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Susan Boyle: Broken by the fame game

Susan Boyle was the world's most unlikely star – but her collapse has turned the spotlight on television. Jonathan Brown reports

The future was all mapped out for Susan Boyle. Having competed in Saturday's final of Britain's Got Talent she was due next week to lead her fellow wannabe stars on to the stage at Birmingham's Indoor Arena for the first night of a 18-date nationwide tour.

She was then booked on a plane bound to the Czech Republic to record an album of show songs with the National Symphony Orchestra before returning to the UK to agree the final details of a record contract under the watchful eye of impresario Simon Cowell, a deal which was expected to net her a US No 1 and earn her millions.

But on Sunday night, as producers of the show which propelled her to global fame less than eight weeks ago toasted their ratings success and sought to redirect the spotlight on to surprise winners Essex dance troupe Diversity, something went terribly wrong with the plan.

Police were called to the central London hotel where Miss Boyle, who suffers from learning difficulties after being starved of oxygen during birth, was said to be "acting strangely". It was claimed she had been seen running through backstage corridors screaming tirades of abuse directed at the show's creators. Millions of people had become concerned about her state of mind after newspaper claims of a foul-mouthed fracas in a car park last week while many more were left unsettled by her bizarre behaviour during the final moments of the talent show finale. When Metropolitan Police officers arrived they found doctors struggling to cope with a desperately ill woman. Exhausted and distressed by the intensity of her recent experiences the 48-year-old spinster agreed to make the short journey northwards by ambulance to the London suburb of Southgate. There she was admitted to the private Priory Clinic where she is due to undergo rest and receive treatment for what was described as an emotional breakdown.

As news of her mental anguish broke yesterday morning messages of support came in from Prime Minister Gordon Brown and pop singer Lily Allen.

Publicist Max Clifford sought to reassure fans that everything possible was being done to help and protect her. Britain's Got Talent judge Piers Morgan, who had championed the unlikely star during her dramatic rise to celebrity, tried to explain what was happening. "Nobody has had to put up with the kind of attention Susan has had. Nobody could have predicted it. It has been crazy, she has gone from anonymity to being the most downloaded woman in history," he told GMTV.

Few could have foreseen the hype that would come to surround the frizzy-haired church volunteer who until her audition before a dumbfounded panel of judges and initially hostile studio audience in April had lived a quiet life with her cat Pebbles at the home of her late parents in Blackburn, West Lothian. But such was the incongruity between her appearance and the exotic timbre of her voice that few could resist her story. Footage of her was downloaded more than 100 million times, she appeared on Larry King and Oprah Winfrey, and back home it was open season on the private details of a hitherto unremarkable life.

It could be several weeks, maybe even months before Miss Boyle is well enough to exploit the glittering opportunities that until a few days ago seemed a matter of formality for her. Some were left wondering yesterday whether she will ever again be able to return to the full glare of the spotlight.

Friends and family of the star expressed their deep dismay at the turn of events. Her brother Gerry Boyle downplayed the seriousness of Sunday's incident, saying his sister had suffered no more than an "anxiety attack". He said Miss Boyle was "exhausted, tired and a wee bit homesick" but he insisted this was the start, not the end, of her international singing career. "She is not interested in money, she's not a material person, but what she is interested in is working with her idols and I'm sure Mr Cowell will have a few people lined up," he said. Her former singing coach Fred O'Neil described her plight as a "tragedy". He said: "I just hope that whatever fame that she has got out of this will bring her some happiness."

Andy Abraham, who was runner-up in the second series of the X-Factor, said pressures on TV talent show contestants could often be enormous. "Everything is to do with the show. Especially if you are not used to that kind of environment where everybody is either there to big you up or shoot you down," he said. "Someone should have sat Susan Boyle down and told her 'This is the situation – you are officially a phenomenon. We want to protect you and make you come out of this with your sanity intact'."

He said too often singers felt they were on a conveyor belt desperate to capitalise on their chance of success. "As much as she has a really good voice Susan Boyle has been overhyped to the point where it is detrimental to her," he said.

But producers of Britain's Got Talent insisted yesterday they had discharged their duty of care to Miss Boyle and that all appropriate support had been available. A spokeswoman said contestants were asked to reveal any pre-existing health problem before taking part.

But the show has raised other concerns. The mother of Hollie Steel was yesterday forced to defend her decision to allow her 10-year-old daughter to compete in Saturday's final after the schoolgirl broke down in tears during the semi-finals. Nina Steel, 37, from Huncoat, Accrington, said: "Appearing in front of the crowd or on television wasn't a problem for her. She just wanted to get the song right."

Ofcom said yesterday that despite receiving complaints it had no plans to investigate. Mental health campaigners said it was important everybody should be offered the chance to take part. Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, said: "The high stakes involved in shows like Britain's Got Talent may be a challenge to anyone. Some may need more support in meeting this, but you cannot necessarily predict how people with cope with disappointment, and therefore should not prevent people from taking part in such contests."