Susan Boyle: BBC Proms in Belfast gig a 'dream come true'
Singing sensation Susan Boyle has fought a few public battles in the decade since finding fame with her memorable Britain's Got Talent audition. But, ahead of her first public performance in Northern Ireland at the Proms, she tells Gail Bell she's still the same person she's always been
THE song that turned Susan Boyle's life around – a jaw-dropping performance of I Dreamed a Dream belted out to a shell-shocked Britain's Got Talent audience in 2009 – will be on the set list for the Scottish star's first professional appearance in Northern Ireland later this month.
And why wouldn't it be? The emotive anthem from Les Miserables which turned the unemployed, unknown singer into a superstar has now become her personal paean, its title epitomising her own dream career that she craved but never thought possible.
As the headline act of this year's BBC's Proms in Belfast, the irrepressible Ms Boyle says she is excited to perform here exactly a decade on from that memorable TV debut.
"I can't wait to come to Belfast to perform," she says. "I've never performed in Northern Ireland before, so, 10 years in, it's a dream come true, especially singing at the prestigious BBC Proms.
"I have a lot of family connections to Ireland and it holds a special place in my heart. I recently visited Cushendall with friends for a few days and absolutely loved it.
"There will be a mix of songs and I like to keep these things a surprise, but I will be singing the song that started it all. I Dreamed A Dream is the song that changed my life overnight, quite literally.
"I went from a lonely, unknown lady in Scotland who made a promise to her mum that she would make something of her life, to stepping on the Britain's Got Talent stage hoping to be able to fulfil that promise and dreaming of a singing career. I wasn't happy before and this song turned everything on its head."
The last 10 years have gone by "in a flash" for the singer, who revealed a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome in 2013 after spending years believing she had suffered slight brain damage at birth.
To celebrate the milestone, she released her first compilation album with Syco Music and Colombia Records, appropriately titled 10, earlier this year.
It coincides with a new UK tour in 2020 which takes in 15 cities, starting in Dundee in March and ending in Edinburgh, where the singer took acting lessons and also made appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Born in Blackburn, West Lothian in 1961, Boyle was the youngest of nine children born into a musical family – but despite participating in various singing competitions while growing up, she was never crowned a winner.
"I mostly came second, but never won," she recalls.
"I used to sing in church and at school and I had a few lessons over the years before my BGT audition. I just used to love singing – when I was younger, my brother bought me a record player and two Osmond's records and I would spend hours singing in my room. I drove the family daft.
"Music was always my bubble, though, my safe place. It's well known that I had a tough time at school and was bullied by other children, but I did have some lovely friends and a supportive family.
"My mother was the greatest role model in my life and was the one who always encouraged me to sing and strive for a music career."
Looking back on her audition day in Glasgow, she says it now makes her blush and – in typical self-deprecating style – she quips that the audience must have thought she had "dressed in the dark".
"I was very green about things then," she says.
"When, eventually, it was my turn, I was nervous as hell, but I didn't want to show my nerves, so I sort of stomped on stage. It was far from graceful, but I tried to have fun and even gave them what was coined the 'Susan Boyle wiggle'.
"Everyone was laughing at me; they wondered who this daft woman with the crazy hair was... and I had made a bad choice in clothes, so no-one had high expectations.
"They thought I was a joke... and then I started to sing."
But overnight fame came with a price and 'Subo', as she soon became tagged by the media, struggled with the difficulties it brought.
"Suddenly, everything you do is watched and picked apart," she says.
"It felt quite suffocating, almost as though I was an act in a freak show, and that hurt. It was incredibly difficult to come to terms with for a time, but the positives have far outweighed the negatives.
"I've travelled around the world to places I never dreamed possible in my lifetime, I've met childhood idols, performed with talented artists and, well, it just keeps getting better and better. I can honestly say I'm enjoying myself now. I don't worry that it's all going to end tomorrow, I just enjoy the moments.
"It is also important to see the funny things and laugh instead of getting upset. This is the entertainment industry, after all – we entertain, we are not saving lives in a hospital."
At 58, Boyle says she has now "matured a bit". But, despite having sold millions of records worldwide, she remains refreshingly unstarry.
"I'm still the same person I was 10 years ago," she maintains.
"I still live in my family home, I still like to take the bus and pop to the shops to buy my own food. I'm just 'me' at home in Scotland' and there are no airs or graces – I like life at home to be as normal as possible.
"I like to spend time with friends and I enjoy pottering around the house. Recently, we revamped my garden and put in a lovely summer house, so I've enjoyed planting pots and making the garden look pretty and colourful for summer.
"I've also renovated the house and found it really relaxing to do things like choosing wallpaper, floors and door handles."
She refuses to see her herself as an Asperger's role model, as such, but believes it was something she had to share with her fans.
"Firstly, I wanted people to have a better understanding of who I am and, secondly, I want them to understand that no matter what disability you might have, you can still do wonderful things in life," she says.
"You shouldn't let anything or anyone stop you."
She adds: "I also think, when you're in the public eye, it's incredibly important to give back and support charities.
"I am going to Miami in November to perform at the Alfalit Gala and I don't charge a fee. I want them to raise money for their cause because it's education and literacy-based, which is very important.
"I think every child and adult should be able to read and write and have access to learning, and that is what Alfalit does."
:: Susan Boyle with The Ulster Orchestra, September 14, BBC's Proms in Belfast, . The concert will also be broadcast live on BBC Radio Ulster and streamed live via bbc.co.uk/nilive