What could the so-called "hairy angel" have in common with one of America's most notorious serial killers? More than you might think.
Eight weeks ago Susan Boyle (pictured) was completely unknown - even a blogger averaging between 400-500 page views a day like erm ... me - was probably more famous. But after her appearance on Britain's Got Talent she was catapulted to fame and splashed across all the front pages. Sadly, after losing out to urban dance troupe Diversity on Saturday's grand final the news this morning informed us SuBo has been packed off to The Priory amid rumours of stress and backstage meltdowns.
What is interesting about Susan Boyle from a sociological point of view is that her rapid rise to fame marks a significant milestone in the evolution of contemporary celebrity. Reality TV stars tend to become very famous for five minutes before plunging quickly back into obscurity, but Boyle's "career" is an order of magnitude above your average Big Brother favourite. No other celebrity has travelled the road from nowhere to global fame as fast. Boyle's celebrity is born of a synergy between the old and the 'new' media. Her debut TV appearance turned her into an overnight Youtube sensation (65 million views and counting), which spiralled into a news story flashed across all the 24 hour rolling news networks. She piqued the interest of A-List celebrities (Demi Moore, Oprah Winfrey) who helped spread the word, and as a consequence Boyle is a household name Over There too.
The fascination with Boyle is simple. In the turbo-charged age of superficiality and artifice, the gatekeepers of the media regularly impose hegemonic beauty standards on our entertainment. For example, it's common practice for dance music videos to replace powerful but "aesthetically dubious" female vocalists with lip-synching dancers and models. So ubiquitous the management of celebrity appearance has become that it is accepted as given - just look at the audience and panel's faces before Boyle starts singing. Her frumpy non-sculptured looks lured them into thinking they were in for a comedy/joke performance. But their expectations were utterly confounded. Her soaring voice surprised and immediately won over everyone who was watching. She reminds us talent triumphs over looks, which immediately casts her as an underdog vis a vis the weight of standardised product churned out by the culture industries.
Only one group of people have travelled the path to instant fame as quick: serial killers. Prolific murderers like Fred West, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Harold Shipman and Ted Bundy inspire horror and fascination in equal measure, and command massive media interest. The more gruesome the murders, the higher the body count, the greater the level of fame. Their crimes spawn countless books, movies and merchandise. Serial killer artifacts, such as John Wayne Gacy's art are much sought after by collectors. And their effect on popular culture has been profound - we all like an ingenious and creative serial killer don't we?
The instantaneous celebrity that attaches to them is not even matched by acts of mass murder. Hungerford, Columbine, Dunblane and Virginia Tech are burned deeply into popular consciousness, but the names of their perpetrators are less well known - and this is despite at least one killer pursuing a post-spree media strategy. So far instant and lasting fame and notoriety has exclusively attached itself to serial killers, at least until now.
Boyle's pattern of fame so far maps onto that of the Dahmers and the Gacys - but will it last?Her brush with the acute pressures and strains of being suddenly thrust into the limelight might convince her to retire back into private life. But with talk of record contracts and lucrative tours here and in the US, it is possible Boyle her celebrity could be as long lived as that of the inglorious pioneers of instant fame. Boyle's significance lies in her not having to kill anyone for it.