By Ellen Goodman
I am not the sort of person who fills the e-mail inboxes of my friends with jokes. Nor do I harass my family with hyperlinks to the latest YouTube video of lobsters with Hula-Hoops.
Nevertheless, on the fateful day after Susan Boyle gobsmacked the judges of “Britain’s Got Talent,” I joined the forwarding hordes. Her encounter with fame and prejudice, including my own, and the moment when her vocal chops shattered expectations, became part of a 100-million-hit phenomenon.
But within 24 hours of pushing the send button, I had the same feeling you can get after a great first date when suddenly, against your will, you see the story line all the way to the breakup. The narrative in this case went from the surprise to the disappointment, from the plucked heartstrings to the plucked eyebrows.
On the Internet, Susan was labeled the “hairy angel,” the “singing spinster,” not to mention the “47-year-old unmarried, unemployed cat-lover.” The word frumpy was attached to her like a tattoo. Everyone considered her their own feel-good discovery. But her 15 minutes, OK, 15 days, of fame have fueled a smackdown between those two strains that braid and twist their way through our culture: self-acceptance and self-improvement.
To make over or not to make over? This was the question that followed her flat heels off stage and into the eye of the wider public. She became a template for our ambivalence. And hers.
“Why should it matter as long as I can sing?” Susan told a British paper. “For now I’m happy the way I am—short and plump. ... What’s wrong with looking like Susan Boyle? What’s the matter with that?”
But she also said, “It wasn’t until I saw myself on TV that I realized how frumpy I was.”
One of the judges advised, “She needs to stay exactly as she is because that’s the reason we love her.” But that was Amanda Holden, blond, Botoxed and burnished. “The minute we turn her into a glamour puss is when it’s spoilt,” said this glamour puss.
Then came Susan’s Makeover Lite. The black jacket, the shaped and colored auburn hair, the tweezed eyebrows were analyzed more intensely than Arlen Specter’s makeover into a Democrat. There were more Web site polls on Susan’s look than on Barack Obama’s first 100 days. “Access Hollywood” Web readers favored a makeover 3-to-2 in their most voted-upon poll ever. And US Weekly readers voted against a makeover by a three-point margin.
I’m sure we could all have spent our time better studying torture memos than makeover photos. But not far under the surface of the Susan story is a replay of some mythical struggle between the alternative happy endings of “Shrek” or “Pygmalion,” “The Ugly Ducking” or “Cinderella.”
This struggle between acceptance and change goes on in media that set the beauty bar astoundingly high. We have “Ugly Betty” (albeit with braces) stacked up against dozens of stars who look like survivors of the late, unlamented “Extreme Makeover.”
Then there’s Oprah Winfrey, a one-woman campaign for self-esteem in any shape and size. But this month’s O magazine not only carries a makeover feature, (redeemed only because the subjects are fighting cancer), it also touts a cure for cellulite, another in the expanding list of body parts needing improvement.
Susan Boyle elicits a trail of tears in the audience for being a frumpy talent. But so do the struggling, self-flagellating “Biggest Losers.”
Those fans who pleaded with her not to change a hair on her brow make their case for authenticity. Rosie O’Donnell praised “this freaky miss” as “something authentic in a world that is usually manufactured.” But isn’t there a difference between authenticity and a bad hair day? Is “morning breath” authentic and toothpaste “manufactured”?
My own Susan narrative rests on a worry that in our ambivalence we look too hard for someone (else) to be a stand-in army, a one-woman resistance force. Women who are both fighting and succumbing to the beauty standards that have seemed both relentless and powerful want to see someone hit just the right note. They also want to see someone happy in their unadorned, cellulite-marked skin. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on one middle-aged woman who is about to face a second round of talent scrutiny in the full spotlight. Indeed it isn’t her fight, it’s ours.
Susan Boyle is a person, not a phenomenon. Life is making her over. Let her soar.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group