The good, the bad and Ugly Betty

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Time Out visited the set of hit series Ugly Betty and spoke to its star America Ferrera about body image, fashion, the lack of family viewing and being Hispanic Woman Of The Year. Words Matt Pomroy

‘Who are you to define at all what ugly is? Or for that matter what beauty is?’ America Ferrera fires another shot at the real-life fashion magazines that her show has been satirising so well. ‘I think there’s quite an assumption to take on the idea that you can define what beauty is.’

The tiny little girl from Honduras has had a big influential voice over the last year. As the star of Ugly Betty she’s played the girl who doesn’t fit in at fashion magazine Mode – the outsider, the ugly duckling, the one who doesn’t look like the others – much to the derision of her co-workers. But in reality, ‘ugly’ or not, the world has more unremarkable Bettys than unattainable beauties and there’s a bit of Betty in all of us, and that’s why people have increasingly taken the character to heart.

‘Betty is the good part of everyone,’ she smiles, noticeably without her trademark braces, but otherwise she’s wearing the full Betty outfit – today it’s a flowery tracksuit top, pink leggings and pom pom slippers. ‘The purity and the honesty and the morals that she has… she represents what’s good.’

Later that day co-star Ashley Jensen will tell Time Out that the show is essentially a fairy tale, with its own wicked witch (Wilhelmina Slater),

her flying monkey (Mark), a fairy godmother (Christina), an evil step- sister (Amanda) and so on. It’s a good analogy, as Ugly Betty really does have an air of fantasy about it. The plots are similar to those that from daytime soaps, but that’s largely down to the origins of the series. Ugly Betty was inspired by the Colombian telenovela, Yo Soy Betty, La Fea – which translates as I Am Betty, The Ugly One. The English-language version has adopted an increasingly comedy route, but has also embraced the camp frivolity of the telenovas and become something that hasn’t been seen on television for many years – a show that the whole family can watch.

‘I feel like there was a want for it, you know?’ America chirps when reflecting on the success of the first season. ‘There was something lacking in the television landscape that provided something where, at the end of it, people feel good about life and feel good about family. When you’re done, it makes you feel better.’ She leans forward and lets out a sigh. ‘There’s so much right now that’s available in the media that doesn’t leave you feeling good, you know? It leaves you being scared, or it leaves you being sad or depressed. Or there’s so many crime dramas… not that that’s wrong, but that there’s kind of an over saturation of those.’

At this point she sounds like her character – sweet, innocent, but somehow wise beyond her years and knowing in a way that many of the adults around her just aren’t. She continues, ‘I remember when you could watch Family Matters and The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air and Full House. Family shows don’t even exist anymore. I would say that our show borders on a family show, so I think that’s nice – I hear a lot of people say, “We love the show because I can actually sit down and watch it with my daughter or son, and it’s something we can enjoy together.”’

Despite the light-hearted and frivolous nature of the series, the message that runs through it is one of tolerance and being yourself despite what people say. That ideal, presented through the Betty character, has not only won America awards but also praise for bringing a positive profile to the Latin and Hispanic communities. She was named Hispanic Woman Of The Year, but is typically modest about the significance of this.

‘I think that the show really signifies what is misrepresented elsewhere in the Latin culture. In the series, we don’t have stereotypes of what a Latin family is. I think the most important thing about Betty is that she is the centre of the show, but it’s not centred on the fact that she’s Latina. She’s not carrying around maracas or singing “La Cucaracha” every day. She just is who she is, and when we can accept diversity without carrying banners and when it’s not shocking that a Hispanic woman can be the lead of a show, I think that’s when there’s true progress.’

America says she doesn’t follow fashion, but does enjoy the red carpet. Neither does she read fashion magazines, but is happy that the existence of her character is having
an influence on the way the people view them as well as film and television. ‘The most interesting things to watch are actors that look like real people so that you can relate to them,’ she says.

But perhaps there’s an irony in the fact that the girl who plays Betty is actually rather attractive and is transformed by a make-up department for the role. Although, through barely suppressed giggles, she admits that it doesn’t take long for the transformation to take place: ‘I wish I could say, “I come in hours in advance” but we’ve gotten it down to a science, it’s, like, 30 minutes now.’

Others may also point out that while the series pokes fun at the shallow absurdities of the fashion industry and the magazines that propel it, you can now buy a Betty ‘Guadalajara’ poncho for US$39.95 (Dhs147) – the very one that she was mercilessly mocked for wearing – while her look has had an influence on high-street clothing.

It would be nice to think of people buying those ponchos to wear as a statement of fashionista defiance – the haute couture oppressed standing up like the followers of Spartacus and declaring ‘I am Betty’. But dig a little deeper and you discover that a familiar hand is pulling the fashion strings.

‘The clothing was designed by Pat Field, who is a genius, and did all the Sex And The City wardrobe,’ America explains. ‘She dressed Carrie Bradshaw in the craziest clothes and somehow made it hot and real and this new sort of fashion trend.’ Pat was also the costume designer for The Devil Wears Prada, but this time the look was label free. ‘My clothes on the show are not beautiful in the traditional sense, that everyone in the office wears black Prada from head to toe, but it’s beautiful in the sense that it’s so her and it shows who she is. Where everyone else is just really trying to blend in and just be invisible, she’s popping out in every frame she’s in – it’s what makes it cool.’

Not beautiful in the tradition sense, but standing out from the herd and rather cool – that’s the epitome of Ugly Betty the character and the series. Amid the waves of manipulated ‘reality’ TV it’s nice to have a an escapist, fantastical series with a very real person at the centre of it. Welcome back, Betty.

For Time Out magazine – click here for original PDF – UGLY BETTY

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