Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Voice for the Unconventionally Attractive

Settling back down to the home-bound routine after being away for the 9-day Passover holiday is a bit tough. Flying home from the sunshine into the overcast was the least of it--piles of mail, phone messages, email, unpacking and uploading my photos all had to wait as I prepared for Shabbat.

Kindly friends had invited us for lunch today, and among the catch-up of Pesach anecdotes were some mentions of the world that passed over while we floated in the time-warp of Passover. I was ignorant to one story that, later, I saw was covered in the New York Times: the worldwide instantaneous rise of a 47-year-old, virginal, portly, unstylish, unemployed woman from Blackburn, Scotland, named Susan Boyle.

Her appearance last week on the English TV reality show "Britain's Got Talent" was considered a triumph because her voice trumped her frump. The YouTube video of her audition, watched by more than 20 million viewers, shows polite judges welcoming her, a few plucky responses to their questions, and then a powerful rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables.

Why is this such a phenomenon? Apparently, feminists are emailing links to the performance, proud that a relatively elderly, no-makeup, fashionless, double-chinned person could inspire tears in listeners. Unfortunately, I think the tears are because Susan Boyle is the ugly duckling that bursts into swan as she bursts into song. Amanda Holden, cute, pert judge of "Talent," told The Daily Mirror" she wouldn't "let her near" a hairdresser: "The minute we turn her into a glamourpuss is when it's spoilt."

In other words, her hook is her homeliness.

On the one hand, that one of Miss Boyle's age and physique can leap to stardom is encouraging to others not conventionally attractive. We root for the underdog, and, alas, women who don't fit the Hollywood mold often are caninely compared. Therefore, when she clearly displays vocal talent, we are not only surprised, but delighted. She even told Larry King she sees no need to revamp her image, saying, "Why should I change?" Her brother Gerard told the "Daily Mirror," “She doesn’t wear make-up or fancy clothes. It’s not that she doesn’t care, she just doesn’t see why other people should care how she looks. When me or my sisters see her we always say ‘Och Susan, you could have put a comb through your hair’. But she can’t see what the problem is."

On the other hand, that we snicker when she strides onto the stage reminds us that Miss Boyle is indeed the exception, and we're still going to hold by the rule. And frankly, the whole thing looks like a set-up. She's the "gotcha!" producers and publicists pursue, and it's working great.

But there's a message here. Just as we often dismiss the handicapped or elderly, we dismiss or demote anyone not pretty or potent.

Not long enough ago, I decided that when I encountered old people, or individuals in wheelchairs, I would look them in the eye, smile, and say hello, recognizing them, and reminding me never to disregard a soul who can breathe and feel. Every elder in a walker struggling to step was once virile and energetic, and led a life as worthy, and often more so, than the venerated stars who grace tabloid covers.

In the same Saturday paper, next to the piece on Susan Boyle, was a disgusting article by Michael Creepy, uh, Cieply, sniggling over the few pounds it appears to him that some male stars exhibit in recent films. Jeff Daniels and Russell Crowe in "State of Play" are described as "Two men. One notebook. Four chins." Denzel Washington and John Travolta star "cheek to jowl" in "The Taking of Peham 1 2 3." Hugh Grant's "dimples pop out where they used to pop in" in "Did you Hear About the Morgans?" And Vince Vaughn's "sized up" form will star next year in "Couples Retreat." It seems media can't help perpetuating debilitating stereotypes even as they cheer one who breaks them.

Is that just the way the world works? Yes. But the good news is that we're now talking about it. "You can't judge a book by its cover" is now the code phrase for the ascent of Susan Boyle.

What a wonderful season. The trees are heavy with pink blossoms and the daffodils coloring the yard with sunshine. The tulips are a bit late this year, but tomorrow we'll take a hike in search of trilliums. The air feels crisp with possibility.


  1. I love that she doesn't care what she looks like, however, can I please get near her brows with hot wax or tweezers? Please?!! They're begging for a little femininity. It would make a world of difference...

  2. Jennifer, apparently her brows were tweezed for a British TV interview she did.
    Childs--Appreciation! Oh YES!!

  3. Hi lovely bright light, newly returned. Did you find the trilliums? Husband knew about them because of you, and we found them walking to shul on Yom Tov... love and belated welcome-homes! xoxo