I got into voiceover acting by accident. I used to sing jingles for commercials, and I worked out of a few studios in Atlanta. One day, while I was there recording, a voice actor for another commercial didn’t show up.
When we were finished with the song, the owner of the studio said, “Susan, you don’t have an accent. Come over here and record this copy.” It went well, I got a voice coach, and that was the beginning of it all.
I unknowingly did the initial Siri recordings in 2005
In July 2005, six years before Apple would introduce Siri, I made the recordings that would eventually be used for the famous personal assistant.
But I had no idea at the time.
I got a gig to record for the IVR (interactive voice response) company ScanSoft, now called Nuance. I thought the script would consist of regular IVR sayings, like “Thanks for calling,” or “Please dial one.” Instead, I had to read nonsensical sentences like “Cow hoist in the tug hut today” or “Say shift fresh issue today” — they were trying to get all of the sound combinations in the English language. They also had me read the names of addresses and streets.
I recorded from home four hours a day, five days a week for the entire month of July. Maybe the first hundred or so were fun and interesting, and after that it got pretty tiring.
I got an unusual call from a friend six years later
Six years later, a fellow voice actor emailed me and said, “Hey, we’re playing around with this new iPhone — isn’t this you?” I had no idea what they were talking about. I went straight to Apple’s website to listen and knew immediately that it was my voice. (Editor’s note: An audio-forensics expert with 30 years of experience has studied both voices and says he is “100%” certain the two are the same, according to reporting by CNN.)
I was paid for the actual gig through ScanSoft, but because Apple had bought the recordings from ScanSoft, I never got a penny or any recognition from Apple. It was a strange situation to say the least.
It took me two years to reveal myself as the voice of Siri
Of course, I was very flattered, but I also worried that my voice would become so ubiquitous that it would affect my ability to book other gigs. I loved my voiceover career, and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a virtual assistant voice.
Apple later released different accents and languages for Siri. I met John Briggs, a famous BBC announcer in England who voiced the original British version of Siri. I also connected with Karen Jacobsen, a voice actor and singer who was the original Australian Siri. From my conversations with them, they had the exact same experience: They made recordings in 2005, not knowing what they’d eventually be used for, and then their voices ended up being purchased by Apple and used for Siri.
The fact that Apple didn’t pay us meant that we didn’t have a nondisclosure agreement, either. We all decided, “Well, we might as well see if we can make it work for us.” We began to promote ourselves.
I’ve been featured on TV shows, given a TEDx Talk, and spoken on the radio. It’s not something I ever would’ve seen myself doing 15 years ago, but it’s been really fun.
You may have heard my voice in other places, too
If you ever go to the Atlanta Airport, I’m the voice of the Delta Airlines gate announcements. And it’s clear that companies are still pulling from that Nuance pot even today. My son is always hearing my voice in different commercials.
I tell my friends all the time, “Always keep an ear out for my voice when you’re watching TV!” A few years ago, my agents recognized my voice in a commercial for a major car company. Luckily, they were able to get in contact with the advertisers and get me paid. I’m a part of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and, as a union, they’re extremely helpful in getting members compensated.
I think a lot of people don’t even consider that there are human beings behind AI voices, or that a real person recorded it and deserves to be paid.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed being Siri
They’ve updated the voices of Siri several times over the years, so it’s not me anymore. The original was a little snarky, in a fun way — they gave her a great sense of humor and a sharp wit. I think a lot of people talked to her just to see what she would say. Now, Siri sounds a little more bland to me. I never talked to Siri when she had my voice — it was just too weird.
I still do auditions here and there, but I don’t record as much now. In the voiceover business, most of us don’t get as much work as we age — unless you’re Morgan Freeman, who will probably be doing voice overs when he’s 100.
There’s no way to measure the downside or the work I might have lost as a result of voicing Siri, but I like to look at the positive side. It’s really been fun “being” Siri. It’s really given me a lot of really wonderful opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise, so no complaints here.
But I do like to joke that if everyone who has an iPhone sends me a dollar, that would be pretty good compensation.