Don't lose the tune, warns man who taught Susan Boyle to sing

The Hairy Angel's astonishing talent is at risk from siren voices in her entourage, Jonathan Brown reports

Saturday 14 September 2013 03:51

With her seemingly guileless talent and extraordinary voice she may have conquered the hearts of all she serenades. But the man who taught Susan Boyle to sing said he fears the world's unlikeliest diva is in danger of squandering her gift amid the blaze of publicity surrounding her appearance on Britain's Got Talent.

Her former vocal coach Fred O'Neil said it was critical that the 47-year-old spinster be given space and time to develop. Having devoted nearly six years to nurturing the raw talent he spotted in the church volunteer, spending countless hours running through scales and exercises at his home in Livingston, West Lothian, he said he was delighted at her success.

"I feel great about it," he said yesterday. "I just feel I ought to defend her. I want to see her go about this with some space to breathe a bit and grow."

Boyle's dowdy frock, frizzy hair and angel-like voice have earned her a rapid following. However, Mr O'Neil said he was increasingly dismayed about the way his protégé was being portrayed in the media, where she is routinely described as the "hairy angel" – a name supposed to highlight the dissonance between her soaring vocal talents and her down-to-earth appearance.

Mr O'Neil, 41, who when he is not offering voice lessons enjoys a career as a singer and performer in his own right, fears his former pupil's dream of being the next Elaine Paige could be crushed under the wheels of the publicity machine surrounding the ITV talent show.

"As a singer she always had a lovely, calm, beautiful rounded voice. It is a very good instrument. But I am concerned about her being surrounded by all these PR people that she will not be given the time to sing," he said.

"She is like an athlete – she has to keep using her voice to keep it. If she wants to keep on singing big show songs she has to keep on practising. It is very different from singing for a couple of minutes on Britain's Got Talent."

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Boyle has not had any lessons since 2002 and nearly gave up singing after the death of her mother, Bridget. She decided to have one last stab at achieving her dream and her resulting TV performance has so far garnered 25 million hits on YouTube, turned Demi Moore into a fan and left her fighting off offers to appear on US talk shows. The emergence of a "lost" recording of her singing the blues standard "Cry Me a River", made while working under Mr O'Neil, has confounded suggestions that she is a one-hit wonder.

Her former teacher conceded that there were limitations to her voice but said her steely determination to succeed would continue to help her win over audiences while her unique personality could well turn her into a successful actress, too.

But he has reservations about the TV talent show route to fame: "Sometimes I feel it is so sensationalist. I feel they sometimes are not allowing the more intelligent Susan to come forward. I look at the names people are calling her and I think this is worse than what she is leaving behind. This is not respecting someone, saying they have a voice like an angel and then calling them names," he said.

"Susan is a woman you can sit down with and have a very intelligent conversation. She is one person with whom I can say about my own act 'do you think that song should be dropped?' or 'is that working?' She is one person whose judgement you can really trust."

He said the much-reported mild brain damage she sustained during birth barely affected her daily life.

"She is being portrayed as being lucky but she is someone who is not just a talented woman but she has a real intelligence. She may have had the problem when she was born but it does not affect her 99 per cent of the time.

"Cosseting her in this mad, batty thing – that is all right maybe for five minutes in the programme but maybe not in the long term," he said.

The pair have spoken on the phone since her TV debut and he dropped a tape of singing exercises through the front door of her home in Blackburn.

"She is surrounded by PR people and you are not seeing the real person behind this. She is a sensitive woman. She knows what she is doing with a song. I feel bound to dispel this view of her as some hapless, lucky person who was born with this extraordinary voice."

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