Paul Prather

We're poor judges of who's a winner

Like nearly everybody else in the English-speaking world, I found myself undone by the video of Susan Boyle's April 11 performance on Britain's Got Talent.

I'm not usually a sucker for feel-good TV, but I'll admit right up front that I've watched the video on YouTube repeatedly — and cried every time.

In case you're one of the eight people who haven't seen the clip, the story is this:

Boyle, 47, was a contestant in an early, qualifying round of the British televised talent competition, which begat a U.S. version called America's Got Talent.

There's no other way to say this, and besides, it's key to the story: She's frumpy.

She's overweight and has thick eyebrows. She showed up for her performance poorly dressed. She strode onstage before a packed house and, perhaps jangled by nerves, did an awkward little jig.

Asked whom she hoped to be as successful as, she answered, "Elaine Paige," referring to the first lady of British musical theater.

The crowd snickered. The three TV judges — including crusty Simon Cowell from American Idol — puffed and grimaced.

The music began. And Boyle belted out a pitch-perfect, soaring rendition of I Dreamed a Dream from the musical Les Misérables.

A few bars into it, the crowd went berserk. Soon they were on their feet screaming. Even judge Amanda Holden leapt from her chair and applauded.

Boyle's song ended, ironically, with the lyrics: "Life has killed the dream I dreamed."

All three judges, including Cowell, were visibly moved.

Boyle became a media sensation. You can't go on the Internet to check your e-mail or channel-surf your TV without seeing her. On YouTube, there are dozens of versions of her performance video, most of which have been viewed millions of times.

As human interest stories go, this one's a killer.

Before taking the stage, Boyle had confessed to a Britain's Got Talent interviewer, "I've never been married. I've never been kissed." She later said the never-been-kissed remark was "just banter" but declined to elaborate.

In the days after her performance, it emerged that she's an unemployed church worker from a tiny Scottish village. She volunteers to visit the elderly. She used to live with her mother, whom she nursed through a fatal illness.

"I wanted to make this a tribute to my mother," she told CBS's The Early Show, explaining why she had auditioned for Britain's Got Talent. "That's where the courage came from, my mother."

Since her mom died, Boyle has lived with her cat, Pebbles. She told CNN's Larry King that one benefit of her new fame is "I won't be lonely anymore."

Like everyone else, I love Boyle.

But in our celebration of her triumph, I think we're missing an unsettling truth.

The reason we now adore her is that despite her odd looks and quirky gestures, she happens to sing like an angel.

It bothers me even as I rejoice for her. I know several Susan Boyles right here in my hometown — good, kindhearted men and women who, because of their appearance or tics or crippling shyness, somehow don't fit in.

People who are joked about. People who are dismissed. People who, more frequently than not, remain nearly invisible to the mass of us who consider ourselves wiser or better groomed. Sadly, none of the Susan Boyles whom I know can sing like that.

I think about what would have happened to Boyle had she not possessed that divine voice. What if she had walked onstage and sung off key?

She would have been booed back into oblivion. She would have been sent packing to her silent house and dared ever to re-emerge. It's as if the mere fact that she can carry a tune makes her worthwhile. Without the voice, she'd be nobody.

There's the rub. Even if she couldn't carry a tune in a gunnysack, she'd still be the same decent, neglected woman who might never have been kissed, who helps old people, who nursed her dying mother only to find herself left alone with her cat.

I hope Boyle's acclaim lasts for years to come.

But I wonder what it was in that British crowd, in those judges — and in most of us — that makes us quick to scorn a person who appears to be different, to be less than the norm. I wonder why we're so willing to instantly change our opinion if this same person exhibits an unexpected talent as superficial as belting out a Broadway show tune.

Our collective reaction to Boyle says more about us than about her. I'm afraid what it says is that we're pretty shallow. That we're often mean. That we focus on the externals and ignore a person's heart, which is where any true worth always lies.