Elvis is in the building strutting his stuff on Susan Boyle’s mantelpiece. Not black, leather-clad Elvis, but a plastic, white rhinestone-clad Elvis sent by one of Boyle’s legion of fans who heard she was to duet posthumously with “the King.” It is surreal when his rich, dark voice shivers from speakers, blending with her light clarity in a spine-tingling version of Oh Come All Ye Faithful from her fourth album, Home for Christmas. With music, Boyle is finally animated. Since my arrival, she has been perched quietly on the edge of her sofa, avoiding eye contact with me, the stranger in her living room. There is something of the watchful little girl about her, dressed in her smart frock-for-visitors, plain black with a white Peter Pan collar. Her public relations agent talks while Boyle stays silent. Her personal assistant serves soup and sandwiches while Boyle observes. I have been invited for lunch, but Boyle has already had hers. It is Boyle’s home, yet you could easily mistake her for a visitor here too.
“Did you like that?” she asked when she and Elvis had finished.
There is a touching vulnerability about the Scottish singer that seems at odds with the robustness of her extraordinary career — 14 million album sales in 14 months. The first British female artist, followed only by Adele, to have a No. 1 album in the UK and the US simultaneously. Now Boyle is diversifying. She has a cameo role in The Christmas Candle, a festive, feel-good film based on the novel by Max Lucado. Fox Searchlight is also in pre-production of a film about her life, with Meryl Streep topping the company’s wish list of those to play Boyle. Her world outside this sitting room is expanding all the time. She comes back here, to her home in Blackburn, West Lothian, to remind her of who she really is.
“I’m a cheeky bugger, aren’t I?” she asked. “I am approachable. I am the same as you, I think.”
That is not strictly true. You would not meet Susan Boyle and think she was quite like other people. Indeed it was her unique combination of the ordinary and extraordinary that charmed the public when she sang on Britain’s Got Talent in 2009. Her voice is visceral and emotive, but it was only when combined with the expectations of an audience that gazed at a middle-aged woman with gray hair and thought she was going to sound like a strangled cat, that it became truly special. It was the element of surprise: the juxtaposition of her mundane appearance, her weird little wiggle and offbeat humor with the sheer life-affirming determination of her dreams that made a nation of viewers wipe a silent tear.
Boyle knew people were laughing at her before she sang that night. In fact, she was having a laugh, she said. She had attended 12 television auditions over the years and included Britain’s Got Talent because she liked “Piersy baby,” Piers Morgan.
“I am flame-resistant when it comes to laughter,” she remarked almost carelessly, and perhaps nothing she said gave more insight into her life or her spirit. “You think, I’ll show them.”
When her initial wariness wears off, Boyle displays warmth, kindness and empathy in conversation. This is sometimes lost in articles about her, which refer variously to “learning difficulties” or “slowness” caused by complications at birth. Such descriptions are a puzzle — like looking at an apple and being told it is a pear. Boyle is perfectly intelligent. Her assistant reads a glowing review of her new album, stumbling over a word before she can place it.