If you own a recent iPhone and you have questions, Siri has answers. That is, until you get personal.
“Siri, who does your voice?”
“It’s a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, tied with a pretty ribbon of obfuscation,” a voice from the phone responds. “Designed in California.”
I press further.
Fortunately, Bennett herself is much more talkative when I visit her Sandy Springs home on a Saturday afternoon. In October 2013, Bennett famously revealed herself as the original voice of Apple’s iconic virtual assistant, kicking off a whirlwind publicity tour that included recording a custom Top Ten list for David Letterman. It was a moment Bennett never could have predicted when she took what seemed like just another voiceover gig back in 2005.
“I was [told] by the company I was working with, ‘This will be on phone systems,'” Bennett recalls. “We couldn’t have envisioned that our voices would be on this tiny phone system that was a miniature computer you held in your hand.”
Serendipity has been a force throughout Bennett’s prolific career. A native of upstate New York and a 1971 graduate of Brown University, Bennett spent her college years pursuing her passion for music, singing in bands and booking studio work. When her first husband, a former NHL player, was traded from the New York Rangers to the Atlanta Flames in 1972, Bennett brought her talents south and quickly took advantage of the city’s thriving live music scene.
She started performing at local restaurants like the now closed Lark & the Dove and in 1985 cofounded her own group, the Interactive Band, a name that now seems oddly prescient. Bennett says it was her work as a local jingle singer for commercials that put her on the path toward Siri.
“One day the voiceover talent didn’t show up for whatever reason, and [the studio owner] says to me, ‘Susan, you don’t have an accent. Come over and read this,'” Bennett remembers. “And I read the copy and did the spot and I thought, ‘Oh. I can do this.'”
Along with her voice and music work, Bennett also jumped into Atlanta’s growing improv comedy community. She played piano for Laughing Matters and took classes with fellow voice actor Janet Wells. When offering advice to aspiring voiceover artists, Bennett points to improv as a must-have tool behind the mic.
“Learn how to think on your feet, learn how to use your brain extemporaneously,” she says. “The more comfortable you are in your own body, the more comfortable you are in your voice.”
As her voiceover career took off, Bennett found she had a particular knack for data messaging: those automated voices you hear while trying to check your bank balance, cancel your cable subscription or schedule a maintenance appointment for your furnace. Bennett has recorded dozens of such messages for clients like Chase Bank, Dell Computers, T-Mobile and the Home Depot.
It’s not unusual for Bennett to hear herself as she goes about her day, but she’s often happier when she doesn’t. “If I’m on hold with Georgia Power for a half hour, I’ll think, ‘Thank God it’s not my voice!'” she says.
When she booked that fateful “phone systems” job in 2005, she had no idea the words, phrases and sentences she was being asked to read eventually would be programmed into a voice heard by millions of iPhone users. Even after the iPhone 4S hit stores in 2011, Bennett didn’t know her sudden ubiquity until she got an e-mail from an acting colleague. “He said, ‘We’re playing around with this new iPhone — isn’t this you?'” she remembers. “And I went on the Apple site and listened and I said, ‘Sure enough.'”
Bennett’s career in data messaging not only led to her recording the original voice of Siri, but also to her public emergence as the person behind the persona. In 2013, it was her work as the voice of Delta gates worldwide that caught the ear of CNN reporter Jessica Ravitz, who was writing a story about 24 hours at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
“In the middle of the interview, she asked, ‘Are you Siri?'” Bennett recalls.
It was a question Bennett didn’t quite know how to answer. After becoming aware of the connection in 2011, she spent two years deliberating whether to come forward. “If I come out as Siri, everyone will think that’s all I can do,” she remembers thinking. “Would it open doors or close doors? I really struggled with that.”
Her family finally gave her the nudge. “My husband and my son said, ‘This is just too cool.'”
Bennett originally wanted to make her big reveal on the Ellen show, but her husband’s e-mail was overlooked. People magazine didn’t believe her. So she decided to give the scoop to Ravitz. CNN agreed to the story only after testing Bennett’s voice with a forensic audiologist. “I said to my husband, ‘What if this guy says it’s not me? I know it’s me!” Bennett says.
Beyond the talk show circuit, Bennett’s newfound fame also took her to tech conferences like the 2013 Dallas Digital Summit, where she introduced Steve Wozniak. Bennett describes the Apple cofounder as “a wonderful person” and says the two have talked about appearing together at future events.
Although Apple has since recorded new actors for Siri, Bennett continues to book her own speaking engagements to talk about her experience as the original voice. “It’s opened doors in a different direction for me, which is what I was hoping would happen,” she says. “I’ve kind of been a self-imprisoned booth person for the past 10 years.”
Technology may be the cornerstone of Bennett’s personal success, but she’s wary of the effect it’s having on the voiceover industry. She says while it’s easier than ever for aspiring talent to record auditions — “If you have an iPhone and $1,000, you have a home studio” — that same accessibility makes it difficult to stand out from the crowd.
“I broke in at a time when the system was completely different. It was actually easier in my time,” Bennett says. “These days for a person to break into voiceover, you’re competing against everybody.”
And as computer-programmed products like Siri gain traction, Bennett says humans will increasingly be competing with their electronic counterparts across the job market. “We’re in an incredible transition period. Artificial intelligence — it’s done. It’s going to happen. It’s just a question of when,” Bennett says.
“I’m kind of glad they changed the Siri voice,” she adds with a laugh. “Because if Siri becomes Big Brother, I don’t want it to be my voice.”
Maker’s Dozen is an annual series that spotlights a dozen creatives whom we think you ought to know or know more about. The profiles will run on Tuesdays and Thursdays through April 16. See more Maker’s Dozen profiles here.