Susan Boyle is no ordinary pop star – but then you knew that already. In a newspaper interview over the weekend she revealed that she has Asperger’s Syndrome, a disorder on the autistic spectrum, and spoke of her relief at receiving the diagnosis. Asperger’s is characterised by difficulties with social interaction and non-verbal communication, but has no relationship to IQ which, in Boyle’s case, happens to be higher than average. “Asperger’s doesn’t define me,” she said. “It’s a condition that I have to live with and work through, but I feel more relaxed about myself. People will have a greater understanding of who I am and why I do the things I do.”
By any definition Boyle has been very, very successful, despite the fact that she has always been “different”, in some unspecified, but much speculated-upon way. Her albums have sold 19 million worldwide and she was the first UK female pop artist to have a No 1 album in the UK and the US simultaneously. Her most recent single is a duet with Elvis Presley (albeit, posthumous), and Meryl Streep is rumoured to be in line to play her in the film version of her life. Boyle didn’t need to reveal her Asperger’s diagnosis to make people like her, but by doing so she is sharing with other sufferers the acceptance that celebrity has afforded her. As the National Autistic Society (NAS) noted, she is to be praised for “bringing the issue to the nation’s attention”
For people who feel isolated or stigmatised, it is usually a comfort to know there is someone else in the same situation – especially a successful person. It’s now slightly less stigmatising to suffer from depression (Alastair Campbell, Stephen Fry and Rebecca Ferguson from The X Factor all have) or to go bankrupt (Miquita Oliver and Burt Reynolds know all about that) and we’ve been thanking Tom Daley since last week for making it that little bit easier for teenagers to come out as bisexual or gay.
It’s not just about the potential impact on the individuals affected, however. I suspect the NAS are equally excited about the way Boyle’s personal account can help broach the empathy gap for people who have no idea what it might be like to live with Asperger’s. An articulate Boyle described her own experience in the interview: “I would say I have relationship difficulties, communicative difficulties, which lead to a lot of frustration. If people were a bit more patient, that would help.” Thanks to these words, she and others are much more likely to encounter such patience.
In fact Susan Boyle has already done so much to make us all more kind, less superficial, more tolerant people. When she first walked on stage to audition for Britain’s Got Talent in 2009 with her grey hair and bizarre hip thrusts, Simon Cowell rolled his eyes and Piers Morgan scoffed and the audience laughed. She had already revealed in the VT that she was a 47-year-old, long-term unemployed woman who had never been kissed, and lived alone with a cat. Then she started singing a confident note-perfect and inspiring version of the Les Miserables standard “I Dreamed a Dream” and so began the perfect celebrity fable.
But what exactly is the moral of The Susan Boyle Story? At first she was celebrated as a victory for talent in a culture obsessed with physical attractiveness, and a reminder to not judge a book by its cover, but as she’s become more successful, the PR blurb has morphed into something more familiar and much less interesting. Susan is now a classic underdog, a rags-to-riches success and a reminder to ordinary people to dream their own impossible dream. It’s well-worn trope of reality TV, and in this case it’s more than just trite, it obscures the real triumph of SuBo. She’s not, and never has been, an ordinary woman to whom we can all relate; she’s a very unusual woman with an extraordinary talent and specific needs. Her presence in popular culture is a much-needed reminder to never underestimate people who, for whatever reason, don’t fit the mould.
It’s great news if Boyle’s diagnosis adds Asperger’s to that list of conditions the public are comfortable with, but the real challenge remains as it always was; to accept people who are different in ways we might not have a word for, whether they happen to be able to sing or not.