Lesley Riddoch: We should hope Susan Boyle stays immune to fame

'I CAN'T ever see her coming back one day looking like Beyoncé. The whole village is saying, 'They can try, but they'll never change her'." So says the landlady at the local (lounge) bar frequented by Blackburn's singing star Susan Boyle.

The 47-year-old has not yet won Britain's Got Talent – but since she's about to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show the result is surely a formality. The big question is – will she change?

Though a celebrity-addicted public currently "love her as she is", every aspect of the West Lothian spinster's appearance is currently "wrong" in their normally relentless, unforgiving view. Her hair is short, stubbornly curly and shot through with grey. Her face is unmade up, shiny and clearly at least 47 years old. Her physique is stocky. Her stance is faintly masculine and her eyebrows are full. So much so that American chat-show host Jay Leno was able to impersonate Susan by merely adding a wig to an outsize version of her tea-dance dress.

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And it gets better – or worse – depending on your point of view. She lives in a four-bedroom council house in the former mining village of Blackburn, cared for her mum, has slight learning difficulties after being deprived of oxygen during birth and – almost a crime against humanity in this sex-obsessed world – has never been kissed and – worse – does not mind admitting it.

If there was ever a walking antidote to celebrity, Susan Boyle is it. The monstrous, superficial system that is the British entertainment industry should have expelled her automatically like an unwanted guest at a celebrity wedding. The sexist, ageist lifeform that is ITV should have rejected her like an unmatched organ transplant. But it didn't. Instead Susan Boyle's dowdy appearance has helped Simon Cowell and ITV create a new "look" for the credit-crunched, emotionally exhausted noughties. A look which is a non-look. A look which exists only to contrast with a superlative voice. A look you can trust.

As comedy supremo Armando Iannucchi commented about Smeargate last week, Labour's promise of no more spin is the new spin. And no "look" is the new "look".

I'm not suggesting Susan Boyle is anyone's creation. But until Simon Cowell heard her in rehearsal, the contrast between her voice and appearance hadn't helped her at all.

Susan entered a West Lothian talent competition several years running and didn't win. Perhaps that was just bad timing – a woman trying to be herself in a celebrity-soaked world of identikit colour-me-beautiful stars in an empty culture.

Maybe it was small-mindedness. Blackburn's not a million miles from Bellshill where Sheena Easton was born or Dennistoun where Lulu grew up. And its mining culture isn't that different from Pontypridd, Tom Jones's original stamping ground. But all of them had "youthful good looks" and big voices that were encouraged at every turn.

Susan, by contrast, didn't even let rip in her local church – after receiving a standing ovation as she walked to her customary pew last week, the world's newest singing star confessed that fellow worshippers might be surprised to know she could sing. Why?

Susan Boyle proves that Britain has talent – but she also proves how often British and Scottish talent is wary of revealing itself. Mockery, envy, "who does she think she is", isolation – a lot of not very nice things flow from trying to excel in a society that believes in "star quality" rather than talent.

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Susan Boyle's singing voice is tremendous but it's not her greatest gift. In the days when more of us went to church, willingly or otherwise, there was always at least one voice that hit the high notes, guided the rest, kept up the pace. In the days when singing was the norm at lefty, folk-oriented evenings, there were always startlingly good "amateur" singers – even if their ability to give it laldy applied only to one particular song.

I recall standing outside many a Hogmanay bash or other social gathering trying to practise favourite songs in the right key with the right first lines – always in far superior vocal company.

Those days appear to be largely gone and instruments have taken over. Decades of dedication by schools, the Feisean organisation and community groups means that today's youngsters are far more likely to be able to play the fiddle, guitar, clarsach, bodhran or piano. But they are also far less likely to sing – or to be precise, far less likely to perform.

The current wave of Highland-based musicianship is fabulous, but many gigs have become dutiful interactions with the public – not magical performances. There's often no eye contact or craic with audiences – sometimes no emotion, revelation or personality in songs.

And that is Susan Boyle's great gift. Her voice is great, so are many voices. Her appearance is ordinary, so by definition are many appearances. But Susan Boyle's performance is superlative. Open, generous and gracious. Susan Boyle has a great voice – but she also has grace in barrow loads because she has acquired a healthy immunity to what society thinks.

The Blackburn diva delivered grace to a loutish audience by singing with undiluted, unconditional joy from every pore of her being – as if they were worth it. And that act of faith transformed the booing, judgmental, shrill and empty-minded audience in the room and the sceptics on YouTube.

The power in the TV studio moved almost visibly from the audience to the performer as Susan Boyle forgave them. She forgave us all.

And she proved the human voice is not just an instrument – it is an act of will.

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So will she change? Will the stylists get to work, will she leave her council house, will she buy a computer and a mobile phone, will she try to lose weight?

If Susan Boyle can keep performing instead of improving herself she will triumph and inspire – whatever happens to her fabulous career.