BOSTON — I am not the sort of person who fills the e-mail inboxes of my friends with hyperlinks to the latest YouTube video of lobsters with Hula-Hoops.
Nevertheless, on the fateful day after Susan Boyle gobsmacked the judges of “Britain’s Got Talent,” I joined the forwarding hordes. Her encounter with fame and prejudice, including my own, and the moment when her vocal chops shattered expectations, became part of a 100-million hit phenomenon.
But within 24 hours of pushing the send button, I had the same feeling you can get after a great first date when suddenly you see the story line all the way to the breakup. The narrative in this case went from the surprise to the disappointment, from the plucked heartstrings to the plucked eyebrows.
The word “frumpy” was attached to her like a tattoo. Everyone considered her their own feel-good discovery. But her fame has fueled a smackdown between those two strains that braid and twist their way through our culture: self-acceptance and self-improvement.
To make over or not to make over? This was the question that followed her flat heels off stage and into the limelight.
“Why should it matter as long as I can sing?” Susan told a British paper. “What’s wrong with looking like Susan Boyle?”
But she also said, “It wasn’t until I saw myself on TV that I realized how frumpy I was.”
Then came Susan’s Makeover Lite. “Access Hollywood” Web readers favored a makeover 3-to-2 in their most voted-upon poll ever. And US Weekly readers voted against a makeover by a three-point margin.
This struggle between acceptance and change goes on in media that set the beauty bar astoundingly high. We have “Ugly Betty” (albeit with braces) stacked up against dozens of stars who look like survivors of the late, unlamented “Extreme Makeover.”
Then there’s Oprah Winfrey, a one-woman campaign for self-esteem in any shape and size. But this month’s O magazine not only carries a makeover feature, (redeemed only because the subjects are fighting cancer), it also touts a cure for cellulite, another in the expanding list of body parts needing improvement.
Those fans who pleaded with Boyle not to change a hair on her brow make their case for authenticity. But isn’t there a difference between authenticity and a bad hair day? Is “morning breath” authentic and toothpaste “manufactured”?
My own Susan narrative rests on a worry that in our ambivalence we look too hard for someone (else) to be a stand-in army, a one-woman resistance force. Women who are both fighting and succumbing to the beauty standards that have seemed both relentless and powerful want to see someone hit just the right note. They also want to see someone happy in their unadorned, cellulite-marked skin. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on one middle-aged woman who is about to face a second round of talent scrutiny in the full spotlight.
Susan Boyle is a person, not a phenomenon. Life is making her over.
Let her soar.
Contact Ellen Goodman at firstname.lastname@example.org.