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Why Susan Boyle Lost ‘Britain’s Got Talent’

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

First Adam Lambert, now Susan Boyle. Both have become victims of the megahype machine. It seems the British population is no more tolerant of having a talent show contestant rammed down its collective throat than the American viewership is.

This weekend, Susan Boyle--the dowdy, "never been kissed" 48-year-old Scottish singer who'd been Britain's Got Talent's frontrunner and biggest media darling since she first startled Simon Cowell with her performance of Les Miserables' "I Dreamed A Dream"--shockingly lost on BGT. Even more surprisingly, she didn't even lose to the show's other two frontrunning vocalists, 10-year-old singing ballerina Hollie Steel and 12-year-old soul sensation Shaheen Jafargholi, but to a dance troupe called Diversity that had received far less attention (at least on this side of the pond).

Perhaps so much insta-hype is never a good thing for any talent competition voted on by the public, in any country. In America, ubiquitous Lambertmania--the fawning judges' praise, the premature pre-finale Entertainment Weekly cover story, that Katy Perry "Adam Lambert" cape--may have turned off AmIdol voters who felt their free will was being snatched away and they were being told whom to like and whom to vote for. Or at the very least, Idol viewers just might have suffered Lambert fatigue before the American Idol season was even over. And in the case of Susan Boyle and Britain's Got Talent, the situation was even worse, especially given the sensationalistic nature of the U.K.'s notorious tabloids.

Pretty much all of Britain's eyes--and soon after, thanks to the Interweb, the world's eyes--were focused on Susan from the moment she opened her mouth and shocked everyone by proving that (gasp!) a somewhat unattractive person could actually have vocal talent. Apparently such a novel concept--in this age of impeccably air-brushed but only marginally talented pop stars--blew the minds of Brits and Yanks alike. But Susan also touched an international nerve with her Cinderella story, because at the heart of all these talent shows--from American Idol to X Factor, from America's Got Talent to Britain's Got Talent--is the inspirational idea that anyone can be a star. The ugly-duckling fairytale of overcoming lowered expectations, and then proving all naysayers wrong, is indeed universal.

But it was all too much, too soon. The BGT semi-finals hadn't even started, and yet even people without satellite dishes who had no access to the actual show (other than via grainy YouTube clips) already had nothing but Boyle on the brain. The tabloids and blogs lurched into overdrive: Had she really never been kissed? Was she going to undergo a makeover? What did she look like as a young girl? What did her newly hired bodyguard look like? Heck, what did her cat Pebbles look like? Almost immediately, Boylemania reached its Boyling point, and within a couple weeks the fickle public was sick of hearing about her and had moved on to other watercooler topics--like Shaheen Jafargholi, or the Octo-Mom, or the swine flu, or Jon & Kate, or even Adam Lambert. And yet, Britain's Got Talent was still far from over.

The backlash was inevitable, especially considering that--unlike thick-skinned seasoned showbiz pro Lambert, who seemed to handle his media blitz with ease--a small-town shut-in like Susan was hardly well-equipped to deal with such scrutiny. As the countdown to the BGT finale neared, the seemingly sweet-natured Scot, unaccustomed to living her life in the public eye, began to undergo an unfortunate public meltdown that seemed likely to hurt her chances of pulling off her once-expected landslide victory. She nervously hit some pitchy notes during the BGT semi-finals, and then reportedly freaked out at London's Wembley Plaza Hotel in front of 150 shocked viewing-party guests after watching BGT judge Piers Morgan rave about Shaheen Jafargholi. Rumors soon swirled that Susan might succumb to the pressure and quit the show altogether.

Piers then angrily defended Susan on his blog, ordering Susan's detractors to leave her alone. "She has been in tears many times during the last few days...she's had to read stories and columns, and listen to radio and TV phone-ins, calling her arrogant, insincere, spoiled, fake, mad, and so on," he wrote. "Susan Boyle has never experienced anything like this and is like a frightened rabbit in headlights...Anybody who has gone through that transformation is going to be feeling the most unbelievable pressure. You could see the nerves almost crippling her on the semi-final show and I just think it's time that everyone slightly backed off."

But of course, in this media age of instant celebrity, no one EVER backs off. So even more and more pressure landed on Susan's rounded shoulders, and British bookmaker William Hill subsequently lowered its odds for Susan to win after the reports of her expletive-riddled behavior came to light. The Susan Boyle rags-to-riches-to-rags saga seemed especially accelerated in this case. This was certainly a different kind of stardom than she might have dreamed of when she was a young girl, performing in little local talent shows that were not broadcast to the entire planet.

However, to her credit, on the BGT finale night Susan surprisingly rose to the occasion like a Lambert-esque pro. By all accounts her reprise performance of "I Dreamed A Dream" was a stunner (again, see video above), as she sang with unexpected confidence in a shimmering evening gown and appeared, according to the AP, "more polished and animated than in previous performances." And even when she lost out to Diversity, she handled herself well, sweetly curtsying to the audience and giving her trademark hip shake rather than suffering the amateurish breakdown some cynics and bookmakers may have expected.

So perhaps, despite dreaming a dream and losing, Susan has already grown a thicker skin. Perhaps this will serve her well and she will indeed have a legitimate career ahead of her, and not just become another 15-minute YouTube footnote. But while she and Adam Lambert may seemingly have little in common musically, there is one lesson that both Brits and Americans can take from these contestants' respective defeats: When it comes to televised talent competitions, viewers don't always believe the hype.

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