It was the 2009 audition that stopped the nation.
On April 11 of that year, contestant number 43,212 walked into Glasgow’s Clyde Theatre for a taped audition as part of the third season of Britain’s Got Talent.
Walking onto the large, empty stage, she introduced herself to the weary judging panel – the music mogul Simon Cowell, the actress Amanda Holden and the television host Piers Morgan – as Susan Boyle, from Blackburn in central Scotland. Boyle, then 47, launched into I Dreamed a Dream from Les Misérables.
The opening lines made the scowling Cowell sit up, by the second couplet Morgan was wearing a massive grin and halfway into the performance crowd members were on their feet. Blinking back tears at the end of the audition, Holden admitted to being cynical of Boyle’s appearance and described her performance as “the biggest wake-up call ever”.
Hitting the big time
A lot has happened since that television debut. For one thing, the audition has been viewed more than 135 million times on YouTube. Boyle has released four hit albums, appeared on Oprah and The Ellen DeGeneres Show and has also been an inspiration to the likes of the actress Anne Hathaway, who starred in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables. Not bad for someone who didn’t even win.
“I know,” says Boyle. “It has been so busy since then that it just seems so long ago. I have been doing lots of travelling, meeting all these people – I really didn’t have a chance to sit down and really think about it.”
One thing she remembers though was her mission for that audition. “I wanted the audience to rock,” she recalls. “Every audition has its own fair share of nerves and you try your best to keep it hidden away. But once you walk on the stage you remember that there is a job that you have got to do.”
This is the voice of experience. The Susan Boyle story may have started that night on television, but for years the singer had been quietly honing her craft in Scotland as a church singer, winning a slew of local music competitions. Her debut recording was a version of Cry Me a River, for a 2009 Scottish charity compilation Music for a Millennium Celebration. Bidding on a copy of the CD went to US$2,000 (Dh7,345) in an online auction in 2009.
Her decision to choose Britain’s Got Talent over fierce television rival The X Factor was purely down to practicalities. “The X Factor line was too long, I couldn’t do it,” she says. “Then I thought that Britain’s Got Talent was more of a variety show so it could be a better fit.”
The last four years have seen Boyle in prolific form, releasing four albums of mostly covers. Her debut recording, 2009’s I Dreamed a Dream, defeated Eminem’s comeback release Relapse in racking up the biggest opening sales week of the year.
Her follow-ups The Gift (2010), Someone to Watch Over Me (2011) and last year’s collection of stage classics, Standing Ovation, also sold well, charting high on both sides of the Atlantic.
Boyle is now readying the release of her seasonal collection Home for Christmas (it includes a posthumous duet with Elvis Presley) but first it’s finally time to hit the road for her debut world tour.
Her show in Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Cricket Stadium is part of a jaunt that will also see her play a series of dates in North America.
Boyle is looking forward to escaping the studio and television cameras. “When you have some cameras around you [when you perform] it gives you a bit of safety,” she states.
“I like being on stage because when you are in a big hall you realise you are really out there and for me it gives me a chance to talk to the audience. I love doing that and it just gives me a chance to really shine.”
You can do it
While grateful for the plaudits she’s received, Boyle baulks at being viewed as an inspiration. “I am aware that I gave some people of a certain age some hope and that I have opened doors to them that they thought were for younger people,” she says. “But to be honest, I just feel that if I can do it, anyone can.”
• Susan Boyle performs at Zayed Cricket Stadium on December 13. Tickets start from Dh250 and go on sale tomorrow. Visit www.ticketmaster.ae for details