It’s Crunch Time For Susan Boyle

It’s always a bad hair day for Susan Boyle – until she starts to sing.

The Scottish songbird with the frizzed-out hair doesn’t look like a star – she’s chubby, with plain features, and no thousand-watt show biz smile. But her golden voice has made her the overwhelming favorite in Saturday’s “Britain’s Got Talent” finals, expected to draw millions of viewers in Britain, where it’s broadcast live, and tens of millions throughout the world, with the help of YouTube and other online sites.

Photo: AP Photo
Her golden voice has made her the overwhelming favorite in "Britain’s Got Talent" finals on Saturday May 30. 2009

If she can prevail over nine competitors, the overnight singing sensation from a hardscrabble village in Scotland would pocket 100,000 pounds ($159,000) and an invitation to perform at a Royal Variety Show in front of Queen Elizabeth II.

With her high-profile fans – including actress Demi Moore, expected to jet in for the finals — and an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, Boyle has far overshadowed the other contestants. But she still must excel Saturday night, and hope that none of her rivals generate enough magic to win over the frequently fickle British public.

“I think with the swell of public sympathy behind her, she could win this competition, and from that I think she could have a very successful album and probably one successful world tour because people will be curious to see her,” said Neil Warnock, chief executive of The Agency Group, which represents dozens of top musicians.

He cautioned, however, that fame may be fleeting.

It will be much more challenging, he said, for Boyle to perform an entire live show on a concert tour than to sing one three-minute number on TV.

Even if she stumbles, a professional career seems likely. She’s been offered a recording contract, and her huge name recognition would give any debut offering a fighting chance. But a poor performance Saturday might relegate her to flash-in-the-pan status in a disposable celebrity culture that makes and breaks stars at warp speed.

The hugely successful talent show has its roots in Britain’s music hall tradition, which brought performing dogs, ersatz magicians, ventriloquists and fire-eaters to hundreds of towns and villages in the days before television. Warnock said this is part of the charm.

“We tend to make fun of the very, very stupid acts, but it has its own Englishness and its own eccentricity and we love that,” said Warnock. “And you see a spark of genuine talent every once in a while.”

The ten finalists all have stars – and dollar signs – in their eyes. But the real financial rewards will have to wait until after the competition. Boyle has already had phenomenal success on YouTube, where her first round performance has generated more than 175 million views, but those legions of fans do not bring her any cash.

“From what we’ve seen, I don’t think she gets any money from that, which is a shame,” said Matt Fiorentino, spokesman for Visible Measures, a Massachusetts firm that tracks YouTube traffic. “We’ve measured hundreds of thousands of comments about her and people are begging for an album from her. People have really fallen in love with this woman.”

He said her first performance – when she stunned the skeptical judges and audience with her angelic voice – was tailor-made for YouTube. It has become the fifth most viewed “viral video” of all time, he said.

“She has the perfect story for this medium,” Fiorentino said. “You have this woman, everyone is rooting against her at the beginning. People judged her on her looks, and then she unleashes this amazing voice and it becomes a success, and with all the bad things going on people really want to latch onto something happy.”

One strong finalist who has already developed a YouTube fan base is 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi, an assured soul singer who still wears a white undershirt beneath his shirt and vest.

Some critics say that Jafargholi, with his smooth delivery and youthful charm, is actually a better singer than Boyle, who struggled a bit at the very start of her performance in the second round of competition.

The other singer who has already qualified for the finals in Shaun Smith, 17, who got his start doing Elvis impressions for his family when he was four but used a slowed down, stirring version of the U2 classic “With or Without You” to move forward.

Two strong street dancing troupes, Diversity and Flawless, have also made the finals and are expected to draw strong support from younger viewers.

Less likely to prevail is the paunchy father and son comedy dance group Stavros Flatley, which surprised many by storming into the finals after a performance of Zorba the Greek while dressed in white skirts and no shirts.

The remaining four contenders are set to be chosen Thursday and Friday nights.

The competition is the sole topic of conversation in Blackburn, the small Scottish town where Boyle has long been a regular performer on Karaoke nights at the Happy Valley pub.

“We are all rooting for her,” said pub manager Jackie Russell, who blamed nerves for Boyle’s shaky start during the second round. “The best is yet to come.”

Large screen TVs are being installed for a party being planned at the local community center, where Boyle worked as a volunteer.

“The whole village is abuzz,” said June Mackay, 27. “Of course she will win and it will change her life. However, she won’t move house, she’ll stay here in Blackburn. It’s her home.”