ATLANTA (CNN) — The day before Susan Bennett came out as the original voice of Siri in the United States, she lost her iPhone. Siriously.
But that’s just one smile-inducing twist in a less-than-two-week journey that’s left this suburban Atlanta voiceover actor “gobsmacked” and feeling like “some strange tropical bird” on display, she said. “I had no idea this would be such a big deal.”
On October 4, exactly two years after Apple’s virtual “assistant” was introduced to the masses with the release of the iPhone 4S, CNN revealed her identity. Hours after our in-depth story was published online, she was sitting on the New York set of CNN’s “New Day” morning show.
And a new day it was for Bennett, who — without her phone — had no idea how much her world was about to change. At her airport gate to head home from New York, she got a sense. A man who kept staring at her finally approached with a question: “Are you that Siri person?”
Coming forward, in itself, had been cathartic. She’d grappled with the idea, mostly at the urging of her son, ever since she was surprised to find out she was the voice behind Siri. The recordings used for the Siri voice had been laid down by Bennett in 2005, long before anyone outside of Apple knew that something called an iPhone was even on the horizon.
“I can’t tell you how freeing it was to make that decision,” she said. “I’d been torturing myself for two years.”
After a whirlwind 10 days of travel and newfound exposure, Bennett sat down over coffee and talked about what her life has been like since she took the leap from anonymity.
The media frenzy
To say that she got slammed with media requests would be an understatement. By the time Bennett got back to Atlanta from her morning TV appearance on CNN’s “New Day,” between 400 and 500 e-mails were waiting for her. Most of them were requests for interviews. Meanwhile, her husband, Rick Hinkle, sat at home fielding phone calls as they poured in and asking, through the front door, for a local TV crew to leave.
“I thought I might get a couple e-mails. Maybe the (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) would want to do a little story,” Bennett said. “This is craziness.”
The requests have been global, coming from places as far-flung as the United Arab Emirates, New Zealand, Ireland and Israel. She stared at what was in front of her, knowing she was in over her head. She had no idea where to begin.
Fortunately, a hot-shot publicist in Los Angeles, Monique Moss of Integrated PR, was prepared to take over. Bennett would quickly go on to read a Top 10 list for David Letterman and make appearances on “The Queen Latifah Show” and HLN’s “Showbiz Tonight.” She’s done interviews with a handful of media outlets, including USA Today and the Los Angeles Times, and hit the radio morning show circuit: 18 programs in three hours alone.
A new stable of handlers
The publicist is just one person helping Bennett navigate her new normal. She’s also landed Wes Stevens of VOX Inc., one of the top voiceover agents in the nation and someone she hopes will help her reach her ultimate dream: to voice a cartoon character.
Bennett doesn’t want to discuss details but said after last week, that dream finally feels possible.
And then there’s her son, Cameron Bennett, a photographer in Los Angeles. On a four-day trip Bennett recently took to L.A., her son played chauffeur, schlepping his sleep-deprived mother from meeting to meeting. He also has stepped in to manage his mom’s growing social media presence, something she’d never focused on before. And that’s how her new Twitter handle, @SiriouslySusan, was born.
Finding comfort in the spotlight
When asked to appear on CNN’s “New Day,” Bennett was at first reticent. Years earlier, she’d done on-camera work, mostly for corporate videos. But in a world where appearance — and, by association, age — matters, she found herself being phased out.
As a voiceover actor, she doesn’t have to worry about looks and can wear what she wants. There’s tremendous comfort in that.
So the decision to step in front of live cameras wasn’t immediate for her. But she then realized that coming out as the voice of Siri had been the big hurdle. That was the scary part. Once she did walk onto the set of “New Day,” she was surprised by how comfortable she was.
“All of a sudden, that old memory of how to behave on camera came out,” said Bennett, who declines to give her age. “I wasn’t nervous at all.”
The caked-on makeup, though, she can do without. By the time she got back from her L.A. jaunt, she said, her skin — what with all the makeup, the drier air, the lack of sleep — felt like it had aged 10 years. She got home and said all she wanted to do was face-plant into a tub of moisturizer.
Well, that and sleep. Over four days in L.A., this night owl thinks she got no more than 18 hours of sleep.
“I felt really proud of myself that I was able to do everything I was asked to do,” she said. “It was exciting but also exhausting.”
Unexpected — and moving — messages
In the past 10 days, Bennett has heard from old friends, people she hasn’t been in touch with for decades. And while most close family members were privy to her Siri secret, some distant relatives were not, which has meant some reconnecting that way, too.
Strangers have written, begging her to record their outgoing messages for them. And wannabe voiceover actors seeking advice have reached out to Bennett, who’s trying to make a point to answer each and every e-mail — which at last count numbered more than 600.
But the most moving responses have come from members of the blind community. Bennett has long been a voice of many TTS, or text-to-speech, services, beyond the technology used to create Siri.
For the first time, she’s received thank-you notes from people she’s served, people who’ve relied on her but didn’t know her name until now. Their common message: “Thanks for enabling us to do all we do,” she said.
One writer specified that she’d helped him work his computer, use his phone and “read” textbooks. Realizing the tangible difference her voice has made in other people’s lives made her cry.
“This can be a thankless business,” she said. “It’s so nice to know my voice is being used in a good way.”
Bennett feels blessed to love what she does in Atlanta. She came home to her loving guitarist husband, her kitties, the lush trees and her quiet home. She’s back with her community of colleagues, musicians and friends she couldn’t appreciate more.
Between resting her voice from all the recent attention, she’s getting back to work — serving the same clients, recording in her home booth, laughing with the engineers who feel like family.
She doesn’t expect this flood of attention to last forever. She suspects that most of her “15 minutes of fame” already came and went. If she continues doing what she does, she says, she’ll be fine.
But she’s open and excited to see what might happen next.
“Life is change,” she said. “It’s inevitable.”
There’s talk of a book deal and a speaking tour, two ideas that make her shake her head in amused disbelief. She’s already been asked to give a keynote address at a big telecommunications conference next year. And if other new jobs come out of this experience — like a cartoon offer, perhaps — she would, of course, be thrilled.
“I’m grateful for all of it,” she said. “It’s absolutely surreal.”
But, Bennett insisted, none of this has changed or will change who she is.
She looked down at her new iPhone 5S, the one she can’t seem to figure out — “Why can’t I get e-mail?” — and headed back to real life.
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