Correction Appended: Apr. 27, 2009
The story of Susan Boyle like that of Paul Potts before her is, except to the most jaded and curmudgeonly among us, completely irresistible. Fished, seemingly, from the bottom of the troll pond by Britain's Got Talent, these two humble, working-class, physically ill-favored souls were suddenly found to be capable of creating things of astonishing beauty. People reacted as if vast quantities of treasure were discovered in the trunk of a broken-down Hyundai abandoned on their street. It was always there, but nobody had ever bothered to look. Thanks to that grouchy Simon Cowell (and YouTube), the two amateur singers each became overnight sensations, bringing lumps to the throats and surreptitious wiping of the eyes to millions, including the show's judges. (See pictures of the unlikely ascendance of Susan Boyle.)
Ugly duckling stories really do not get any better than this. And Britain's Got Talent milked them for all they were worth, cutting away to eye rolls and snickering by the audience and judges before the two wow-inducing performances. (Eye rolls and snickering, of course, can be taped at any time and edited in later, but never mind.) But exactly how untutored and undiscovered were Potts, who went on to win 2007's competition and will release the CD Passione on May 5, and Boyle, who since her performance surfaced last week has become a household name on at least two continents?
Their life stories, as told in countless profiles, are oddly similar. Potts, 39, was raised in a scuzzy part of Bristol, England, we're told, by a bus-driver dad and supermarket-cashier mom. Boyle, 48, was one of nine children whose father worked in a car factory and mother in a typing pool. At school they were both bullied. When he turned up in front of the judges, Potts was a dentally challenged mobile phone salesman, wearing a $50 suit from the supermarket chain Tescos. Boyle, with her gold dress, black hose, white shoes and hedgerow eyebrows, was unemployed and, yes, living alone with her cat, Pebbles. Nobody, the show made clear, had any idea they could sing.
Well, not quite. Luciano Pavarotti, for one, had an idea about Potts. While Potts' hometown, Fishponds, is not an upscale neighborhood, he went to St. Mary's Redcliffe, one of the best non-private schools in Bristol. After he graduated with honors from university, he went on a quiz-cum-talent show hosted by Michael Barrymore and won enough money to take singing classes in Italy. There he performed for Pavarotti.
Upon Potts' return to England, he worked his way through the amateur opera scene. According to the program for a 2003 Bath Opera production of Aida in which he appeared, he had already sung with that company several times and with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. But that same year, he had a nasty bicycle accident. Health difficulties and medical bills took him away from opera and into his job selling phones. (Read "Why American Idol Keeps Soaring.")
Boyle's story is similar but with fewer light notes. Her hardscrabble town was Blackburn in Scotland. She also auditioned for a Barrymore TV show, but didn't make the cut. Yet she took singing lessons and recorded Cry Me a River for a charity CD in 1999, the same year she made a demo tape. An observant Catholic, she often sang at church and on karaoke nights. So her talent was no surprise to her neighbors. "Everyone here knew she could sing," Jackie Russell, manager of the local pub, told the AP. "We were always saying, 'You should go in for talent competitions.'" What held Boyle back was caring for her aging parents. She entered BGT, after her mother died, because she was approached by talent scouts from the show who asked her to enter.
Potts and Boyle are not, in short, two undiscovered singers who never got their shot at fame. Their stories are less telegenic than the one sold by Britain's Got Talent, but much more common. Thousands of singers take their shot and fail, just as these two had.
But in a way, their true tales are more heartening. Paul Potts and Susan Boyle each wanted to build a career on their talent, even tried to. He got stalled; she got rejected. But the same things that barred them from entering showbiz upbringing, luck, family duty and, in this TV-driven world, looks are what delivered them eventually to fame's main square. They had the exact qualities the reality industry knows how to package. As Cowell said to Boyle, in what may have been the most honest comment in the whole program, "I knew the minute you walked out on that stage we were going to hear something extraordinary."
The original version of this article stated that Paul Potts's CD was already released. It will actually be released on May 5, 2009.