Susan Boyle: Celebrity, Reality and Therapy (UPDATED)

You probably know who Susan Boyle is by now. She’s the 48-year-old frumpy, triple-chinned, thick eye-browed, unsophisticated singer from the show “Britain’s Got Talent” who recently became an overnight sensation. During her audition, all three judges laughed at her when she expressed her desire to become another Elaine Paige (Britain’s First Lady of musical theater known for her roles in Evita, Hair and Cats). Based on their assumption that an ugly old fat women can’t sing, once Boyle opened her mouth and began to vocalize “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables”, the judges’ jaws dropped, the audience gave her a standing ovation, and the world went into shock (author and some readers excepted).

Sure, she has a good voice….an excellent voice. But you’ve heard great voices before, right? Boyle’s voice was not out of the ordinary spectrum of good talent. The real reason for her sudden rise to fame was the stark contrast between the low expectations placed on her due to her appearance, and the fact that her voice was dissonant with those preconceived notions.

Previously, Boyle was chronically unemployed, never kissed by a man, and lived a mundane life caring for her cat Pebbles and her ailing mother who died two years ago. Dubbed “the hairy angel” by the British press, Boyle was suddenly in the spotlight and catapulted into instant celebrity. During round one of the competition, Boyle’s performance was watched by a television audience of 19 million, viewed 220 million times on YouTube, and had additional viewership on Twitter and Facebook. During the season Boyle had two public meltdowns, threw a temper tantrum, and threatened to quit the show. She was placed in a safehouse the night before the finale to help her maintain her equilibrium.

After disappointing results in the finale, where Boyle placed second behind a dance troupe named “Diversity,” Boyle had an emotional breakdown. The next day she was rushed by ambulance to Priory, a psychiatric hospital renowned for treating celebrities with drug and alcohol addiction, such as Kate Moss and Pete Doherty. The hospital is estimated to cost 500 dollars per day. Boyle saw a psychotherapist and was given medication. She stayed at Priory for five days before being released. Her emotional breakdown garnered sympathy from the public and psychology experts alike.

Simon Cowell, a judge on both “American Idol” (AI) and “Britain’s Got Talent” (BGT), as well as co-producer of BGT, is footing Boyle’s bill. On a CNN interview with Larry King, BGT judge Amanda Holden explained that the show’s producers take good care of their contestants because they really care about them. But the more likely motivation for Cowell’s seeming generosity is one of a capitalist. He has a financial investment in Boyle because his record label “SyCo Music,” a subsidiary of “Sony Music,” is planning to produce her debut album. If record sales go as expected, he stands to make a profit of approximately 25 million dollars. Additionally, Cowell offered to become Boyle’s manager. However, she snubbed him in favor of finance honcho Ossie Kilkenny, who has worked with U2, Tina Turner and Van Morrison. Despite this, after being released from Priory and proclaiming that she felt “bloody good,” Cowell put Boyle up in an expensive London flat and promised her brother Gerry to look after her.

Still, some in the psychology profession are wondering what the effects of instant fame are and how it should be dealt with. Dr. Drew Pinsky from the TV show “Celebrity Rehab” is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California, and has a newly released book titled “The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America.” During his interview with Larry King, he contemplated whether the BGT show had caused Boyle harm. While he was glad that Boyle received her much-needed treatment, the question he posed was whether “we” have a duty to care for all reality show contestants to ensure that they are properly prepared for the pressures of celebrity.

Other professionals are chiming in. Psychologist David Moxon, who specializes in stress-related problems, cautions the public that “being famous is not all it’s cracked up to be” and that “fame comes at a price.” According to Mike Cowell-White from Reuters, psychology experts wonder if shows like “Britain’s Got Talent” and “American Idol” are “unnecessarily cruel.”

Andy Burnham, the UK’s Secretary of Culture has indicated that Ofcom will make an inquiry into the Susan Boyle situation, but doubts that a full investigation is necessary. Ofcom is an independent agency in the UK that regulates and enforces legislation related to the broadcast and telecommunications sector. The agency received 350 complaints from viewers of BGT during the last week of the show, 20 of them expressing concern over Boyle. Another 50 were worried about the welfare of the ten year old co-finalist who burst into tears during her performance, begging for a chance to start over. And, approximately 120 of the complaints were from viewers who were pissed off that the judges actually gave the 10-year-old a second chance.

The UK Broadcast Code states that “[P]eople in a state of distress should not be put under pressure to take part in a program or provide interviews unless it is warranted.” The issue is whether or not the code was violated when the TV show resulted in contestants having an emotional breakdown or otherwise bursting out in tears.

Frank Feldinger, reporting for The Wrap, claims that the stress of being on a reality show is so great that 12 participants have attempted or committed suicide since 2005. However, upon further investigation, it is clear that in each and every case the suicide coincided with other traumas such as the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. Alternatively, the person had severe pre-existing problems. In some instances the person hadn’t even appeared on the show, but was merely scheduled to do so. Virtually none of the cases demonstrated a causal relationship between the suicide attempts and the TV appearances. Besides, what kind of people do you think go on the show “Survivor?” Is it really the same thing as entering a talent contest like AI or BGT?

When Dr. Pinsky suggested that “we” ought to make sure contestants are prepared for their road ahead, it was unclear to whom he was referring. Supposedly talent was screened by psychologists on BGT before being allowed to participate. But records indicate that Boyle never received a psychological test. The questions are: who should make the decisions regarding the psychological eligibility of reality show contestants? Should it be the TV producers? Psychologists? The government? Adult individuals who participate on the show? Second, if a participant is incorrectly assessed to be able to handle the pressure, who should be responsible for his or her subsequent mental health treatment?

Britain is already a socialist country and America is rapidly in the process of becoming one. The US government already owns a huge stake in car companies, banks, and potentially healthcare. Perhaps Congress should also enact a federal program — taxpayer funded — to provide therapy for all up-and-coming stars, to help them cope with the stress of their impending fame and success.

Susan Boyle will be performing with the BGT tour that begins this month. Many in the entertainment industry anticipate that before the year’s end, it is likely that Boyle will have a number one hit on both the UK and US charts, appear in a West End musical, and perform for the President of the United States. It all sounds soooo stressful. However, Boyle will undoubtedly earn millions of dollars, rendering her capable of paying her own bills for all the therapy she might need. Poor baby….

UPDATE: I don’t usually respond to comments on my articles, but in this case I feel compelled to do so as I am getting inundated with hate mail by Susan Boyle fans. I don’t care if you agree with my piece or not, but it seems that most of you didn’t even get the point of the article. Normally, I would think that means it wasn’t well-written. But in this instance, I think you are such Boyle fans that you can’t see past my initial description of her to even listen to what I was saying.

So first, let me say that I have nothing against Susan Boyle. She seems like a very nice lady and I think she has a nice voice. Second, I have nothing against people who need to go to therapy….. for whatever reason.

The article really had nothing to do with Susan. I was prompted to write it when I heard the Larry King interview where people were saying that the producers are paying for her therapy because they really care, and the issue arose that “we” must make sure all contestants have therapy if they need it. Upon research, I found a UK agency that spends taxpayer dollars monitoring how shows treat their contestants. To me, this is all ridiculous! The piece was supposed to be about personal responsibility. Whose job is it to decide if you can go on a show? Would you like it, if you were really talented and the show decided you’re not able to handle success so they didn’t let you on? If that’s the standard, then all you Susan Boyle fans would never have heard of her, right? She’d be deprived of fulfilling her dreams as she is now. And, if they enter a show, do you think it is the responsibility of the show to pay for their therapy? OK, if Simon wants to do it as a gift, good for him. But as much as I like Simon, do you really think that if Susan Boyle’s voice sucked and she still needed therapy as a result of the show, that he’d still offer to foot the bill? I think not, unless he was afraid of a lawsuit. I spent a lot of time researching that crazy government agency in the UK. It uses taxpayer dollars to monitor shows and investigate audience complaints about the comments of people like Simon Cowell to the contestants, and audience complaints made by those who are mad that the judges gave a 10 year old a chance to start over. Is that what you want in America?

Are you going to listen to claims that celebrity causes people to kill themselves without looking further into it? As I said, all those effected had other issues — a previous bi-polar diagnosis, loss of a parent, or loss of a job. Does that mean success isn’t stressful? Of course not! Freud used the phrase “wrecked by success” and by the way, it is not just fame and celebrity that causes stress. Any success, especially if overnight can do the trick, like winning the lottery for example. My point was not to bash Boyle for getting therapy. It was just to make a commentary on the role of the producers, psychologists and the government versus the role of the individual. If you disagree and think government should pay, great. And you might have your wish with how things are becoming nationalized in this country. Or maybe America should have a law that all reality shows offer free therapy for contestants.

As to my “focus on Susan Boyle’s looks”, to all who wrote this, let me correct you. In case you hadn’t noticed, it was not I who focused on her looks. That’s all the media and everyone else has focused on and I was acknowledging it. The description I gave was a little mean, yes, but my point was that the judges were LAUGHING at her before she sang based on her appearance — that they were focused on – and thus assumed she couldn’t sing, which is also ridiculous! Even when I said “author excepted” I guess you missed the point. I couldn’t care less about her looks. I was saying that I , unlike the judges, did not prejudge her based on her looks and assume she couldn’t sing, so I wasn’t surprised when she could.

As I said, I don’t care if you disagree with my points, but they were primarily political in nature….and apparently wasted on this audience.