Abnormal interest in Jon & Kate, Susan Boyle

Posted: Thursday, June 11, 2009

We'll discuss Susan Boyle's mental state in a moment, but first let me show my ignorance.

A few weeks back, a reader asked what I thought of "Jon and Kate." I had never heard of them.

This was a gaping hole in my body of knowledge but, thankfully, one easily remedied simply by glancing through the tabloids in the checkout line. Turns out Jon and Kate Gosselin are the stars of the putative "reality" show "Jon & Kate Plus 8" on TLC. The premise was that viewers would follow the Pennsylvania couple's adventures in parenting as they raised their twins and sextuplets. But apparently, 100 episodes later, viewer interest has been shifted by the fact that - and I only know what I read - Kate is a nagging harpy and they've both maybe been unfaithful.

Now people are parsing episodes as they once parsed diplomatic communiques from Cold War summits, looking for clues to the state of their union in body language and offhand remarks. Two lives are falling apart for your amusement.

And me, I've seldom felt more estranged from popular culture. Or more grateful for it.

Meanwhile, Susan Boyle just checked out of a mental institution after several days.

As you know unless you are even more estranged from pop culture than I, she is the woman whose appearance on a British talent show created an overnight and international sensation. Boyle, who is 48, never-married, and the dictionary definition of frumpy, walked onto the stage of "Britain's Got Talent" amid the anticipatory snickers of judges and viewers accustomed to equating physical beauty with human worth and eager to see just how this unwieldy woman would embarrass herself. Then she opened her mouth and unleashed a voice like angel joy. It stunned them silent.

According to Visible Measures, a firm that tracks Internet video usage, clips of that and subsequent performances on the show by Boyle constitute the fifth most popular suite of viral videos "ever." With scary speed, this woman from a tiny Scottish town who lives alone with her cat and had never heard of YouTube, became the biggest thing online. Pundits debated her looks, reporters dissected her like a frog in a high school science class, Oprah came calling, world attention landed on her like an anvil.

And she, apparently, lost her mind. There were reports of a four-letter tirade against two reporters. We're told she spent the week before her last performance crying, vomiting and lying awake. When she lost the competition in an upset, she is said to have stormed off screaming, "I hate this show!" The next day, she was reportedly behaving so erratically she had to be hospitalized.

It is an understatement to say that Boyle could not handle the attention.

But then, in the 61 years since TV pioneer Allen Funt first told his prank victims to "Smile! You're on Candid Camera!" you and I have learned to live on camera. A paternity fight is worth a trip to see "Maury," a gambling addiction merits a visit to "Dr. Phil," a willingness to invite America into your home gets you your pick of shows. Your toddler goes missing and your second call is to a publicist. We tell secrets to the camera, confess infidelities to the camera. It watches us sleep, scheme, lie, love, scratch our pits and pick our noses. And, it takes us into a home where a marriage that has produced eight children is imploding.

We watch this family's tragedy as if it were baseball. And I guess, in a way, it is.

But there is something deeply ... debasing in the all-access invasion of it all, a debasement that touches both the watchers and the watched. It "changes" us. So while you might feel sorry for Susan Boyle, I don't. To the contrary, her inability to handle the insta-fame, to cope with the unending siege, suggests she is still the one thing many of us no longer are.

Normal.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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