May 04, 2009 12:00 PM

Normally when Susan Boyle stops in at her regular local pub at the Happy Valley Hotel in sleepy Blackburn, Scotland, she’s content to sit at a table alone, sip from her glass of lemon soda and, if it’s Sunday karaoke night, belt out a few show tunes on the “stage” that also doubles as the bar’s dart-board area. But on April 12—the day after Boyle stunned the world with her soaring rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on Britain’s Got Talent—the scene at the pub couldn’t have been more different. When Boyle entered the bar, “it was chaos,” says manager Jackie Russell. “There was a standing ovation. Her face went beet red. And she went, ‘Stop it, stop it.'” Six days later Boyle returned to the Happy Valley, but this time she slipped into a back room befitting her newfound stardom. “She sneaked in,” says Russell of Boyle’s April 18 visit. “She just wanted a quiet drink. She’s gobsmacked by it all. She can’t understand why this is happening.”

Chalk it up to a weary world eager for uplifting entertainment, the surprise of a diamond-in-the rough performer or simply the sheer delight of watching Britain’s Got Talent judge and notorious grinch Simon Cowell grow a heart right before the audience’s eyes. But clearly the self-described “short and plump” Boyle—who just turned 48 and whose performance has scored more than 30 million views on YouTube and counting—has struck a powerful chord. “I’m taking it all in my stride,” she tells PEOPLE of the “whirlwind” of attention that has inspired everyone from Cowell to Oprah Winfrey to her local priest to wax on about the singer’s unlikely appeal. “It reminds you of the wonderful story of the ugly duckling who’s really a swan,” says Father Jim Smith of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in nearby Whitburn, where Boyle volunteers. For a woman who had never even heard of YouTube before she took it by storm, “I’m knocked out [by the number of hits],” she says. “I feel like it’s unreal, like it’s not really happening.”

And yet the paparazzi, autograph-seeking fans and piles of mail addressed simply to “Susan Boyle, Britain’s Got Talent Superstar” that have invaded Blackburn are proof that Boyle’s Cinderella moment isn’t about to go poof! any time soon. “It’s amazing,” says her brother Gerard, 55, one of Boyle’s seven siblings. After she taped her audition, “she was sitting on my sofa saying, ‘I think I did quite a good job.’ Then she jumped on the bus to Blackburn with no idea what was going to happen.”

She wasn’t the only one about to be blindsided. Nervously chuckling as she told Talent hosts that she’d “never been married, never been kissed” prior to taking the stage, the unassuming Boyle—who has lived alone with her cat Pebbles since the death of her 91-year-old mother, Bridget, in 2007—faced down a jeering crowd that snickered at the sight of her frizzy gray hair, bushy eyebrows and mismatched panty hose and shoes (see box, left). “It had been the end of a long day; we had some terrible auditions,” recalls judge Piers Morgan. “And out comes this 47-year-old woman looking quite frumpy. And then she says she wants to be the next [British singer] Elaine Paige, and we were like, ‘There’s more chance of you becoming the next Tom and Jerry, love.'”

Then she sang the first few notes of “I Dreamed a Dream,” a tearjerking ballad from the 1987 musical Les Misérables, which she chose as a tribute to her late mother. “I imagined her wee mum sitting on a cloud above, being proud of Susan,” says Catherine Hunter, 50, a social worker who helped care for Bridget. Earning a standing ovation from the audience, “was brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” says Susan. “I still didn’t realize how big an impression I had made.” Adds Morgan: “Within two seconds of her singing, we realized we had made a cataclysmic error of judgment on this woman and that actually she was going to have the last laugh.”

It’s not the first time Boyle has defied expectations. Born and raised in Blackburn, an industrial town of fewer than 5,000 people, where locals like to joke that “the only road in Blackburn is the road out of it,” Boyle was the youngest of eight surviving children of Bridget, a shorthand typist, and Patrick, a miner and decorated WWII vet who died in 1999. Growing up, “my mother could sing and play piano; my dad could sing,” recalls Susan’s brother John, 60. “Music was always in the family.”

Young Susan—whose difficult birth when her mother was 47 had deprived her of oxygen, causing learning difficulties—was especially drawn to music. “I used to wake up to the strains of Grease every morning,” recalls her brother Gerard. “She used to stand in the front room with the record player blaring on a Saturday morning.” As Susan puts it, “I was in a lot of school productions. I sing around the house just like everybody else. I’m quite a happy person.”

Still, the shy baby of the family could flash a temper. “She was a handful,” says Gerard. “She could throw big tantrums. But being the youngest, my mother used to cotton to her.” Teased at school, “she didn’t handle disappointment well,” he says. “And now she expects to be disappointed because of it. I think that is one of her strong characteristics.”

Her siblings attribute much of Susan’s inner strength to their mother, for whom Susan became a full-time caregiver. “My mother was a driving force; she suffered incredible hardship because she once lost an infant shortly after it was born,” says Gerard. “Then in 2000 we lost our sister Kathleen at the age of 53 [to an asthma attack]. So my mother had to navigate that as well. That’s where Susan’s steel and determination comes from.”

Her mother’s death crushed Susan, who subsequently withdrew from the local talent show and karaoke circuit. And yet, “singing blows the cobwebs when she’s a bit down,” says neighbor Brian Smith, who has known Boyle for decades. “I remember the first time I heard her sing, when she was only 17-18. I was stunned into silence.”

Now Blackburn’s best-kept secret is having a similar effect on the rest of the world. Having never left Great Britain—”the furthest she got is London,” says Gerard—she’s fielding offers from around the globe. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s at the moon next week,” says John Boyle. “I worry because it’s tiring for her. But she’ll be okay.” Heavily favored to triumph in the competition (though 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi may give her a run for her money after his rendition of “Who’s Loving You” last week), Boyle is being careful not to get ahead of herself. “I would love to be a professional singer, but we’ll see what happens,” she says with characteristic humility. Should she win—her next performance is set for May 24—she’ll score a chance to sing for the Queen. “I would be very honored,” she says. “But let’s take this in baby steps.” And what about the now-infamous matter of her never-been-kissed status? “No comment,” says Boyle. Spoken like a true superstar in the making.

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