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Letty Cottin Pogrebin Headshot

Why Susan Boyle Makes Us Cry

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Half the women I sent the link to cried when they watched the YouTube clip of Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent and I think I know why.

Given its nearly eight million hits thus far, you've probably seen her, the matronly lady all decked out in that mother-of-the-bride cocktail dress and matching open-toed pumps, hair by some neighborhood beauty shop, eyebrows John L. Lewis. In the opening scene, while awaiting her turn on the British version of American Idol, she breezily confides that she is unemployed, lives alone with a cat named Pebbles, and has never been married or kissed.

Once on stage, her interrogator, Simon Cowell, asks about her dream. To be a professional singer, she says, and as successful as Elaine Page -- a statement that elicits great hilarity and hyperactive camera close-ups of the judges' bemused disbelief and the snickering, eye-rolling audience. Clearly, everyone is thinking, Elaine Paige!? Are you actually comparing yourself to the First Lady of the British Musical Theater, the singer whose recording of the Cats anthem, "Memory," topped the charts for months, and who starred as Eva Peron in the first production of Evita? You've got to be kidding.

Cheerful and unperturbed, the contestant blithely announces that she is going to sing, "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables.

"How old are you, Susan?" asks Simon, in a tone more appropriate to an interview with a toddler.

"Forty-seven," she says. The audience cracks up. Pixels of ridicule fill the screen, incredulity, patronizing sneers, smirks, whispers you can almost hear: Look at her, will you! Frumpy from the Fifties, got a double chin, a silly Scottish accent, hails from some tiny hamlet, can't remember the word "villages," and to top it off, Omigod, she's old! Either she's a ringer and we're in for some weird parody of Dame Edna or we're about to see this dowdy dame make a fool of herself on the hottest show on British telly.

Finally, Susan Boyle steps into the spotlight and opens her mouth, and before she's sung three glorious, crystal clear notes, the audience is cheering, the judges' jaws have dropped, and I'm choking back tears.

After she got her unanimous Yes votes from Simon, Amanda, and Piers, I typed "Ageism Be Damned" in the subject line of an email and sent the YouTube link to everyone on my Women's Issues list and within an hour, more than a dozen had written to tell me that it made them weep. Since then I've talked to other friends who've confessed to the same reaction. What are we all crying about? What is it about this woman that touches us so deeply?

Partly, I think it's the age thing, the fact that a woman closing in on 50 had the courage to compete with the kids -- and blew them out of the water. "Women of a certain age" should be forgiven for finding vicarious satisfaction in Susan's victory. In plain words, it's an up-yours to the cocky youth culture that often writes us off.

Then, too, we were weeping for the years of wasted talent, the career that wasn't, the time lost -- both for Susan Boyle and two generations of her putative fans. If someone with a voice like Julie Andrews' spent decades in a sea of frustration and obscurity, how many other women (and men) must be out there becalmed in the same boat? I believe we were crying for them and for whatever unrealized, yet-to-be-expressed talent may lie within ourselves.

But I'd wager that most of our joyful tears were fueled by the moral implicit in Susan's fairy-tale performance: "You can't tell a book by its cover." For such extraordinary artistry to emerge from a woman that plain-spoken, unglamorous, and unyoung was an intoxicating reminder of the wisdom in that corny old cliché. The three judges and virtually all those who watched Susan Boyle in the theater (and probably on YouTube as well) were initially blinded by entrenched stereotypes of age, class, gender, and Western beauty standards, until her book was opened and everyone saw what was inside.

I think we cried because her story appears to be en route to a happy ending, but also, perhaps, for all the books whose covers have never been cracked.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of nine books.