A middle-aged Scottish spinster with untamed hair and a plainspoken manner has captivated millions of music lovers and confounded celebrity watchers with her rise to fame after appearing on a British TV talent show.
Susan Boyle, 47, became one of the world's hottest celebrities virtually overnight after her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" on "Britain's Got Talent" this month. She has appeared on Larry King Live in the United States and in countless newspaper and Internet articles. The clip of her song has been viewed around 50 million times on the Web site YouTube.
But while most people see her story as a fairytale, some say it casts an unflattering light on the public and its preconceived notions about beauty and fame.
They argue that the reason Boyle, who lives alone with her cat, became the instant star she has was because she did not look or behave like a "typical" celebrity. "Sadly it all Boyles down to image," wrote Miranda Sawyer in a commentary piece for the Daily Mirror tabloid.
"No woman gets to perform publicly unless she looks like Mariah Carey. If you're a female singer, you are required by showbiz law to appear sexy at all times." Tanya Gold, writing in the Guardian broadsheet, asked: "Is Susan Boyle ugly? Or are we?
"By raising this Susan up, we will forgive ourselves for grinding every other Susan into the dust. It will be a very partial and poisoned redemption. Because Britain's Got Malice." Some descriptions of Boyle underlined media prejudices about beauty and age, critics said, with Boyle referred to variously as "frumpy," "dowdy," with "several double chins" and, in Britain's Daily Mail, as a "hairy angel."
There has also been lively debate about what Boyle should do to build on her success Ğ stay as she is or have a makeover. A few celebrity watchers have rushed to confess that they, like the "Britain's Got Talent" audience that night, had expected Boyle to founder because of the way she looked.
"She pierced my defenses," said Lisa Schwarzbaum of U.S. publication Entertainment Weekly. "She reordered the measure of beauty. And I had no idea until tears sprang how desperately I need that corrective from time to time."
Music critics wonder
Boyle's success bears similarities to Paul Potts, a tenor who appeared on the same show in 2007 and confounded expectations with his rendition of opera aria "Nessun Dorma." His performance spread quickly via YouTube and Potts went on to record the multi-million-selling album "One Chance."
Music critics wonder whether such instant success is justified, or even helpful.
"How can we expect young people to take the surer path and train for years in drama schools and music conservatoires when there's this shortcut ... approach to stardom on offer?" wrote the Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen in his blog.
But many experts and members of the public believe that Boyle's story should be seen as good news, not bad.
Marc French of Ugly, a "character model" agency, said the media had created an image of what beauty should be, but attitudes were changing.
"There is a media thing that you should look a certain way and be a certain weight, but if it does give people like Boyle a chance, then why not?" he told Reuters. "Definitely the market is more daring, a little bit more happy to have a change of look, and more open-minded. I think everyone is getting more comfortable in themselves."
As for Boyle, she appears unfazed by the sudden attention.
"Haven't seen YouTube or any of that, but I understand it's quite immense," she told reporters at her home last week when asked about the millions of viewers on the Web site. "Just take baby steps at the moment," she said, describing her approach to fame. "Keep my feet on the ground."