BY NOW everyone has seen and, more important, heard Susan Boyle, the dowdy Scottish woman who wowed the audience and judges of Britain's Got Talent, an America's Got Talent clone based in the United Kingdom.
The audience sniggered when Ms. Boyle, a frumpy-looking 47-year-old with thick eyebrows, squinty eyes, and a frightful hairdo, literally flounced onto the stage in Edinburgh. The judges, including American Idol's Simon Cowell, rolled their eyes when Ms. Boyle rotated her hips and said that she wanted to be as successful as Elaine Paige, a star of British musical theater.
But when she opened her mouth and began to sing "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables, jaws dropped, there was a stunned silence, and then the cheers began. Susan Boyle's got talent.
Since that night last week, the video of Ms. Boyle's audition has had more than 19 million views on YouTube, word is she's going to be offered a recording contract, fan sites have sprung up in cyberspace, she's been interviewed on CNN's American Morning and ABC's Good Morning America, and she has been invited to appear on Oprah, which, as you know, practically guarantees fame and riches.
All this before she even wins the British TV competition, which carries a top prize of nearly $150,000 and a chance to perform for Queen Elizabeth II.
Shame on us.
While much of the praise and attention Ms. Boyle is receiving is well-deserved, it is also true that people were blown away because it seemed impossible to them that a plain person could have such a lovely voice.
Call it American Idol syndrome, with more than a dash of soap opera sensibility thrown in for good measure. Somewhere along the line we've come to believe that there's a genetic connection between good looks and other desirable traits. Never mind that we know in our hearts if that were the case, Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson would have some sort of legally marketable talent. Our experience as shaped by TV, movies, and magazines - even if not by real life - tells us that all the advantages of life are the property of the fabulously good-looking.
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So, when Ms. Boyle sashayed onto the stage and traded awkward quips with the judges, we were predisposed to believe that she was another William Hung, the famously bad singer from American Idol's third season. And when she was good, our surprise was exceeded only by our embarrassment at being revealed as the shallow beings we are. We were, as Ms. Boyle described herself, gobsmacked.
What else could we do, then, but to hide our shallowness and shame by making Ms. Boyle an overnight sensation? Who could have known, we ask, that such a talent was hidden beneath such a rough exterior?
We could have known. We've read Beauty and the Beast, or watched TV's Ugly Betty, so we do know better, but that knowledge often is at war with our desire to feel good about ourselves by feeling better than someone else. And what Ms. Boyle offers us with her compelling story - unemployed, never had a boyfriend, never even been kissed, lives alone with her cat after taking care of her ailing parents until their deaths - is the chance to recognize talent in an unlikely source and feel superior. What a bonanza.
As a result, she's almost sure to win the Britain's Got Talent competition and her fortune is certainly assured. That's good, Ms. Boyle deserves it, but I'd feel a whole lot better if I thought we had learned anything from the experience.
If that happened, I'd be the one who's gobsmacked.