by J.D. Rhoades
I know what you’re probably going to start thinking very soon as you read this: “Dear God, not another Susan Boyle post.” Well, yes, it is, but hear me out anyway, because the twists the story’s taken lately have gotten me thinking about fact vs. fiction and where the line between the two starts to blur.
Boyle, the plain-Jane chanteuse who went on “Britain’s Got Talent” and silenced the snickering crowd and skeptical judges with her big rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, became an overnight sensation, thanks to YouTube. Umpty-million website hits, interviews everywhere, etc.
So it’s inevitable, I suppose, that there’d be a backlash. Most of the kvetching appears to be based on the assumption that the judges, especially producer Simon Cowell, actually did know all along what they had in Boyle and that the whole “oh, my she certainly surprised us” act was a sham. “[T]he notion that Cowell was unaware of Boyle’s existence, let alone discordant looks and talent level, before she ever took the stage, is flatly ridiculous,” sniffed The New York Post’s Maureen Callahan. Movieline’s Kyle Buchanan was even more scathing, accusing the show’s producers of “trotting Susan out and editing her as though she is an innocent naif who just walked on stage and hasn’t already survived at least ten audition rounds in front of the show’s creator/producers, one of whom is the head judge, Simon Cowell.”
Cowell denies knowing what was going to happen beforehand. But he’s reputed to be a bit of a control freak, and he is the show’s producer. And let’s face it, whatever else you may think of Cowell, he’s a master showman. So yeah, it’s believable that he knew how the audience was going to perceive Boyle, he knew she’d blow them away, and the whole “ugly duckling” thing was set up from the get-go. But as I read those snarky pieces, what came most to my mind is, “so what?” I mean, whether it was staged or not, it’s a great story. Maybe I don’t mind so much because I write fiction. But I’m reminded of the words of Maxwell Scott at the end of the great Jimmy Stewart film THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
When I was in college, there was this guy who hung around a lot with my roommates and I. Let’s call him Henry. Henry was…well, “liar” is such a harsh word to describe what Henry did. Let’s just call him a fabulist. Henry had an amazing wealth of stories about the experiences he’d had: he’d test-driven high-end imported sports cars for a living; he’d played drums at a recording session for guitar legend Yngwie Malmsteen (the record was hung up in litigation, alas, and would probably never be released); he was learning to fly helicopters and had a job waiting for him as soon as he got his rotary-wing license, spotting for the tuna fleet. I mean, it was amazing the stuff that would come out of his mouth. One time when he wasn’t around, we discussed it and decided that for Henry to have gone everywhere he said he’d gone and done everything he said he’d done, he would have had to be between 150 and 200 years old.
Here’s the thing, though: no one believed a word of it, but no one called “bullshit”. Partially because Henry never lied maliciously or for any kind of personal gain other than, I suppose, a certain amount of self-aggrandizement. But it was also because the guy was a natural born storyteller. He was funny, charismatic, and entertaining as hell. It was all bullshit, but who cared? It was fun to listen to a guy who never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
But you tell me. Do I have this all wrong? Are you offended by the prospect that the whole ugly duckling schtick was just that–schtick? Or does it matter, because either way, it’s a great story? Does it make a difference that we’re talking about a silly reality TV show, that is to say, would you be more upset if this was something of life or death import?