Public Meltdowns, Family Cash Grabs and a Life-Changing Diagnosis: Inside Susan Boyle's Fight Against the Pitfalls of Sudden Fame

The Britain's Got Talent runner-up is returning to the world's stage for America's Got Talent: The Champions after years of struggles

By Billy Nilles Jan 09, 2019 11:00 AMTags
Susan Boyle, America's Got Talent: The ChampionsTrae Patton/NBC

"I'm a champion for those who maybe don't have the confidence to do things and for those who maybe don't have a voice; the ones who people tend to ignore. I feel I'm a champion for them. So I couldn't possibly walk away from a second chance to prove myself. I just thought I had an unfulfilled promise."

For Susan Boyle, the decision to return to the world's stage for America's Got Talent: The Champions nearly a decade after becoming a global sensation on Britain's Got Talent was born from an idea of redemption. And so far, it's worked. 

In the new NBC series' premiere episode, which aired on Monday, Jan. 7, Boyle dusted off "Wild Horses," the Rolling Stones track that acted as the opener of her debut album I Dreamed a Dream and was the song she sang during her first-ever AGT performance in 2009, and wowed Simon Cowell, who sat on the judging panel in the UK all those years ago, all over again. (Though it was his fellow judge Mel B who pressed the coveted "Golden Buzzer" and advanced Boyle straight to the finals.)

It's a promising start to what will surely prove to be a rebuilding year for the woman who's been a prime example of the sort of wild side effects that come one's way when sudden fame is theirs and they're not quite sure what to do with it.

Meet the America's Got Talent: The Champions Competitors

When Boyle took the stage at age 47 for her audition on the popular British talent show in the spring of 2009, she wowed the audience and became a viral sensation from the moment she opened her mouth and let a gorgeous rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from the musical Les Misérables come tumbling out, stopping snickers from the audience over her appearance dead in their tracks while teaching us all a lesson about judging a book by its cover that we ought to have learned in grade school. 

It was a moment that taught Cowell, notorious on both sides for his brutally honest, cutting tongue, to change his ways—"When that clip arrived on my laptop, and I saw me, I said, 'I actually hate my guts right now.' Because we were really sneery," he told Variety last year. "That was the tipping point."—and made Boyle a household name. The moment was watched by over 10 million viewers, with one of the many version of the audition on YouTube sitting at over 233 million views at press time.


Quickly, Boyle became a media sensation and when her time on the show came to an end—despite being the clear favorite to win, she placed second behind dance troupe Diversity—she became hounded by the press. Amid claims that the series had exploited the contestant, who, at that point, believed she'd suffered mild learning difficulties as a result of being briefly deprived of oxygen during a difficult birth from a 45-year-old mother, Boyle's behavior became increasingly erratic in defeat. A day after the finale, she was admitted to The Priory, a private psychiatric clinic in London, with BGT's production Talkback Thames citing "exhaustion" as the reason for admission.

Chris Thompson, a psychiatrist at the Priory, chided the production company for not performing a psychological evaluation on Boyle (or any of its other contestants, for that matter) before allowing her to compete, explaining that exposing someone to such sudden fame could be "terribly risky."

"It seems to me a bit like walking out on to a branch and then sawing it off behind you," he told The Guardian. "The fact that Susan Boyle appears to have broken down in some way so close to the end of the series certainly suggests that there is a link."

Watch Susan Boyle's Triumphant Return to America's Got Talent

Her hospitalization garnered such widespread attention that then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown wished her well and Cowell offered to waive her contractual obligation to take part in the show's tour. However, as her family told the press, she simply needed a bit of rest, as brother John told the Daily Record that she'd "been battered non-stop for the last seven weeks and it has taken its toll" and other brother Gerry chalked the whole thing up to what "her friends in America would anxiety attack."

"Susan is coming to terms with the fact that the world wants to hear her sing. "She's just exhausted and trying to take in everything that's happened," he explained. "Hopefully soon she will be able to relax and release a record so the world can enjoy her voice again. But her health and happiness come first."

"I wasn't allowed to see a television, or make a phone call, 'Where was everybody? I just felt as though I'd been dumped, it was probably the most frightening experience I'd been through," she recalled of her experience on Piers Morgan's Life Stories in late 2010. "I felt that the dream was over. A bit of a nightmare, but a turning point. For two days I was thinking about myself, what my position was, was I stable? I knew I was, I was just tired."

Three days after being admitted, Boyle left the clinic and vowed to participate in the BGT tour, eventually appearing in 20 of the tour's 24 dates. 

Barcroft/Fame Pictures

After the tour, Boyle quickly got to work on her debut album, which was released on November 23 of that year. With I Dreamed a Dream, the singer notched the fastest-selling UK debut album of all-time and the best opening week for a debut artist in the US in over a decade. Topping the Billboard chart for six straight weeks, the album was only one of two in 2009 to sell over three million copies. (The other? Taylor Swift's Fearless, which bested it by only 113,000 copies.) Weeks later, she appeared in her own TV special, I Dreamed a Dream: the Susan Boyle Story, which became the TV Guide Network's highest-rated special in its history.

Despite all the successes—or perhaps, more accurately, because of it—2010 began with a series of fresh worries for Boyle. In January, she found an intruder in her Scottish home and, by February, she'd been photographed having several breakdown in public. Her brother Gerry admitted to The Daily Mail that she'd become unable to sleep following the break-in and the family was worried she was headed for another breakdown.

"If I'm honest things aren't great for Susan at the moment on a personal level. She's absolutely exhausted after non-stop travelling promoting her album around the world," he said, adding that her lack of a romantic life—and the British press' insistence on labeling her a "spinster," no doubt—wasn't helping matter. "Susan has this impression that everybody thinks she is some kind of freak because of her appearance on stage and this is what puts men off...[She] knows she can jet anywhere in the world first-class, eat in the best restaurants and stay in the top hotels but that means nothing to her if she doesn't have anyone to share those moments with."

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Despite the concern, Boyle's career showed no signs of slowing and from 2010 to 2012, she released three more studio albums. However, with the continued success came even more darkness and cause for concern. In the fall of 2010, a performance on The View  ended mid-song when she found herself unable to finish, stating she had a "frog in her threat" as she requested to start over. (She was not permitted to do so.) By spring 2012, amid reports that she was struggling to cope with the demands of having fans, she was left shaken after one rather obsessed fan followed her to her hotel room in Liverpool and attempted to break in. "Her nerves were already frayed and she shouldn't have to worry about people hounding her at her hotel," a source told The Daily Mirror.

And in 2013, amid reports of erratic behavior always involving emotional outbursts, Boyle had a major falling out with brother Gerry. That August, her management claimed that the Susan Boyle & Friends variety show that she'd agreed to "top the bill" and perform two songs at the finale of was being promoted in such a way as to cash in on her fame. "There is no row going on between Susan and her brother, but the way it has been billed makes it look like a show in which guest artists will be coming in to duet with Susan," a spokesperson told the Daily Mail. "She is doing this as a favour to her brother. It is his show, not hers, and she is singing just two songs."

Gerry, however, refuted that characterization and accused Boyle's management of bullying and "getting their knickers in a twist."

But by the end of the year, other family members claimed that he'd persuaded his sister to give him 50,000 pounds by threatening to commit suicide, the latest in a string of emotionally exploitative manipulation attempts by her brother. "It is true, there were threats of suicide if she did not pay yet another large amount of money," her spokesperson confirmed to The Express. "I commend Susan's family for making his despicable actions public."

Gerry denied the allegations and was outraged when Susan refused to cut ties with the family members, including her nephew Alan Boyle and sister Bridie McCaw, who started what he chalked up to rumors.

Just weeks before Boyle's family drama made headlines, the singer was in the press for a decidedly different reason as she revealed that she'd been misdiagnosed after complications after birth and the label of "brain-damaged" was, in fact, incorrect and her correct diagnosis was that of Asperger's, a high-functioning form of autism. "I always knew it was an unfair label," she told The Guardian, revealing that she'd been diagnosed a year earlier but kept it a secret. "Now I have a clearer understanding of what's wrong and I feel relieved and a bit more relaxed about myself."

Grateful to have a better sense of why she reacted to stress the way she did, Boyle was able to better learn how to cope when stress came her way. "It's a very difficult subject to talk about because you always feel that eyes are on you, and people view you as different. I like to see myself as someone with a problem, but one I can solve. It is definitely getting better," she told The Daily Mail in 2014. "Since the diagnosis I've learned strategies for coping with it and the best one is always to just walk away."

And her career continued apace. She landed her first film role in the 2013 movie The Christmas Candle and released her fifth and sixth albums in 2013 and 2014, respectively. But after the release of Hope, she headed into 2015 with plans to take a break. That break, however, was marred with frightening phone calls from stalkers and skirmishes with family over—you guessed it—money she'd lent them. 2016 saw the revelation that her father had hit her as a child—claims she later backtracked on after the family was left "heartbroken"—a meltdown in London's Heathrow airport, and a reconciliation with Gerry after said meltdown. It was also the year that she had to reconcile the loss of her beloved sister Bridie, whom she called "the glue of the family," who passed away late in the year prior.

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"I found it hard when she went. I couldn't cry at her funeral. I felt frustrated, I didn't want to allow my emotions to come out," she told Daily Mail that November. "It's difficult without Bridie but it's getting easier. She was always there at the end of the phone. I speak to her daughter now. She's taking on her role."

And as for the squabbling over money, Boyle insisted they were in the past and the surviving family was on the mend. "There were differences of opinion, stuff that happens in families when one person becomes successful. But we're beginning a new era," she told the outlet. "Maybe I did feel taken advantage of but I'm not hanging on to that. Let's make a fresh start. That's the way forward."

Just when it seemed like the sad stories might be coming to an end, Boyle's refusal to move out of her childhood home in Blackburn, Scotland which she bought with her first royalties, despite a purchase of a five-bedroom "posh house" that she found too large for her lifestyle and eventually sold, was revealed in 2017 to be the source of years of intimidation and bullying from teenagers in the neighborhood.

Matt Kent/WireImage

"They have been shouting at me, taunting, saying vile things, swearing," she told the Daily Mail that July. "And on one occasion they were throwing things at the bus I was sitting on." Days prior to her interview with the publication, she had been hounded by teenagers as she walked to local shops as they shouted at her, calling her names while throwing stones and burning pieces of paper at her. Yes, you read that right. Burning pieces of paper. And yet, through it all and despite certainly having the means to move somewhere much more secure, she refused to back down.

"I love my house, it's where I grew up," she said. "Why would I move out because of a group of teenagers who behave like that? They are bullies who shout and throw things, but it is my home and where I feel safe."

Determined to keep the torment under wraps until a story leaked to the press, Boyle admitted that she was similarly determined to not suffer another public meltdown.

"If I started shouting – as most people would in the circumstances – I wouldn't have been able to preserve my dignity and it would have been me who would have looked bad," she said. "But this sort of behavior needs to be dealt with immediately and stopped. There are mentors these days to help victims of bullying and teachers are far more aware than they were in my day. But it's still happening."

But now, nearing the 10-year anniversary of her arrival on the global stage, things just might be on the uptick for Boyle. "This is a big year for Susan and she is very much stepping back into the limelight with her AGT Champions appearance being just the start," a source told The Mirror. "The anniversary of her audition which made headlines around the world is the perfect time to launch a career comeback, and Simon and Susan are both very excited about the year ahead."

Here's hoping it's a little easier on her this time around.