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From the archives: Who's snickering now? Rita MacNeil on Susan Boyle

It was 1985 when Rita MacNeil gained some mainstream notice in Toronto. There she was, proud to be opening a new venue, the Celebrity Lounge. The girl from Big Pond, Cape Breton, was making her way.

And she sang wonderfully, according to a reviewer, earning a standing ovation from a small, excited crowd who must have appreciated a "crystal-clear, Celtic singing voice" that carried with it a "tingling freshness." The headline read that she had a voice that was going places, and indeed that turned out to be true.

The next morning, MacNeil read that newspaper review of her show. What the critique mentioned, besides her talent, was that "the squarely built MacNeil looked a little like a bewildered Cabbage Patch doll." She read it again: squarely built, Cabbage Patch doll.

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"I've had my share of those kind of comments over the years, for sure," says MacNeil. "I was very excited and a little naive, back then. You have to be tough to go forward."

From her Cape Breton home, the gentle-voiced singer comments on the phenomenon of Susan Boyle, the frumpy spinster who wowed the world with her unanticipated above-average singing on Britain's Got Talent in April and whose looks were quickly the topic of stories around the world. Today, the I Dreamed a Dream singer returns to the stage, competing against other hopefuls - check out the body-popping schoolboy dancer Aidan Davis - to win £100,000 ($180,000) and the right to perform for the Queen at a gala Christmas concert. It's sort of an American Idol with some Willy Wonka underdog drama thrown in.

"It was annoying to me how the audience snickered before she began to sing," says MacNeil, who kicks off her summer-long Home I'll Be concerts in Cape Breton in July. "I found that very uncomfortable. But when she opened her mouth, they forgave her and away she went."

When Boyle sings tomorrow, she'll do so without the pleasant shock that accompanied her televised audition. Now, however, she faces something scarier: heightened expectations.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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