The inner beauty of Betty

By Rebecca Barry Hill

US television's newest star is wider than a pencil, will grow a monobrow if she's not careful and wears braces, glasses, and on her first day of work at a high couture fashion mag, an eyesore of a poncho bought in a gift shop in Guadalajara.

She's Ugly Betty, and frumpiness aside, she's television's hottest property.

That's surprising given the series stars relatively unknown actor America Ferrera (Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants), is co-produced by Salma Hayek, a film star who surely has no idea what it's like to be unattractive, and is based on a telenovela, a traditional melodramatic style of soap generally tittered at by audiences outside Latin America.

But so far in the United States, Ugly Betty has been a beautiful success. It debuted to an audience of 16.1 million, and has averaged 14 million viewers per week, making it the most-watched new show of the season.

The majority of critics have loved it too, noting Ferrera's hugely endearing performance, for which she was recently nominated for a Golden Globe.

In a TV world where comedy barely gets a look-in unless it's dark or set in suburbia, Ugly Betty brings frivolity, fashion and fun back to our screens. Hayek even makes a couple of cameos, first as a deliberately over-the-top star of a telenovela Betty watches at home, and later as her boss' love interest.

The show begins as Ferrera's character, Betty Suarez, her sights on a career in journalism, applies for a job at Mode, where it's practically in the job description to be anorexic and a bitch.

Betty is smart, sweet and, to begin with, naive - she soon discovers she wasn't hired for her talent but because her boss' father Bradford (New Zealander Alan Dale) owns the company and he's sick of his son sleeping with all his assistants.

It's a show that promotes inner beauty, and while that might sound saccharine or old-fashioned, it's clearly resonating with a generation hounded by the pressure to look like their favourite celebrities.

"I don't think there's anybody that hasn't felt like an Ugly Betty at some point in their life," says Ferrera, a genuinely stunning 23-year-old.

Hayek knew Ferrera was her leading lady, having particularly enjoyed her performance in Real Women Have Curves, playing a young woman trying to break away from a domineering culture while achieving acceptance of her body.

But for Ferrera, the offer elicited mixed feelings. On one hand, she could understand Hayek's enthusiasm. Ferrera is a first-generation Honduran with an American upbringing who could understand Betty's moral plight, balancing the values and customs of family life with the often dubious morals at her workplace.

On the other hand, she was a young woman offered the role of Ugly Betty.

"I guess there's the initial, 'Really? Why do you think of me?' But after that, no, not at all ... The truth is, I don't feel like Betty's that ugly. She's cute and unique.

"On the inside, she's one of the most beautiful characters there is. And it's a challenge to play her genuine, sweet kindness, her humanity and her optimism without making it seem naive and stupid."

Hayek obviously believes Ferrera rises to the challenge.

"I think America is a monster in the good sense of the word, so talented and gracious and very, very, very smart ... her eyes and her smile devour that screen, and it just haunts you, braces or no braces.

"We get a sense of special pride to know that somebody with that star quality has so much integrity as a woman and is smart and socially involved, politically involved. She's well-read and she tries to continue to educate herself, and I think we have a fantastic role model for young girls, not just in the character."

The timing of the show couldn't be better, given the huge success of The Devil Wears Prada. Both are underdog tales set in the snooty world of New York fashion rags, but the similarities are entirely coincidental - Hayek has been campaigning to get Ugly Betty made for six years.

"I always loved the underdog story and the fish out of water," she says. "It's also a little bit of criticism to the obsession with image that [the US] suffers from. We knew it would work."

Hayek was a huge fan of Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, a Colombian telenovela that was so popular in the late 90s versions were made as far away as India, Russia and the Netherlands.

Like the majority of the Latin American soap operas, La Fea was over-the-top but Hayek was particularly drawn to its humour. Hence Ugly Betty's farcical, fairytale appeal.

"You are an attractive, intelligent and confident businesswoman," Betty pep-talks herself before ploughing straight into a glass wall in front of her new colleagues.

Originally Hayek didn't want to veer too far from its inspiration, fearing that would upset loyal fans. But Cuban-American writer Silvio Horta, who adapted the show and gave it its American tone, convinced her to rewrite the characters.

At Mode, most of them are cartoonishly evil. There's ice queen, Wilhelmina (played by Vanessa Williams), her camp assistant, Marc and bitchy receptionist, Amanda. There's also Betty's sort-of fairy godmother Christina (played by Scottish actress Ashley Jensen of Extras fame). The Ricky Gervais connection continues when The Office star Lucy Davis makes an appearance as a fashion TV presenter.

The Mode team reside within a clinical white office setting, a vision of the future as seen through the eyes of someone in the 1960s. But at Betty's home in Queens, the colours are warm, vibrant and the decor a little more questionable. It's here we meet Betty's fiery older sister, Hilda, gay little brother Justin, Betty's nerdy boyfriend, Walter and her illegal alien father, Ignacio.

Although the show has struck a chord with Hispanic and Latin American viewers, the immigration storyline in particular has grated nerves.

"There were a lot of hate letters on the internet because he's illegally in the country," says Hayek. "A lot of people are really upset about it. You have characters on television that kill other people, and they're fine with it. That's illegal too."

It's not the only criticism against Ugly Betty. With its slight premise, Betty finds herself up against similar obstacles each week. Usually they revolve around her unfortunate appearance, the way she copes with her mean colleagues and how she saves her boss' bacon. Others simply aren't moved by the Cinderella theme, finding it too earnest.

But one prediction Betty won't fulfil is to get a make-over, says Ferrera.

"That's so superficial, and who cares? If that's what people are looking for, then it's the end of the show. I think it's about watching her grow, watching her blossom. The more interesting journey will be how she grows on the inside."

* Ugly Betty screens on Tuesdays, 8.30pm, TV2

Hayek's heroes

She's beautiful on the outside but does Salma Hayek pass the Ugly Betty test? Judging by what her colleagues have to say about their co-producer, it's a resounding yes.

America Ferrera (Betty):

"Salma is an incredible woman. Amazing. And as a person, as an actress, as a woman, as everything, she's a huge role model to me. She's beautiful and intelligent and a wonderful person. I love her a lot."

Becki Newton (Amanda):

"She's very cool. She's incredibly smart. She's not some distant producer just linking her name to the project. She has very specific ideas. She gives her notes on everything, from the shots to the wardrobe."

Alan Dale (Bradford):

"She's just wonderful. She's one of those people - Bill Clinton has the same thing. When she talks to you, there's no one else in the world. I'm very fond of her. I did say to her the other day, that I thought it would be nice if she had a relationship with the old man. She just giggled. I don't think it's going to happen."

Eric Mabius (Daniel):

"She is pushing the show in directions that I'm sure the show's creators hadn't anticipated. She's really smart and she's really instinctively brilliant at what she does."

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