The Dark Side Of Starlight: Susan Boyle's 'Emotional Breakdown' Fame isn't easy. In the wake of Susan Boyle's "emotional breakdown" amid the Britain's Got Talent competition, Jake Halpern suggests that reality show contestants should undergo psychological vetting.
NPR logo The Dark Side Of Fame: Susan Boyle's 'Breakdown'

The Dark Side Of Fame: Susan Boyle's 'Breakdown'

Susan Boyle, star of Britain's Got Talent, returns to her home May 8 in Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images hide caption

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Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Susan Boyle, star of Britain's Got Talent, returns to her home May 8 in Blackburn, West Lothian, Scotland.

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Jake Halpern is the author of Fame Junkies. Courtesy of Jake Halpern hide caption

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Courtesy of Jake Halpern

Jake Halpern is the author of Fame Junkies.

Courtesy of Jake Halpern

Today the entertainment world is buzzing with the news that singer Susan Boyle has suffered an "emotional breakdown" and checked into a medical clinic. This unassuming, middle-aged woman from Scotland has quickly become the world's favorite underdog thanks to her performances on the British reality TV contest Got Talent. Boyle has widely been described in the press as "dowdy" and "unglamorous," and yet she went on to become a worldwide sensation with her spirited and melodious rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miserables. Now, however, Boyle appears to be the latest casualty of the fame machine.

Instant fame always seems to mess people up, but in the past century or so, perhaps no one has handled it better than Alvin York. York grew up in the late 1800s in the wild backwaters of Tennessee, where he hunted squirrels for food. He quickly turned into a marksman with almost preternatural abilities. But it wasn't until World War I that York really distinguished himself.

As legend goes, York was ordered to attack a German machine-gun position. In the epic shootout that ensued, York was successful and single-handedly picked off 28 enemy soldiers. The Germans surrendered to York, and he marched back to base with 132 prisoners.

York instantly became a celebrity. American newspapers heralded him as a hero and, upon returning to the U.S., he received a ticker-tape parade. This seemed to have little effect on him. "I sure wanted to get back to my people where I belonged, and the little old mother and the little mountain girl who were waiting," he wrote in his diary. And that's just what he did.

York survived his fame, perhaps in large part because of the era in which he lived. No Internet and no TV made for less hassle. Today, the far more common tale seems to be more similar to Susan Boyle's. You know the storyline: An ordinary citizen briefly becomes famous — often for acts of heroism. The media goes nuts. Then the person suffers a breakdown or even commits suicide.

There is Bob Long, for example, who participated in the effort to rescue the nine miners from Somerset, Pa. Long was the only rescuer to be included with the miners in their lucrative book-and-movie deal. This caused trouble for Long, and he ultimately killed himself. There is Sgt. Terrance Yeakey, who rescued a number of people during the Oklahoma City bombing, was hailed as a hero and then took his own life. And, of course, there is Robert O'Donnell, who rescued "baby Jessica" from the well. As O'Donnell turned into yesterday's news, he became increasingly disillusioned, and he too took his own life. "I'm sorry to check out this way," he wrote on a scrap of paper that became his suicide note. "But life sucks."

Given all this, you'd think TV shows like Got Talent would do rather extensive psychological testing on their finalists. Astronauts have to do this, spies have to do this, even police have to do this. So why not Susan Boyle? Such a testing could, perhaps, weed out people who were unstable, overly sensitive or simply out of touch with reality.

But the truth is, reality TV thrives on the spectacle of how people weep and even break down when faced with public praise or humiliation. That's why so many viewers tune in. And besides, if such a test were ever implemented, it would — in all likelihood — eliminate 99 percent of the candidates who wanted to participate and make for very boring TV. And we can't have that, now — can we?