It is now ten years since a frumpy, middle-aged Scotswoman defied all expectation to become the runner-up on Britain’s Got Talent. And despite the wealth, the prestige, the fact that these days she has Simon Cowell on speed dial, the thing that has pleased Susan Boyle most about her rise to international fame is this: she has constantly obliged us all to think again.
‘Breaking down barriers, making people more aware, I like to think I have a platform. It’s part of my job to show what is possible,’ she says, speaking at her home in Blackburn, West Lothian ahead of a nationwide tour that begins in the New Year.
Susan Boyle at her home in Blackburn. ‘I’m all for people with disabilities trying, having a go. Don’t give up. I think that’s what I have done: shown what is possible’
The main thing she has shown to be possible, she is delighted to say, is that people like her (she was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 2012) can thrive. ‘Since I did the show I’ve come across a lot of people with autism. I’ve managed to talk about it and get people to see it in a different way. It shouldn’t hold you back. People are so afraid to talk about it. But people shouldn’t be scared. They should talk, talk and talk.’
Which is no problem for Boyle. She can talk all right. She talks about how she now watches TV while working out on an exercise bike, how much she would like to work with her fellow Scot Lewis Capaldi and how she fancies Michael Ball (‘don’t tell him’).
And she talks about her father. Three years ago she revealed in this magazine that, impatient with her condition when she was a girl, her dad used to hit her. He died long before she found fame, but she says there remains an unfillable hole in her life. ‘I’m proud about the conflict I survived,’ she says. ‘I had a lot with my dad. He died in 1997. I miss him. I think I should have been nicer to him.’
She should have been nicer to him? But it was he who hit her. ‘Aye, but that was a long time ago. When I sing, I get a kind of reminder of him.’
I don’t think I’ve been exploited. I’ve been given a great break in life
That is what music does for her, she adds. It gives voice to her emotions. ‘When I perform I get emotional. I’m a very emotional person,’ she says. ‘I like to think through music I’m touching people, I like to think I’m healing.’
It is an unexpected analysis. Many who have watched Boyle’s rise to fame have worried that it might be she who needs help. The fear of exploitation was there from the moment she first strode on to the Britain’s Got Talent stage. Her idiosyncrasies seemed to have been emphasised to make dramatic television. But she insists there was nothing contrived about that debut performance. ‘When they saw me step out on stage, people thought I was going to be awful,’ she says. ‘I proved them wrong. I showed you should never judge a book by its cover.’
Some have remained uneasy about the nature of her relationship with Cowell, who now controls much of her output. But Boyle insists there has never been anything remotely abusive in their working relationship. ‘I don’t think I’ve been exploited, I don’t think I’ve had that at all,’ she says. ‘The way I see it, I’ve been given a great break in life. I’ve been lucky to have a fair-minded boss.
‘I never signed terrible contracts. I know loads of pop kids have done over the years. But the young, the naive, the excitable, they’ll sign anything. With me being a bit more mature, I can read contracts, I can see how fair they are. Believe me, I wouldn’t sign anything that was bad for me.’
Susan Boyle’s parents Bridget and Patrick on their wedding day. ‘I’m proud about the conflict I survived,’ she says. ‘I had a lot with my dad. He died in 1997. I miss him. I think I should have been nicer to him’
The truth is, when it comes to her financial and career arrangements it is a bit like Boyle’s performance on Britain’s Got Talent: appearances can be deceptive. She is ferociously single-minded. Equipped with a sharp temper and a stubborn pair of heels, she has never done anything she doesn’t want to do. And since she came to prominence, she says, it is through her ability not just to survive but to thrive that she has delivered an important message.
‘I think people with disability – and I don’t like to use that word about myself but others do – need to prove themselves all the more. I’m all for people with disabilities trying, having a go. Don’t give up. I think that’s what I have done: shown what is possible.
‘Ten years ago I lived alone with a cat. Nobody knew me. Now everybody knows me, and I don’t feel alone any more. That’s what makes me so happy.’
Her latest album ‘Ten’ is out now. ‘Susan Boyle: The Ten Tour’ starts in March, susanboylemusic.com