Susan Boyle is talking about how your parents never leave you, even when they’re no longer on this earth.
‘My mum is still watching me. I know that.’ She gestures over to the bed in the hotel room where we meet.
‘There she is. She’s sitting there.’ What’s she saying? ‘She’s saying, “Come on Susan, get on with this interview, and behave yourself.”’
What would her mother have made of the Susan Boyle story – perhaps one of the greatest showbiz tales ever told? Susan thinks for a while. ‘I’m not sure she’d believe it.’
Susan Boyle glammed up for the cameras. The self-styled ‘wee wifey’ from Blackburn, West Lothian, is one of our biggest recording stars and is today worth an estimated £22m
Well, who would? It’s 12 years since Susan, who’s 58 now, lost her beloved mum Bridget, a turn of events that at once shattered her life but also gave her the freedom to do other things than be a round-the-clock carer.
Some middle-aged women go back to studying in such circumstances, or take up a hobby.
Susan applied to go on Britain’s Got Talent, and defied the odds by bringing the house down in a way that no other reality show contestant has done since.
The YouTube video of her in her gold dress and wild hair, executing a flawless rendition of I Dreamed A Dream is still spine-chilling.
So too is the story that followed. The self-styled ‘wee wifey’ from Blackburn, West Lothian became one of our biggest recording stars and is today worth an estimated £22 million.
The other ‘pinch me’ part of the Susan Boyle story is that it’s only now, an astonishing ten years on, that Susan has decided to invest in smart new wood floors and doors in the one-time council house she grew up in and has refused to leave.
We’re meeting in a hotel near her home because she has the builders in. She’s put in a new kitchen and bathroom, and the old carpets are finally on their way out.
‘I’m going posher. There’s a sense of poshness when you go in now,’ she says, particularly taken with the idea of wooden floors throughout.
‘It was a carpet before and, with the cat, well, I won’t go into that here.’ She hopes her mum will like the new decor. ‘I think she will. If she doesn’t, she’ll soon let me know.’
Susan outside her home in West Lothian. Most multi-millionaire singing superstars would have been out of their council estate before the ink was dry on the recording contract, but not Susan. However she is now treating herself to new flooring
Most multi-millionaire singing superstars would, of course, have been out of their council estate before the ink was dry on the recording contract, and be living in a Beverly Hills mansion complete with swimming pool.
There’s never been any hint of a gated existence for Susan though. ‘West Lothian, big gates? Come on, give me a break! It’s a housing estate,’ she points out.
‘But no, I couldn’t do an LA lifestyle. That just wouldn’t be me. I like a nice, quiet, ordinary life. I’d be out of my comfort zone.’
She did dip a toe out of her comfort zone before, buying a smart executive home on a development nearby in Blackburn, but she hadn’t even moved in properly before she decided she couldn’t do it.
‘My niece lives there now with her family. That’s The Posh House. I just didn’t want it. I’d rather be in my own home, but I go up and see her for a blether sometimes.’
Then there were reports she’d bought the neighbouring semi and was planning a palatial transformation. Not entirely true, it seems.
She did buy the house next door (mostly to get rid of the previous neighbours, she confides, giggling), but she had no need for the extra space, so she rents it out.
Her new (‘very nice’) neighbours sound like they look after her, helping her get to grips with her new oven.
‘I suppose I’m a landlady now,’ she says, proudly. ‘I’m like Miss Jones from Rising Damp.’ Actually, Miss Jones was the tenant, not the landlady, but you get the point.
Susan says she’s been thinking about buying another property in Ireland. So, a penthouse in New York next? She raises an eyebrow. ‘Do I look like a penthouse sort of person?’
Many say success won’t change them, but few walk the walk. Susan may fill arenas worldwide, but when she comes home she still takes the bus to town.
She still shops in local supermarkets. ‘I still look for reductions. Everybody likes a bargain. I still like my bargains.’
While she can rock the diva gown when she needs to, at home she wears tracksuits and jeans. And not designer jeans either.
Susan performing with Elaine Paige at the Proms in 2015. Susan will return to the stage next month to perform with Michael Ball at the live finals of Britain’s Got Talent
What’s the most she’s spent on an item of clothing for herself? ‘I don’t go daft. The daftest I’ve gone would have been a fur coat.’
How much? ‘Well, it was more than £100, put it that way. I think it was worth it at the time, but I gave it away eventually because I got fed up with it. It looked old-fashioned.’
She’s happier telling me about her best bargain. ‘I once bought a pair of jeans for a fiver, and they looked great.’
She looks great today, at least a couple of stone lighter than when she appeared on the showbiz scene (being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in 2013 encouraged her to ‘stop eating so many buns and sweeties’), but she’s not very good at taking a compliment.
She clutches at her middle and makes quips about her ‘spare tyre’, then proceeds to tell me her top row of teeth are fake and her dental plate has been known to ‘fly out and hit people in the front row’.
You don’t get that sort of admission from Elaine Paige. Still, if she were bothered about how she looks, she could afford some assistance.
‘A facelift? I’d need a crane,’ she laughs. ‘I’d need to be all tied up with a bow at the back.’ So Simon Cowell hasn’t offered the services of his cosmetic surgeon? ‘I’m not going to comment on that,’ she says, sagely.
She adores Simon. She still calls him Mr Cowell (‘He’s the boss, isn’t he? That’s what you call him – Mister’).
She’d been out of the limelight for a few years when Mr Cowell called wanting to know if she would consider popping back into it, to compete in a returning champions edition of America’s Got Talent back in February.
Susan had been out of the spotlight for a while when Simon – whom she calls ‘Mr Cowell’ – phoned up and asked if she would perform in a returning champions edition of America’s Got Talent back in February. Pictured, Susan and Simon on stage with Terry Crews and Mel B
She leapt at the chance. When she got on stage she says, ‘I was nervous. He started off saying, “And what’s your name?” like they do on the Britain’s Got Talent auditions, and I started laughing. Then he started laughing as well. So we just bounced off each other.’
She didn’t win that, but being back gave her a taste for it again.
A new album is out this week, and she’s been seeing a vocal coach once a week in preparation for promoting it.
On Sunday 2 June she’ll sing at the live final of Britain’s Got Talent, duetting with another of her musical heroes (she’s already sung with Elaine Paige) – Michael Ball.
They’ll be linking up for a version of A Million Dreams from movie musical The Greatest Showman. It’s an apt choice, she agrees.
‘It’s all about what you dream about, colours in my head, stuff like that. It’s fantasy. I like fantasy. I’m a bit of a fantasist myself.’
But why the gap in Susan’s public appearances? Her answer today is that she just needed a break, ‘time to have a wee think and recharge the batteries’.
The reality is that the pressures of her dual existence – wee wifey one minute, global superstar the next – became too much for her to handle.
It’s widely known now (although it wasn’t at the time she became famous) that Susan suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, and associated anxieties.
She went public about this in 2013 after receiving an official diagnosis, and it explained an awful lot about who she is and why her behaviour has often been regarded as curious.
At birth Susan was deprived of oxygen, and in her early days it was just assumed she was a little slow due to brain damage.
In a very different social era she was known locally as Susie Simple, and became the target of bullies. She’s never forgotten that.
Today she tells of one ‘lassie’ who used to torment her. ‘On the last day of school, I said, “I’ll sort you out, my lady.”
‘I got behind her and she had nice long blonde hair, so I just grabbed it. It was a catfight. The two of us got the belt for fighting, but it was worth it.’
Susan Boyle at Britain’s Got Talent – A Big Celebration in aid of Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in February 2018
Her Asperger’s was a torment as Susan got older.
Being outside her comfort zone would lead to panic attacks and very public meltdowns when she felt under particular stress.
There were bizarre reports of her losing the plot at airports and of diva-like behaviour.
I witnessed one of her meltdowns myself during a trip to Florida to interview her four years ago.
Without warning she became aggressive to her own team, throwing what can only be described as a toddler-type strop. Typical of the condition, we know now.
Since then she has had counselling and help galore. She still gets panicked but she has learned coping techniques.
‘It’s horrible when it happens,’ she says. ‘The red mist, I call it. Everything is swirling around and you’re the epicentre. It’s a tornado. Then afterwards, your mood goes back to normal and you’re always regretful.’
These days she (and her team) can spot the signs a mile off and full meltdowns are usually avoided. ‘I’m dealing with it. It’s better than it was.’
Staying within her comfort zone is key to keeping Susan on an even keel.
Lessons have been learned from her big US tour in 2014, and a tour planned for 2020 will be smaller in scale, taking in the UK and Ireland, with perhaps a handful of US dates, allowing Susan time to get home between shows.
She’s gone out of her way to put her Asperger’s out there, to try to make sense of what being Susan Boyle means.
‘People are just afraid. There’s still a stigma,’ she says. ‘They don’t understand the condition.
‘What I’m doing in the public eye can be challenging, but I don’t see that as something that’s got to be avoided, because I put myself into that arena.
‘I did that for a reason, to prove a point. No matter what condition you have, you’re still capable of doing something. People with autism can paint, play the piano, or perhaps be academic.’
Does she feel her musical ability is linked to her autism? ‘I think it makes it more developed. More concentrated. I’ve got a greater understanding of my condition now. I’m more relaxed than I used to be. I’ve more of a sense of who I am.’
The tragedy is that her parents died (her father Patrick passed away in 1997) never knowing there was a reason for Susan being, well, Susan.
‘They tended to see me as someone with a broken wing. They were more protective. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s not. I believe in letting kids do what they want themselves.’
Susan Boyle in her audition for Britain’s Got Talent. The YouTube video of her in her gold dress and wild hair, executing a flawless rendition of I Dreamed A Dream is still spine-chilling
There is still a temptation to treat Susan as a delicate creature with a broken wing.
Some think she should never have been put in the high-octane showbiz environment in the first place.
‘There was controversy as to whether I should have been allowed on BGT,’ she says.
‘If they’d said I shouldn’t, I’d have said, “Why not?” It doesn’t matter if you have a disability. I don’t even like the word disability.
‘Turn that on its head and say you have ability. I’m an example to others. I’ve been through the woods. Let’s see what we can do at the clearing.’
It sounds as if she needs the fame as much as she also needs to be back in Blackburn with her cat.
‘I’ve got a normal life and a stage life, and there needs to be a balance,’ she admits. ‘When I’m on stage I’m a different person. I’m in my happy bubble.’
Her team have had ten years to put a structure in place to make sure she is supported.
There’s a PA who’s a constant presence. Susan is never alone in strange hotels, for instance – though it sounds like she can be quite a handful when she does go off piste.
On her last US tour there were reports of Susan having a new boyfriend. The truth is that a stranger approached her in her hotel and invited her to go for a meal.
Bowled over by the attention, she agreed, leaving the hotel without telling any of her team. They thought she’d been kidnapped.
‘They went mad,’ she admits, as her publicist recounts how they were expecting a ransom demand and panicking about how to tell the world Susan Boyle had been kidnapped. ‘I suppose I took a bit of a risk.’
Anyway, she had a lovely dinner and gave the man – a doctor, he told her – her number. She’s still waiting for the call back. She looks a little crestfallen.
‘He just didn’t contact me again, for some reason. I never heard anything more after that. Mind you, I was a bit of a naughty girl for going.’
Much was made of the fact, on Britain’s Got Talent, that she had never been kissed.
There was the hint of a boyfriend in her teens, but her father – ever protective – put a stop to that. Would she still like to meet someone?
‘I’m approaching the age where most of my sexual get-up-and-go has got up and left,’ she laughs.
‘So no. I don’t think so at the moment. But it would be nice to have a male friend. I probably miss not having had any male relationships, and maybe that I never had kids, because I love them.
‘I’m a big kid myself. But you get used to a certain way of life, and I’m a bit too set in my ways now.’
She’s heading home now to inspect the progress of her new floors. I ask if she’ll be inviting Mr Cowell to tea in her new kitchen.
The thought hadn’t occurred to her, because Susan’s worlds rarely collide. ‘He’d be very welcome, though,’ she says cheerily.
‘I’m not sure it would be a good idea to bring his Rolls-Royce though. It used to be a bad area. If he’d parked it outside, he’d have ended up going home on a trike. It’s better now, but still. You’re better off with an ordinary car around here.’
Susan’s new album TEN is released on Friday and is available to pre-order now.