LONDON – Now that it’s over, it’s fair to ask: Was “Britain’s Got Talent” worth it?
Susan Boyle, the most famous contestant, is hospitalized at the Priory Clinic in London with nervous exhaustion. Three children broke down on camera, leaving the stage in tears. Others were mocked by the judges and hooted by the fans. All in the name of reality TV.
Is it really a surprise that Boyle, an amateur singer with learning disabilities who lives alone with her cat, would have trouble competing live on national TV? Or that 10-year-old Hollie Steel would break down from the pressure? Or that 10-year-old Natalie Okri and 11-year-old Aidan Davis would burst into tears after being told they didn’t make the cut?
Chris Thompson, medical director of the 14 Priory hospitals, said reality TV show producers have a responsibility to fully inform participants that instant fame can bring instant scrutiny and unbearable pressure.
Other mental health professionals had warned late last week that the fragile Boyle, who suffered oxygen deprivation at birth, seemed ill-equipped to handle the pressure.
Thompson echoed their concerns. “Anybody asked to sing live without professional training will face immense pressures, then follow that up with a barrage of public comments about her looks, talent and behaviour from all over the world and it’s incredibly intrusive,” he told The Associated Press Monday.
Thompson said it’s tempting for reality TV producers to exploit people with mental health problems to boost their ratings and advertising revenues without fully understanding the risks this poses for the people involved.
“It is an ethical problem for producers,” he said. “They need professional advice, to understand what it means if that person stays on the show.”
Although he would not comment on Boyle’s treatment specifically, he said patients hospitalized under similar circumstances would be evaluated by a team led by a psychiatrist, then possibly receive antidepressant or sleeping medication, and be advised to rest until they were well enough to participate in group psychotherapy sessions.
Andrew McCulloch, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation, said the nature of shows like “Britain’s Got Talent” can be overwhelming for people who are not used to the spotlight.
“Reality television programs and the media can very quickly propel people who lead very ordinary lives into a world that is unfamiliar and fast-paced. It is only right that Susan is being supported at this time and is getting the care she needs,” he said.
Judge Piers Morgan, Boyle’s trusted confidant, told NBC’s “Today” show Monday that “Britain’s Got Talent” was not to blame for her problems, although he admitted some thought was given to removing her from the show before the finals because of the pressure she faced.
He said he had no regrets about advising her to carry on despite the stress and the attacks of the British press.
“What she didn’t like was all the negative stuff that was appearing in the papers,” he said. “You know, you wake up one day and you’ve gone from anonymity to being the front page of every British tabloid screaming, ‘Cracking up,’ ‘Boyling over.’ It’s going to have an effect on you.”
In Boyle’s hometown of Blackburn, Scotland, where villagers were still planning a welcome home party on her return, some blamed the media and the show itself for the apparent breakdown that led to her hospitalization Sunday.
“The pressure on Susan has been enormous and now it is time for her to come home,” said Duncan Wallace outside the Blackburn Community Center. “She has been set up to be something she’s not by the newspapers and TV show. Of course she couldn’t take it. Who could?”
Houses, shops, churches, pubs and the Blackburn Community Center were still festooned with bunting and homemade signs wishing Boyle good luck at Saturday night’s show. But there was anger at the way so much attention had brought her grief.
Boyle’s story was supposed to be so different: A British rags-to-riches tale to match the Beatles’ rise from the Liverpool slums.
This was the story line: a homely Scottish woman in her late 40s who had never been kissed enters a national talent contest, succeeds beyond her wildest dreams, becomes an international star with boatloads of fans worldwide, then goes on to fame and fortune as a recording artist and concert act.
But reality sometimes intervenes, even in the fantasy realm known as reality TV: Boyle came in second, not first, on Saturday’s finals of “Britain’s Got Talent,” then had an apparent emotional collapse.
The Priory facility in North London, where Boyle was rushed Sunday, is part of a chain of mental-health clinics well known for treating celebrities. Model Kate Moss and musician Pete Doherty are among those who have spent time in Priory clinics, which offer treatment for a range of psychiatric problems, as well as drug and alcohol addiction.
There was sympathy but not total surprise as word of Boyle’s problems spread Monday. She had seemed slightly out of touch moments after singing “I Dreamed a Dream” in the finals Saturday, doing a quirky dance and at one point raising her dress to her thigh to flash one of her legs at the audience in a mock show of brazen sexuality.
“I saw her on TV and she sounded a bit crazy,” said Ed Smallwood, 19, who was visiting London from his home in Cheshire. “She’s a bit strange, weird, out of the ordinary. I don’t think she deserved to win.”
Boyle’s image started to suffer last week when Britain’s tabloid newspapers started to attack her with front-page stories alleging – without much substantiation – that she had become enraged when Morgan, her favourite judge, praised one of her rivals on-air. Then the newspapers said she had launched a foul-mouthed tirade against two people in the hotel where she was staying.
That may have helped poison the atmosphere for Boyle.
Morgan said what she needed now was to get away from stress.
“She needs a complete rest,” said Morgan, who spoke with Boyle at length before her hospitalization. “She is completely mentally and physically exhausted. She handled it with considerable aplomb for five or six weeks but in the last week it started to get to her. She had trouble sleeping and eating. She found it very hard to deal with the negativity in the media.”
He defended the show’s performance in handling Boyle and others whose vulnerability showed on air, saying a support team including psychiatrists provided round-the-clock assistance. The production company, talkback Thames, declined to discuss concerns about the show’s impact on participants, but the British media reported the producers are considering having performers undergo psychological evaluations before they are auditioned.
Morgan predicted Boyle would recover fully and go on to have a stellar recording career.
“I don’t think she wants to go back to Scotland and disappear,” he said.
– With files from Ben McConville in Blackburn, Scotland, and Nardine Saad in London.
On the Net: http://talent.itv.com/?ps