation. After all, she admits that she looks “like a garage.”

Now, here’s some background from The Times. But first, ask yourself: Where does an old maid do her singing? Any ideas? This is one of the details many of the stories are missing.

“Modern society is too quick to judge people on their appearances,” she said. “There is not much you can do about it; it is the way they think; it is the way they are. But maybe this could teach them a lesson, or set an example.”

At the pre-recorded audition, broadcast four days ago, audience members laughed at the frizzy-haired, church-going Catholic who lives alone with her cat in a rundown council estate, when she said she wanted to follow in the footsteps of the West End star Elaine Paige. Nevertheless, she said, she was determined to show them she has what it takes.

“What you do is ignore that and get on with your act. You have to,” Ms Boyle said.

Minutes later the audience were on their feet, applauding wildly after her soaring rendition of I Dreamed a Dream, from Les Miserables.

Like I said, you have to join the other millions of people around the world who are watching this video to get the full effect. Have your tissues ready.

Of course there are more details. Boyle was born with a learning disability. She surrendered years of her life, and her dreams of being a singer, to care for her elderly mother. She stopped singing altogether two years ago — apparently even at church — when her mother died, but decided to take this leap of faith on television as a tribute to her Mum, who was a big fan of the show.

Now she is on the verge of getting her shot, perhaps as a character actress in musicals — taking advantage of her age. She is already hearing offers.

Today, she is a worldwide sensation, a clip of her performance from the show has been viewed almost 2.5 million times on YouTube, and made it on to the news schedules in the United States. Prior to her TV debut Ms Boyle, who is unemployed, spent her days shopping, doing her housework, and occasionally visiting one of her eight siblings. Overnight she has become a national celebrity, but is determined not to change.

“I’ve had people recognising me but I have gone on as normal — I am very down to earth,” she said.

The role of the church and her large family is interesting, of course. This story is also making waves because it so clearly undercuts the whole culture of youth and beauty that surrounds the entertainment industry. Might even American Idol have to change?

kleenexBut there’s another element of the story that has people, literally, in tears (check out this simple Google search). Mainstream journalism doesn’t get more cynical and world-weary than Entertainment Weekly. But check out this confession from PopWatch blogger Lisa Schwarzbaum:

… (Right) now I’m pondering why the experience of watching and listening to Ms. Boyle makes so many viewers cry, me among them. And I think I’ve got a simple answer, at least for me: In our pop-minded culture so slavishly obsessed with packaging — the right face, the right clothes, the right attitudes, the right Facebook posts — the unpackaged artistic power of the unstyled, un-hip, un-kissed Ms. Boyle let me feel, for the duration of one blazing showstopping ballad, the meaning of human grace. She pierced my defenses. She reordered the measure of beauty. And I had no idea until tears sprang how desperately I need that corrective from time to time.

Boyle, of course, might mention another form of grace. However, it may take the journalism pack a few more days to make that leap with her.

Meanwhile, check out the lyrics to the famous song she used as her anthem as she took her one shot. Here’s a sample:

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame

Where is that extra box of tissues?

UPDATE: Here’s some more church-lady details, as the press rolls on and on with the story. It appears that when you actually get to her village, the church is the key connection.

This is from the Washington Post follow story:

She always wanted to sing in front of a large audience, but mostly she just sings in church. On Easter Sunday, the day after her television debut, Boyle — dubbed “The Woman Who Shut Up Simon Cowell” in one headline — received a standing ovation when she went to Mass.

“We let out a wee bit of a cheer for her. We are quite proud of her,” Boyle’s parish priest, the Rev. Ryszard Holuka, said in a telephone interview. He added that Boyle is a “quiet soul.”

“At gatherings and anniversary parties, she’d stand up and give a song,” he said. “She never flaunted her voice; this is the first time it’s been publicly recognized.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • MattK

    Oh my! I think I need the extra big box.

  • Lauren

    I believe this is just what the world needed to see. All too often, adults, as well as children judge people before really getting to know people, and in return are stunned by what is on the inside. Susan Boyle’s performance, was the exact opposite of what I was expecting to see. I’ll admit at times I have overlooked people before actually getting the opportunity to get to know them. In this short news clip, , it basically allows the viewer to realize that we are often wrong, with our initial judgements.

    It almost seems heart wrenching to know that at 48, she has been bullied all her life. She has hidden a talent that could have changed others. But at the same time, I have to look at the bright side and realize that found the courage to come out and sing at this age, and hope that people see her talent and in return make up for the last 48 years of suffering.

  • Norman

    …he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble.

  • mike

    Angels on Earth

  • Sean

    This reminds of a previous Britain’s Got Talent contestant, Paul Potts, the cell phone salesman who knocked Nessun Dorma out of the park in 2007.

  • ransomorama

    Great story TMatt! Thanks for posting it…

  • Pingback: Susan “Dreamed a Dream” « I Commend Joy!

  • Chris Bolinger

    The look on Simon’s face says it all. You actually can see the gears turning, as the master of packaging boy bands and other pop acts tries to figure out what he is going to say…and do. And when it comes down to it, he doesn’t know what to say…or do. Except cheer for her, as we all do.

  • Norman

    I might well be naive, but I’ve had the feeling for a while that this is just the sort of performer that Simon really loves. His shows have found a few of these people with wonderful voices & great life stories who are, say, less than model-perfect. Paul Potts was mentioned earlier; maybe it isn’t a mistake that this keeps happening.

    Anyways, what a beautiful voice Boyle has, and what a beautiful moment this was.

  • John Brandkamp

    The youtube hits are now over 5 mil. Not at all a surprise. Stunning, just stunning. I’ve watched half a dozen times already myself and am moved to tears each time. As already mentioned, this is a wonderful antidote to cynicism. May God continue to bless her, since it’s obvious He’s already blessed her!

  • Norman

    Expanding here, because I really loved this and needed a full box of tissues myself. What this challenges, I think, is the too-common contemporary mindset that worth is something conferred on people by dint of their looks or achievements, and not something innate. Susan Boyle had value and dignity before she ever opened her mouth, and the proud will always be confounded by the appearance of true beauty and nobility in ordinary people. The cynicism and crassness of our age is neither as stable nor as sustainable as we might think in our more pessimistic moments.

  • nickb

    Here’s why we love Susan.

  • Bern

    It’s over 11 million views now . . . nobody’s counting the tissues! God bless all choir ladies, everywhere!

  • Dan Berger

    And remember, at 48 her voice is certainly past its prime. Imagine what she’d have done earlier, given the opportunity.

    Showbiz is like that. You need talent, but you also need luck, to be in the right place at the right time. Ms. Boyle has had her luck; now we’ll see how far her talent can take her.

  • Linda Sue

    Thank you for the religious “backstory” – just saw Susan Boyle interviewed on CBS morning show, in her living room with no musical accompaniment – she’ll still bring you to tears. Harry Smith asked her what she’ll sing at the next competition for BGT and she saucily replied “you’ll just have to watch won’t you?” – so grateful for moments such as these to remind us of the gifts God bestows without regard to the package.

  • Richard Sabel
  • Emerald

    Susan,BRAVO! You go girl! I have been a professional musician all my life-you sent chills up and down my spine with your beautiful voice that is so heartfelt too. You are a true musician. May your star rise.

  • Jay


    Since this blog is supposed to be about religion coverage, what do you think about the WPost coverage? It says “priest” and “Rev.” but doesn’t say what brand of Christianity Boyle subscribes to. The state church is Reformed (and doesn’t call its ministers “priest.”) The national church is Anglican and does use “priest.” However, only in other sources does it say “Catholic”.

    If her church activities are part of the story, it seems as though the name (or at least brand) of the church is worth mentioning.


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  • S.Herndon

    This touched my heart to the point of tears. What a neat lady. A bit sassy, I’d say, wouldn’t you? I loved the swaggering of her hips when she told Simon her age. I’m a strange person, I see beauty in most things. Her face is precious, even before she sung. The thing I think I can say I admire is she seemed to have kept her humor, she seemed to be a person who sees life & accepts it & goes with it. She’s a total inspiration & I will never forget her or Paul Potts. I wish we has “American Has Talent” & we could quit showcasing just the elite & beautiful but also unassuming, down to earth people who have a talent & no one really knows. Loved it, loved it so much.

  • Earl

    She did not find her voice. She sang past stereotype, a skeptical audience listened and even Simon was convinced that Susan Boyle has more than just talent, she has class and character.

  • David (in Edinburgh)

    I found myself crying through Britain’s Got Talent clips this time last year (try here or especially here for starters), and have been working through what it is that seems to cut through me ever since. Susan Boyle turning up has just added to it.

    One thing to mention – from this side of the Atlantic – is that as a nation Britain is not in the habit of affirmation. We are not brought up being told that we are great, and do not tend to believe in ourselves a whole bundle (I have really enjoyed learning from North Americans in this area). For many of us, who are expecting to be told that we aren’t good enough or pretty enough or whatever, merely having the guts to stand up and go for it is a huge battle.

    I don’t know what it looks like from where you are, but for us I feel like there has been a huge, shared cathartic experience: when (for example) Paul Potts was not only told that he was good – by Simon Cowell no less – but then went on to win and sell millions of records. We as a country have really benefitted from seeing these redemptive performances. Humans do look at the outward appearance, and God does look at the heart, and Susan Boyle has reflected that back to us.

  • Helen

    Ms Boyle, Forgive me for judging you. You are the true meaning of beauty. Forget the facelifts, the diets, the expensive clothes. You are you. and you are beautifull! Thanks for showing us what real beauty s.