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Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Wednesday, 22 April 2009 12:33 UK

Which face is the odd one out?

Composite with Susan Boyle

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

The collective gasp that greeted Susan Boyle when she opened her mouth to sing suggests we think talent cannot exist without beauty. Why?

It's unlikely Oscar Wilde would spend his Saturday evenings watching ITV1's Britain's Got Talent, if alive today.

The writer and aesthete preferred beauty pageants to talent contests, and once famously remarked: "It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly."

Boy watching Susan Boyle on YouTube
Susan Boyle is now an internet hit

So who knows what he would have made of the audience rising to its feet to acclaim singer Susan Boyle, who has been unkindly described as "hairy angel" "ugly duckling" and "Shrek".

When she walked on stage, it was as an unwelcome guest at the wrong party or, as psychologist Colin Gill puts it, like a real person in a puppet show.

With this vulnerability came the expectation that she would fail. "Everybody was against you," said one judge.

But three minutes and one standing ovation later, the middle-aged singer was a failure no more. And within days she was an unlikely global star. So has she changed the way society views beauty?

Don't bet on it, says Ellis Cashmore, author of Celebrity/Culture, who says in an ideal world it wouldn't even be a news story because Boyle's voice would be all that mattered.

Boyle taps into the way we want to think being good is what counts, says Gill
'It's the message of the Ugly Duckling, that if you have got what it takes within you, then the external doesn't matter'
'Boyle demonstrated her internal "swanness" of character despite her Ugly Duckling appearance'

"Every time someone watches her their reaction is 'isn't it amazing that someone who looks like that can sound like that?'

"The astonishment we feel re-enforces the belief that there exists not only a correlation between looks and success but a causal relationship. One causes the other.

"The Hollywood movie industry figured that out in the 1940s, that you don't need to act that well as long as you look good. The very fact that we are astonished by Susan Boyle makes it an oddity, so it won't break down barriers, it will have the opposite effect."

Under the knife

When the likes of Boyle come along - and before her Rik Waller and Michelle McManus - the public accept them only as curio pieces, he says, and as odd characters.

Twenty years ago, Alison Moyet's size was hardly mentioned, but since then appearance has become more important on screen, partly because society is bombarded far more by pictures of beautiful people, says Cashmore.

Coronation Street, 1964
Are soaps today more glossy?

Soap operas like Emmerdale (the farm failed to survive the makeover) and Coronation Street feature far more good-looking actors than before.

The message is that beauty and fame/success are linked and to that end, more people are going under the knife for surgery.

But the concept of physical beauty is not fixed, so while some people in the West pursue a tan, people in the Far East might avoid it. And while blond hair and blue eyes may draw envy in one country, another might rank wide hips and big bottoms as more desirable.

One reason why good looks may be linked to success in people's minds is that it can be a reality. Many studies conclude that better-looking people are given positive personality traits by others, the so-called halo effect. The impact is that they earn more money (about 12% on average), are happier, more popular and more likely to be acquitted in court.

Earn 12% more (Univ of California, 2007)
Judged more positively (Langlois, 2000)
Rated happier and more successful (Dion, 1972)
More likely to be acquitted by jurors (Sigall & Ostrave, 1975)
Pass more job interviews (Dipboye, Arvey & Terpstra, 1977)

But while they tend to get the most opportunities in society, in careers and in relationships, after this initial advantage they have to prove themselves, says Ingrid Collins, consultant psychologist at the London Medical Centre. And the reason they have this advantage is an evolutionary one.

"It's a natural animal law of selection and looks are the first signal of having good genes.

"Whichever lucky person fits the received wisdom of the day that says they have beauty then they are the ones most likely to be sought after to produce the next generation.

"So with a cat in the wild, it might be the one who can run the fastest and fight the best. But humans have worked out how to survive, with our homes and our televisions and phones, so that isn't such an important attribute any more. And we look for different concepts to elevate."

First impressions

In the fast pace of the modern world, people are assessed on appearance within a blink of an eye, says body language expert Judi James.

"It's called cognitive algebra - people do little sums and make assumptions about people and make attributions. It's part of our survival instincts and has always occurred. But it used to take 10 seconds to sum up someone and now it's a tenth of a second.

"It's based on very complex information that the brain takes in but we don't bother to analyse it. If we did, we would realise that just because Susan Boyle doesn't pluck her eyebrows, that doesn't mean she can't sing."

People viewed as ugly draw unfair assumptions from others, she says, because back in the time of contagious diseases, it was a sign of ill-health - bad skin, deformed facial features and an unhealthy body size.

Yet it's not all about looks. Height is just as important as the face, says James, and you only need to look at how tall world leaders are to see the proof - Nicolas Sarkozy excepted.

Breathe out before entering a room
Keep shoulders back
Iron out facial expressions
Keep right hand free for a firm handshake
Make eye contact
Don't be too familiar or over-friendly
Source: Judi James

And while the workplace is a beauty contest of sorts, there are limits. Being very good-looking can count against you, especially if you win a promotion, because you could be considered vain or unintelligent, says James.

Anyway, ordinary-looking people can fake it, she says, through showing confidence in themselves, by having good listening skills, making eye contact and making other people feel special.

"It's all a bit of a con act and about giving off the right vibe. We are drawn to people who have the confidence without the arrogance."

Amid the applause for Boyle was an acknowledgement that ironically, no-one better demonstrates that quality of being happy in their own skin than her.

And that's what makes her attractive, regardless of how she looks.

Below is a selection of your comments.

If our attraction to good looking people was indeed the "natural animal law of selection" at work, one wonders why the planet isn't populated with pretty people. A walk around your local shopping mall will lay the lie to this specious bit of evolutionary science. Newsflash: On the beauty continuum one will find most of the human race closer in appearance to Susan Boyle than Angelina Jolie.
Aaron Herald, Phoenix, Az

The fact that a plain *female* had the audacity to get on stage and show what she could do seems to have caused this stir. I don't remember anyone making such a fuss when Paul Potts got up on stage, sang his heart out on a certain talent show and went on to win it. They referred to him working in a mobile phone shop, but no one mentioned his looks. It's a bit like the rules for TV newsreaders. Looks don't matter if you're a man, but if you're a woman, you don't figure or you're no longer required after a certain age.
Fi, Gloucestershire, UK

To swim a little against the stream here, I don't see what's so amazing about her voice. The difference between Susan Boyle and half the choir singers in choirs and churches around the country is that she was on the TV the other week. The miracle isn't that someone who isn't traditionally gorgeous can sing, it's that she was allowed to get up on a stage in front of a TV camera.
Judie, Inverness, Scotland

Judie, the real difference between Susan Boyle and half the choir singers in choirs and churches around the country was that she believed in herself, applied to the show and was accepted. She made it onto TV because of her talent (and of course the surprise that she wasn't one of the usual crazies). Applaud her for trying and succeeding, rather than reducing it by complaining about the x thousands who didn't get off their backsides to apply, or think it's beneath them.
Tony, Liverpool

The first world Idol competition was won by "hobbit" Kurt Nilsen - has anybody outside Norway heard of him since? Having an extraordinary talent is simply not enough any more. Would Elton John or Freddy Mercury make it if they tried to break into show business today?
Laurie Skjelten, Trondheim, Norway

People seem to have forgotten that Paul Potts' appearance WAS commented on - Simon Cowell's first comment at Paul's audition was "I wasn't expecting THAT!". Why? Because Paul didn't fit the stereotype of someone who could sing. He looked set to fail. His creased suit and broken teeth were much debated at the time. I'm delighted to see that he now has a world-wide career, with great suits and a good dentist. Susan's voice is of such quality that you have to wonder if it is just her appearance that has prevented her from being discovered previously. Shallow, shallow people to have made such judgements.
Andrea McCulloch, Newton Aycliffe, County Durham

It's not just beauty though is it? It's youth as well. People seem to assume that older people have little to offer and prefer smooth-featured children to populate our screens and "entertain" us. This seems to apply more to women than to men so I suppose Susan Boyle's talent was doubly shocking. Good on her.
Lesley, Hope Valley

A case in point was the young girl chosen to sing at the Olympics last year who turned out only to be miming, as the the little girl who actually sang the song wasn't deemed pretty enough to be seen in front of the world's cameras. Why not? Isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder anymore?
Janice, South Lanarkshire

We don't just judge people by how they look but how they "care" to look. The same person can look wildly different - witness Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal v her red carpet glamour. So someone who doesn't seem to make any effort with their appearance we expect, by extension, not to be a person who would make much effort in anything else - which is clearly wrong. And yes, schools can still be complicit in enforcing this misconception. Constantly casting the same good-looking kids in leading roles doesn't encourage anyone else to make much effort with what life has dealt them.
Karen, New Malden

Does anyone remember Jim, the Neighbours actor? He had a beautiful voice, and he, himself, commented on his ugliness and his voice differing from his face.
Corlyss Morrel, Springfield, Illinois

Absolutely spot on. I watched Susan Boyle and admit to opening my mouth wide in surprise when she began to sing. Does that make me shallow? Possibly (but I would hope not). It's a shame that looks are valued more than personality and ability.
Mandy, London

I think people have missed the point with Miss Boyle. The surprise factor was created by the fact that she looked like one of the many socially inept whack jobs this show and others like it wheel out every so often to give us a laugh. Beauty has nothing to do with it.
John Bush, Oldham

I was embarrassed by the reaction of the presenters, judges and audience when Ms Boyle went on stage. They were laughing at her. Cruel and unjustified. Their shock at her immense talent and ability to interpret a song was all the more distasteful when it was due to her not being a beauty. What a sad, shallow and dysfunctional society we have become. It isn't too many years ago that looks weren't so important. Can anyone say that Mick Jagger would have been in a modern day boy-band (would he want to be - but that's a different question), and what about some of the most influential and important singers and performers, such as world famous opera singers. If we weeded out talent on a scale of gorgeousness before we accepted it just think of the massive gaps in our cultural history.
Fi Exon, Cumbria

I watched her performance and was amazed that she was a fantastic singer. However, it wasn't down to her looks that I judged she wouldn't be, rather the way she spoke and the topics she discussed beforehand that led me to believe she was a bit of a simple yokel.
Adam Clarke, Lincoln, Lincolnshire

Adam, so you mean a simple yokel couldn't sing either? I see...
Prometheus, London

The worship of beauty and celebrity are the primary sicknesses of our culture. This also proves that both American Idol and Britain's Got Talent are not singing competitions, but performance and popularity contents. A true singing competition would be held on the radio, not television, with the appearance of the contestants (including their real names) hidden from the voting audience.
Larry-T, Montgomery Village, MD

Aside from Ms Boyle, the pictures of the "stars" in the heading of this piece are exhibiting the 'just groomed' look. All are excessively bronzed (probably fake), dyed hair, curled or straightened. It says more about their stylists than the people themselves.
John, London, UK

If a slim, big-breasted big-haired blond woman with full makeup came out you wouldn't expect her to be a genius at mental arithmetic. So, sometimes being "attractive" can go against people. I think the general message is that people make split-second judgements about someone's personality based on the way they look - this is not something that can be helped, most people don't even realise they're doing it until it's too late!
Natasha, Kent

I've often marvelled at how people assume that the girl with the prettiest face has the most talent, no matter what field of expertise we're talking about. This is often instilled in us even as children in primary school. I'm not ashamed to say that I'm not pretty, and as a 7 or 8 year old, found it very demoralising that when we auditioned for school plays, I would always be second shepherd while every year, the blond, slim girl would be the star part, usually Mary. This was made all the worse when every year, I and other average looking pupils would sing or act a lot better than the pretty ones. This attitude is still having a huge influence on my life and the lives of everyone around me.
Heather, Willenhall

Heather, as a primary school teacher I can tell you honestly that we don't pick children for parts on the basis of their looks OR their talent. It's mostly down to who can be relied upon to learn their lines, speak up nice and loud, and not pick their nose whilst on stage. For nativity plays especially, angels are nearly always children who can't sit still for two minutes (they're only on stage for a minimal amount of time), and Mary and Joseph are always the quietest children in the class who won't chat to their friends during the performance.
Niki, Birmingham

I have to say that I'm instantly suspicious of very attractive people - I always assume that they'll be vacuous and dull as they won't have had to develop a personality. I've been proved wrong on lots of occasions, so I suppose it does work both ways.
Susie, London

The entertainment industry has been dominated by looks ever since time immemorial. So having the judges and the audience gawking at Susan Boyle's performance was hardly surprising. Kelly Brook's, a member on the panel of judges, herself is a product of that very same Barbie trend. It's either a 36-24-36 for women or a near Hulk-like physique that sells these days, be it a pop single or a long-drawn soap opera. I for one quite don't think talent = beauty. Beauty= a fad, here today gone tomorrow. Talent is something altogether different, something you are really remembered for long after your time. Funny real music doesn't sell via a two-bit music video. Hat's off to Susan Boyle who faced all these odds and yet bashed on regardless.
Eric Arakel, Manchester

Perhaps some of us are a little disingenuous in that we hope the attractive contestant has the better talent as it is they that we wish to SEE again in the following rounds.
Ben, Birmingham

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