Simon Cowell Fake-Smiles While Susan Boyle Sings

Dear CF,

Talking about wish-fulfillment and how movies model response, I want to spend a moment on Britain’s Got Talent and the way they packaged Susan Boyle.

It pains me—truly—to bring cynicism to her triumph, but it doesn’t tarnish her accomplishment any to point out the fakery around her. She was the only genuine thing in the room. And the exhaustingly teeth-whitened, hyper-coiffed, fish-eyed panel of judges—not to mention the exuberant clowns pointing at the camera screaming “You didn’t expect that, did you?”—were her foil.

The video of her triumph, clearly modeled on a hundred underdog movies, is packed with reaction shots. Our response is constantly modeled for us, first by the crowd, then by the blond judge, then Piers.  And then comes the climax: Simon Cowell, elbows on the table, hands holding his head. Like a child, gazing raptly, apparently entranced. Then, suddenly—and not for any obviously musical reason—his expression of total absorption gives way to a blinding smile.

To give credit where credit’s due: it was a fine idea. Oh, we were meant to think. Look at how even this, the harshest of all critics, is moved! It’s that sublime moment in films when true merit and real desert win over the antihero’s chief rival.

Except that Simon Cowell is a godawful actor, and no one who has ever been really moved by a piece of music has let a smile spread slowly, theatrically, across his or her face. Faces do weird things when they’re moved. They contort and wriggle. They tear up and flush. My father watched this video today. He gulped back sobs. His chin trembled. It was inelegant.

For someone who judges performances, Simon might—if he insists on stage-managing this sort of narrative—spend a minute or two working on his own. Paul Ekman, the facial-muscles microexpression analyst, could use him as a case study.  And in this case it was sheer bad taste. It was embarrassing. It was actually offensive, in that it distracted from a moment that should not have relied on his response.

Which brings me to my next point: while it’s brilliant for the show to grab her story and behave like it “discovered” her—creating the impression that she existed in a hamlet for decades, unappreciated and unknown—she’s clearly a trained singer. You don’t manufacture that kind of polish on unkissed middle-aged gumption and sass. Talk about myths of instant mastery! This is the ultimate reduction of years of effort.

Here’s what the “discipline”/training  film version of Boyes’ life would be: hours upon hours practicing, perhaps performing in churches, honing, refining—knowing her life would likely remain a size small and finding satisfaction, not despair, in the solitary intimacy that a musician develops for her instrument—here, her voice. What if this BGT thing wasn’t the crowning moment of her life? What if it was just One More Thing?

That’s a movie I’d wanna see.

Lastly, I can’t have been the only one for whom this woman, even before she sang, offered something pure, a sheer visual relief. I’m not talking about aesthetics. I’m talking about her carriage, her insouciance, her self-consciousness and her deployment of it. She was so charming, so alive, so apparently unstudied and unsullied by the oppressively defined (and homogenized) features that are the work of Hollywood cosmetologists. She was a face! A delight.

And a much better performer than Simon. Mr. Cowell, next time you want us to believe in your transcendent moment, stop mugging long enough to have one.

Susan: cheers.



PS–Speaking of makeup, what did you think of the “makeupless” and unPhotoshopped French Elle?


12 Responses to Simon Cowell Fake-Smiles While Susan Boyle Sings

  1. Bravo. Excellent analysis, though to give the judges their due, they’ve had to listen to three years of auditions. One imagines that they’ve learned to school their reaction. But, yes, Simon does seem to ham it up to great effect. Amanda Holden (blond judge) cannot disguise her emotions, which the cameramen know. I was amazed at how comfortable Susan seemed, knowing when to gesture to the upper balcony, for example. As you wrote, she’s been trained, one of the untold countless who toil for the love of their craft and talent, not for fame or money.

  2. Carla Fran says:

    I am worried because I distrust this moment so much. She seems like a spinster straight out of central casting–headlines are actually announcing her as “Unemployed Virgin.” Her costume is perfectly quaint, marmish, and reminiscent of the scrubbed, stern housekeepers of any upstairs/downstairs drama. Could it all be a hoax? Could she actually be a Broadway star that dowdied herself up to spike ratings? Even the story of the sick mother….it all fits the formula so perfectly that it seems ripely suspect. Or am I just living in Horseville, always neighing?

  3. Millicent says:

    Thanks Vic, and thanks for identifying Amanda Holden, who did seem less invested in the theatrics of disguise. I get that same read on Susan Boyle: toil and a little spunk. CF, I don’t blame you for being skeptical. I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if she did dowdy herself up. Broadway or not, she’s clearly a performer.

    Vocals aside, I guess I’m just pleased that this visual performance—however conscious it may be—is getting some traction. I’ve glutted myself on the Turkish Delight of our prevailing televisual look; I long for a vegetable. Marmish Scrubbed Housekeeper? I’ll TAKE it. To encounter someone who isn’t orange and gelled and festooned with the garish accessories of sex—regardless of whether she’s working the media or it’s working her or both—seems like a step in an interesting direction. Never before, in thought or deed, has the word “interesting” surfaced for me in reference to shows like these.

  4. marjorie says:

    Susan Boyle’s brother has revealed how the Britain’s Got Talent star was obsessed with Donny Osmond when she was a teenager.

    Speaking to the UK’s Daily Mirror, Gerard Boyle, 53, tells how bullied Susan — who became a global sensation after performing I Dreamed a Dream on the British TV talent show — would lock herself in her room with her record player because she had no friends to play with.

    “Susan was what you would call a loner,” he said. “She was happiest on her own, playing her records and losing herself in music. She didn’t really interact with other children.

    “She was seen as different because she didn’t have the same interests as kids her age. As a teenager she was never into make-up or boys.

    (Watch Simon Cowell discussing Boyle)

    “She was easily upset. She’d take nasty comments literally so found it hard to make friends or develop relationships outside the family.

    “Eventually she retreated into her own world. Music became her thing. When she was a girl she was obsessed with Donny Osmond.

    (See Susan make her debut on American TV)

    “His posters were all over her walls. She would lock herself in her room and play the records over and over again singing along as loud as possible. It used to drive me mad when I would hear it start up the hundredth time. But our mum would say ‘Leave her alone, it’s all she’s got’.”

    “Looking back now I realize that was how she honed her skills, as she’d stand in front of the mirror in her bedroom for hours singing the songs until she’d achieved perfection

  5. well all seems to be true right now but the reality would be exposed in the times to come……to be much truth can also instigate all seems like some Hollywood director supervised the editing and scripting…it was convincing then, its suspicious now…..

  6. Smart Stuff says:


    I see you brought Paul Ekman’s name up into this I would bet that you’ve only heard of him because of the show Lie to Me. Well that show is based on his studies but it doesn’t even go into the slightest of things that actually would help lie catchers. First off I suggest you read his book “Telling Lies” It tells why people lie, how they lie and how emotions fall into it.

    You see if you think that the judges and the guy behind stage’s emotions were overdone, well they were. They were doing it on purpose though and it doesn’t mean they didn’t feel it. See they were actors and the KNOW that they are being filmed. Being actors they know they are being filmed and they probably felt a sort of pressure to over react. See the wanted to SHOW that they were surprised. If anything there overdone emotions showed that they were surprised and they wanted people to know it.

    Also when Boyle starts to sing you see Simon’s reaction and his eye brows go up and his mouth is a little open. Well he did keep that expression for a while but that again is probably because he knows he’s on camera. But notice how his skin is barely wrinkled at all. If he was trying to act surprised he would be displaying it fulling and there would be wrinkles around his face BUT there is none so that means either he has some tight skin or botox or something.

    So that means that when he smiles there wouldn’t be as noticeable wrinkles around his eyes. See this throws out if you say that it was fake smile because you can’t tell by his eyes because his skin is tight.

    That sounded wrong lol.

    Also you do say that the smirk towards the end of the song by Simon is fake but no its not. If you watch it slowly you will see nothing nothing nothing and boom smile. And his eyes do move, they squint a little and brighten kinda. This means it was not a fake emotion. So he was probably feeling happy that she was good or happy for her or whatever he feels.

    But one thing I will agree with you is that it seems like a little to Cinderella. I mean come on:

    Sick Mom
    Never been kissed
    Wants to be famous
    Perfected her singing by herself
    Unknown until 40s

    Seems a little to suspicious. But I think thats where the cover up is. I think she’s half real.

    She probably does come from a small town and has a naturally good voice BUT a producer found her before the show. Then the producer decides to exaggerate the story a bit and make her voice better by giving her lessons or such. See thats much more logical. So basically she is:

    Real Small Town Talent with a Fake Discovery.

  7. Millicent says:

    Marjorie, thanks so much for the extra info. Very interesting–especially the hours locked up singing. Hammad, yup, it’s very “Hollywood” indeed! Smart Stuff, I’ve never seen “Lie to Me.” (Is it any good?) I came to Ekman from the cognitive science side of things–he’s an important linchpin for “molecule-to-metaphor” guys like Damasio and Feldman. If Simon’s smile is real (and I defer to your expertise) I owe him an apology. The point is, it looks fake–so, from the point of view of sheer spectacle (and good TV), I’d say he needs to work on his performance.

    I think we’re in agreement that everything in that clip is manufactured: as you say, the producer found her and spun her story into something it’s not and the actors/judges faked an emotional experience in order to make good “reality” (heh) television. What’s objectionable isn’t so much the fairly obvious fakery, which we’ve all come to expect; it’s what you’re calling the “Cinderella” aspect of the thing. It’s how effort gets swept under the rug.

    This diminishes (it seems to me) the considerable time that went into developing that kind of raw talent.

    I wrote this a few days ago–we didn’t know much about her then. As more information emerges on Boyle’s background and training (or lack thereof), it’ll be interesting to see to what extent the effort SHE put in captures the public’s imagination…. that is, to what extent we want to see her as an agent of her own success rather than a victim-turned-victor, a winner of some sort of lottery, a cheater, or a freak.

  8. Carla Fran says:

    The idea that she is “half-real” is very appealing, and seems most probable. I want to believe, but the amount of formula is too thick. The producers may have gotten in the way of themselves… It reminds me of watching producers for the Jerry Springer Show amp up guests before they went on air (there was a reality show about them once), prepping them to be an extreme version of whatever particular misery they had been tapped for.

  9. Louise says:

    This is a very refreshing post. I wondered myself whether this appearance has been faked, and fear it has. I bet Cowell has been in front of the mirror doing the bleached smile a few times, but not as often as Susan has worked on her voice, as you point out. She seems to have years and years of experience behind her – you only have to see how she steadied herself a moment before beginning and seemed to find instant concentration. I wish I could have seen and heard that performance without the audience jumping about and the faces of the judges (who is that blond anyway?). I hope we’ll see more of Susan, and perhaps less of Cowell (but on that last, probably when pigs fly). Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

  10. Pingback: Is Susan Boyle a Fake? « Millicent and Carla Fran

  11. Nina says:

    Brilliant analysis of that “moment”. I felt it was totally staged, too. I agree that Cowell is a very bad actor and that he overplayed his part here. The whole thing is very suspicious on his end. After all, he’s the producer of BGT, and stands to make a lot of money out of poor Miss Boyle.

    I think Boyle is a genuinely awkward, small-town spinster who has a good voice (not a great voice) and has been exploited by the likes of Cowell and Morgan (and everyone else, for that matter) purely for the shock value of a decent voice coming from a plain, middle aged woman.

    Boyle seems quite odd to me, but then she would, wouldn’t she? She hasn’t been trained to present herself on television so her mannerisms are distinctly “off”. The pseudo-sexy poses she strikes and the little wiggle seem more like a 7 year old girl pretending to be a sexy model than a real woman expressing herself.

  12. Millicent says:

    Nina, I couldn’t agree more with your take on the poses and wiggles. This post was written on the upswing of this whole manufactured “star” story. Have you seen the Youtube footage of her in her twenties, singing in a bar? It’s interesting to see her body language there–less awkward. She seems, somehow, taller.

    Now she’s locked away somewhere recovering. There is so much sadness in all this. I wonder whether it all will have been worth it to her?

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